(Rochester Mayoral) GOP Primary Debate

The Rochester Sentinel
4/29/15Debate crew

DEBATE CREW Questioners and candidates pose for a photo Tuesday after the Sentinel Mayoral Debate at Rochester High School. From left, front – timekeeper Jodie Jones, Vonda Mullet, Noah Roberts, Zac DuBois; back: timekeeper Jessica Baldwin, candidates Dave Fincher and Mark Smiley, Sentinel managing editor W.S. Wilson, moderator Tony Stesiak, candidate Ted Denton.

The Sentinel photo/Mike Kenny

Mayoral Hopefuls: I’m the right guy
By Wesley Dehne, Staff Writer

Ted Denton and Dave Fincher not only want two-term incumbent Mark Smiley’s job, but believe he hasn’t led the city in the right direction.

They made their points during their opening and closing statements at Tuesday’s Republican mayoral debate at Rochester High School.

The three candidates were allowed two-minute opening and closing statements.

Fincher and Denton highlighted what they hope to accomplish and where they say Smiley has fallen short during his two terms in office.

Smiley said he’s been successful as the mayor and wants to keep his job as the chief executive officer of the city.

The start

Fincher opened by saying he’s been looking forward to the debate for several months and noting it’s time for a change in leadership.

“Rochester is at a crossroads,” he said. “Over the last 40 years, the city has seen a net loss of 15 factories.” He posed five questions to those in the audience: Are there more jobs than there were eight years ago? Are there better jobs? Are there jobs waiting for high school graduates wanting to return? Are taxes funding better services? Is Rochester better off now than when Smiley took office? Those were the goals Smiley set for himself when running eight years ago.

Fincher said the answer to each of those questions is ‘no’. He said it’s important to get back to the basics, find jobs and encourage RHS graduates to return to Rochester.

Denton spoke second. He said the debate is not really a debate, but a job interview.

“You should be able to leave here today and say, ‘I’d hire that man for the job,’” he said.

The job of a mayor is twofold, he said. First is handling assets, personnel and tax funds while running the office and being fiscally responsible. Second is to encourage economic development by aggressively marketing Rochester as a place for businesses to set up shop.

“I believe the mayor has been vacant…we need to market Rochester, contact people and get them to come here,” he said.

Smiley’s opening statement was last. He noted he’s a life-time member of the community and the only one of the three candidates with experience as mayor. Also, he said, he set the groundwork for getting the fiscal house in order to lead the city into the future.

“Being mayor is not the easiest job,” he said. “But, those who are successful are passionate about what they do.” He went on to say that every decision and action he’s made as mayor has been in the best interest of the community.

Smiley said under his administration Rochester has been brought out of an insecure financial position and now has a strong rainy day fund, which has provided for upgrades at the Rochester police and fire department and replaced antiquated city equipment.

After opening statements, the candidates answered questions from RHS AP government students Noah Roberts, Vonda Mullet and Zac DuBois and Sentinel Editor W.S. Wilson.

Following the panel’s questions and questions between themselves, each candidate was given an opportunity for a closing statement.

To close

Smiley said the facts of his seven- year administration speak for themselves, noting while in office the city has saved $2 million and allocated those funds into other assets. He noted some successes under his administration include: building a new water tower; providing upgrades to RPD and RFD; and avoiding government sanctions over the wastewater department.

“I’ve given up a lot to be mayor… now, we’re a well-oiled machine… if I don’t become mayor it has to start all over,” Smiley said. Fincher gave his closing statement second, noting jobs are Rochester’s biggest issue to deal with for solving the long-term stagnation the city has fallen into.

“The mayor says he’s saved the city $2 million, I’d like to know where it’s at…he can’t show where it’s at,” he said.

It’s important to him to get the fire department back up to full staff. If elected he would hire a new fireman the first day, he said.

Fincher said the city not only needs jobs, but higher paying jobs. He said he left a job that paid $12.51 and hour 29 years ago.

