By David Kennard
MANSFIELD -- The city's fiscal future seemed to be the common theme at a mostly cordial candidate forum Monday at The Ohio State University-Mansfield.
The five candidates running for mayor -- two Democrats and three Republicans -- took questions submitted by local residents and the campus Young Republicans group.
It was the last forum before the May 3 primary. It also was the first time all the candidates sat together since they united to boycott a forum planned by the Mansfield North Central Ohio Tea Party Association. Two weeks ago, the candidates announced they would not participate in the April 11 debate because the tea party was suing Mansfield City Schools over a decision to cancel a tea party event opposed by the NAACP and a local Islamic group.
The groups said the tea party’s guest speaker was anti-Islamic and should not speak on school property. The tea party event took place instead at a private venue.
Monday night’s event was an answer to the boycott, according to Young Republicans club adviser Sid Hall.
“We had talked about doing it before, but canceled it when the tea party announced theirs,” Hall said. “But when that was canceled, we restarted ours.”
Candidates on Monday expressed thanks to the club and campus officials for allowing the event to go forward.
Each candidate was given time for an opening statement, and then took questions from moderators Josh Werner and Ashley Dobin, representing the Young Republicans.
Those in attendance heard a barrage of questions designed to differentiate mayoral candidates, but heard similar answers in many cases.
Responding to a question about the feasibility of combining city and county 9-1-1 dispatching services, incumbent Mayor Don Culliver said the city has been looking into the proposition but could not justify the up-front expense, especially when the city is under fiscal emergency status, as designated by the state.
“When we looked at it, there was no savings for the city,” Culliver said.
Republican challengers Bill Anliker and Bob Ball provided similar responses.
“I am for it when we can afford it,” Ball said.
Anliker said he supported the move if research showed it was the best for the residents.
Democratic challenger Ron Kreuter said, “The money is not there to do it.”
The only dissenter appeared to be Tim Theaker, who admitted that it cost money to consolidate services, but suggested in the long run it would save money for the city and the county.
When asked about a new law that targets public employees’ ability to use collective bargaining, candidates give the law mixed reviews.
Theaker said he thought the law, as a whole, was good.
“It puts administrators and union members on the same playing field,” he said.
Kreuter, however, said he saw the law as an attack on middle-class families.
Culliver said there were parts of the law he disagreed with, but he thought there was room to “tweak” the law.
Ball, who is police chief of Butler, said he was not for Ohio’s new collective bargaining law in its entirety.
“We are working-class people, and we need to be protected,” Ball said.
Anliker echoed his fellow Republicans’ statements.
“I don’t believe public servants should be allowed to strike when they are spending the taxpayers’ money,” he said.
All mayoral candidates agreed downtown revitalization efforts need to continue, and answered questions about help for local businesses, a proposal to remove the cut-through in Central Park and other economic development issues.
Culliver said he would continue to look for funding in the way of local and other grants to help businesses survive downtown, but said it was too early to make a decision on the Central Park issue.
Theaker agreed, explaining that until a study was complete, it would be impossible to know how to support rejoining the two halves of Central Park. He suggested Mansfield focus on its positive assets when marketing itself.
“I would be a cheerleader for our city,” Theaker said. “I have worked with the (Richland Community Development Group) and learned that there are 22 groups ... and they are not communicating.”
Ball said the city needs to do all it can to fix the fiscal emergency so those working to bring jobs to Mansfield can be more successful.
Kreuter said he also would reach out to local businesses to help make them as productive as possible.
The candidates seemed generally in agreement when it came to addressing illegal drug activity.
All agreed increased education in the schools followed by strict law enforcement should be practiced.
Anliker, answering a question directed at his Florida residency for the past decade, said he has kept a home in Mansfield, but has spent a lot of time in Florida, where his wife took a job. He said he continues to own a home in Mansfield.
Ball, also taking a question directed only to him, addressed his job status as a Richland County coroner’s investigator and Butler police chief.
He said he would have no trouble serving as Mansfield’s mayor, because his job in Butler is only part-time.
Also participating Tuesday night were candidates for Mansfield finance director.
Unchallenged Democrat Kelly Blankenship will face either Republican John Rutledge or Republican Linn Steward in November.
The three were given an opportunity to answer several questions regarding city policy, but primarily framed their answers within the limits of their office, which is tasked with providing accurate cost-analysis to the mayor and city council.
Blankenship said she takes her responsibilities seriously and objected to the idea that the city should be operated like a business. Instead, Blankenship said, she would continue to provide accurate information based on Ohio law.
Rutledge, however, said almost the opposite.
“The city is a business, and it’s past time the city should be run like a business,” he said.
He also said he refused to play political games, but did not elaborate.
Steward, who differentiated herself as the only candidate who is a certified public accountant, said the city needed a qualified candidate, and would work to develop a fiscal plan that would include budgetary reserves.