He went on to say residents need more trails and bicycle lanes, which could be obtained through grants. Going as far to say he knows where there’s a $2 million grant for a spec building.

Denton gave the final closing statement. He spent the first portion of his time defending his opposition to providing air tanks to the RFD when he sat on the city council in 2010.

“I don’t want to leave people with the impression that I don’t care about the safety of our firemen,” he said. His decision was based on managing taxpayers’ money in a prudent manner. When asked about the vote during the debate, Denton said the fire chief told him at the time the request was “a want, not a need.” He said the expenditure wasn’t budgeted for and came at a time when the police and fire department were continually asking for large capital expenditures.

Denton said he was told by a colleague many years ago, “You don’t have to have all the answers, but you better ask all the questions.” He reminded audience members the debate was a job interview and encouraged them to talk with other members of the community and find out what kind of manager he has been over the years.

Denton would like to see Rochester Board of Public Works and Safety meetings moved to the evening, when more people can attend. He would like to include area youth to participate with the board of works and park board. He reiterated that the mayor should serve as a marketing tool.

The primary is May 5. The GOP winner will face unopposed Democrat Dick Roe in the citywide election Nov. 3.

Jobs, economy frequent topics
By Christina M. Seiler, Managing Editor

Jobs and youth seemed the central focus of Tuesday night’s Republican mayoral debate, with a little talk about drug problems sprinkled in for good measure.

Incumbent Mayor Mark Smiley and his opponents, Ted Denton and Dave Fincher, took and asked questions for an hour in the Rochester High School auditorium. The RHS advanced placement government class and The Sentinel organized the event, which saw Fincher and Denton regularly calling Smiley’s performance into question and the mayor firing back.

The opponents took every available opportunity to say the community needs jobs and economic development even though none of the questions were about jobs.

Smiley constantly said he’s set the city up for that growth and its financial house is in order after his seven and a half years in office.

Denton focused, at each available opportunity, on his belief the mayor should be the city’s chief marketing officer and go out to find jobs.

Fincher emphasized the city needs a leader who can set goals, break them down and get them accomplished. At one point, he said, “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs,” when asked by Vonda Mullett what the most important issue is. Fincher noted he left a $12.51 an hour job in 1986 and people here still scramble for that kind of pay.

Said Denton: “It’s economics, no doubt.” Then he took a stab at Smiley, saying, “I think the mayor’s been vacant when it comes to economic development.”

Smiley’s reply was that the downtown is in dire need; a youth center is needed and “quality of life is the seed of economic development.”

When asked by Sentinel Editor W.S. Wilson if they believed the city’s appropriation of $30,000 to help Gary O’Sullivan, the owner of Hart Schaffner and Marx, remove asbestos from his factory building was a good idea, all three candidates said it was.

“I think it probably was a good venture,” said Denton, adding it will help get the building back on the tax roles. During rebuttal, Smiley said the money is a grant that’s based on promised jobs materializing. Fincher said he likes the fact it could bring a new company to town.

The candidates got to ask each other questions. Denton asked Smiley why the city isn’t taking a serious look at the water pressure problems faced by Dean Foods Co. since a water line was build by South Richland Conservancy District from town to Acument Global Technologies.

Smiley said the city brought HWC Engineering in, had pressure tests done and met with Deans’ representatives. The problem is that Deans’ two incoming main lines, at 4 inches, are simply too small.

Fincher said the city should “bend over backwards for our biggest customer” and use part of a $2 million depreciation fund to build a new line into the plant.

Drugs

The audience also heard Fincher’s frank response about being arrested with marijuana in his vehicle. If you needed it to help someone you love, wouldn’t you help, he asked.

They also saw Denton note Smiley took elected officials out of the city employees’ drug-testing pool. He then handed Sentinel Editor W.S. Wilson an envelope with the results of his own drug test, and that of his chosen works board members Rick Figlio and Ted Denton. They passed.

“The mayor has to be beyond reproach,” Denton said.

Smiley’s response: “It’s illegal to test elected officials.” The previous administration’s elected officials opted themselves into the pool.

Even the students were concerned about a drug problem in the community, with Zach DuBois asking Dave Fincher what to do about the methamphetamine problem here.

Fincher said heroin also is a problem. He said police find such drugs through traffic stops.

Smiley said pseudoephedrine should be a prescription drug and mayors in the Midwest are lobbying for that.

Police

Smiley was asked by Wilson about his management approach. “A video has circulated recently showing a Rochester police officer pushing a local motorist up against the hood of a car with what certainly appears to be excessive force. Also, city employees on the clock used city equipment to work on the home of city employee. To some, both of these seem like firing offenses. Please describe your response to each,” Wilson asked. The mayor said city officers have body cameras and blamed the media for not playing entire videos. He also said it was news to him if anyone used city equipment without board of works approval first.

Fincher, in rebuttal, said there’s a perceived issue of trust with police. Body cameras should be used as teaching tools, he said.

Denton’s rebuttal: “It all starts at the top.” He said he’d put the words to protect and serve back on the city’s police cars.

When asked what the most pressing shortterm issue for the city is, Denton said management of the police department.

Fincher said he’d hire new firefighters on day one, and then work with the police department. Earlier in the debate, when asked about his arrest, he said he gets along fine with the police and “I’d expect to manage the police department like anyone else would.”

Qualifications

Smiley said several times he’s the CEO of an $8 million company with 89 employees. He noted his experience in the workforce and his entrepreneurial ventures. And, he said, he’s the only one of the three with direct experience as mayor.

He asked Denton what specific experience he has to run the city. Over a 10-year period, Denton said, he oversaw 225 Marshall Electric employees in two facilities. At Lau Industries, he had 200 employees to work with over a 14-year period.

Said Fincher, “You don’t run a small business without dealing with people. People are people, whether you’re dealing with 1, or 5, or 10 … they all have their needs.” He added, “A budget’s a budget.”

Need, wants

The candidates agreed there’s no need to pass a city ordinance banning discrimination because that’s already state law. That question was from Wilson to Denton. “I’m not sure if it’s needed in Rochester at this time,” Denton said. Said Smiley: “We follow all state and federal guidelines. … it would be redundant.” Fincher said it’s a non-issue, and nobody in the LGBT community have approached him about a problem here in Rochester.

The need for a sidewalk on East 18th Street also brought agreement.

Asked by student Zach DuBois for his ideas for something new, innovative or different to bring to Rochester, Smiley said he’d like to extend water and sewer across U.S. 31 at the south end of Rochester and annex that area, he’d like a youth center and he’d like a viable composting operation in place.

The youth center came up several times. Smiley’s most pressing issue? “I want a youth center,” he said. “We need something for our young kids to do.”

Fincher said he’d like to see churches come together and do something immediately for the youth. Denton said all those things cost money and to have the revenue the city has to market itself.

Students pick incumbent

Four of the five students participating in Tuesday evening’s Rochester Republican mayoral primary debate voted for incumbent Mark Smiley in an informal – and anonymous – poll taken after the debate.

One student voted for challenger Ted Denton; no students voted for challenger Dave Fincher.

Here are the comments they turned in with their ballots:

• “Out of the three candidates, Mr. Smiley was the only one who had a convincing plan to ‘fix and promote’ the city. I also felt that he has successfully run the city and I have found little to complain about his leadership. I also know all of these candidates and Mr. Smiley was the only one that lived up to his claim.”

• “Smiley – He has experience with all aspects of being mayor. I feel that he knows how to budget and put money in the areas where the town can benefit the most. He knows what is realistic and what is feasible as far as making decisions for our town.”

• “Smiley – experienced in politics. Less comfortable in front of people, yet well-prepared, has interests of younger people in mind.”

• “I think Smiley is the middle ground of the three candidates and he is personally involved.”

• “Denton – leadership experience, explained what the mayor job entails, experience of management, drug test.”


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