Speaking to voters

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

IRONTON — A sparse yet attentive crowd greeted four city council hopefuls and a trio of school board candidates Monday night at the Ironton Co-Operative Club’s annual “Meet the Candidates” night at Ohio University Southern.

The question and answer session saw the nearly 35 people in attendance — mostly family of the candidates — listen to the seven hopefuls pitch their cases to voters on why they should be retained or elected.

Moderated by former news anchor and current Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce Director Bob Smith, the two-hour forum allowed candidates to express their thoughts, criticisms and ideas in the Bowman Auditorium while answering audience-submitted questions pre-screened by Smith.

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Attending the discussion were Ironton City Council incumbents Bob Cleary, Leo Johnson and Mike Lutz along with former councilman Hugh Scott.

Candidates Dave Frazer and Beth Rist did not attend. Frazer told organizers he could not participate due to medical reasons while Rist informed the Co-Operative club on Monday that she could not partake in the forum as she was out of town.

The six are seeking four open seats. Each seat carries a four-year term.

On the school board side, candidates Jay Zornes, A. Burton Payne and Jerry Brownstead attended. Brownstead was a late addition to the forum as he accepted his invitation on Sunday afternoon.

A fourth school board candidate, Daniel Hartwig, declined to appear. The four are seeking two open seats on the Ironton Board of Education. Each seat carries a four-year term.

Candidates were given a two-minute introduction followed by one-minute responses to questions.

The city council forum kicked things off and it did not take long following introductions for some tough questions to be asked.

Right out of the box, council candidates were asked about their opinions of the monthly municipal fee Ironton residents pay and if they support its renewal in 2011 if a majority of the monies raised were allocated towards employee pay raises and bonuses and not city services. Responses were mixed throughout the panel.

“It would be hard to say if I would support it again,” current council president Bob Cleary said, adding that he would have to study such a decision when the time came around.

Mike Lutz, who is seeking his first full term in council after being appointed in 2007, said the city needs to become more fiscally responsible when it comes to budgeting and the municipal fee.

“We need to look harder at getting rid of the fee,” Lutz explained when suggesting a gradual step-down of the fee. “We need to have more of a focus on every single line item of the budget.”

“I voted for those fees because I believe in what they do,” Leo Johnson said when explaining his support of not only the municipal fee, but the city’s other fees and why Ironton needs them.

Johnson is seeking re-election to a second term on council. He told those in attendance he felt the city “was progressing” and wanted another term to continue turning the city around.

“I want to continue to be part of the solution.”

Hugh Scott said the city needs to grasp a better foothold as to what it really needs its fees for.

“The city needs a good foundation and fees are not the answer,” said Scott who is asking voters for a second shot a city council. Scott served on council nearly 10 years ago before leaving in 2001.

Other questions city council candidates were peppered with were their thoughts on the large amount of emergency ordinances they act on, supporting more open communications with mayoral appointments to boards and commissions, using city funds to restore the Ro-Na Theatre while having to borrow money for sewer repairs, the effectiveness of the city’s current budgeting process and what one thing would they like to see in the city.

Cleary, Johnson and Lutz all agreed a hotel would be their first realistic choice while Scott said his first choice would be a high-tech communications company and the growth of small to medium-sized businesses within the city.

One question each candidate seemed to agree on was would they support putting more “bite” into the city’s current property and building codes with tougher ordinances.

Scott said the bite was already there in current ordinances, but that the city was not enforcing them. On several occasions during the forum, Scott pointed out the ongoing and growing drug and crime epidemic sweeping the city.

“We can have all the lavish things we can have, but we need to clean-up our drug infested neighborhoods,” Scott said later in the discussion.

“I would definitely support that kind of legislation,” Cleary said. “We currently have a lot of legislation on the books that needs to be enforced.” Cleary pointed out that the city’s code enforcement officer and the city’s health department should be working hand in hand on property and building code enforcement.

Johnson put much of the responsibility on the city’s health department saying codes are being enforced but having action come from the health department is “another process.”

“Our health department needs to be prodded,” Johnson said.

Lutz agreed with his tablemates saying he felt that residents would feel assured if they knew enforcement was going to happen when reporting violations.

“If the citizens knew that a response would be swift, then there probably would be more response.”

Following council’s turn at the microphone, the three candidates seeking the two open seats on the Ironton School Board had their chance to make their case.

Unlike the city council forum where many of the questions were direct and hard-hitting, the question and answer session for the board candidates had a much lighter feel in the air.

All three hopefuls spoke highly of the city’s current facilities project and the opening of the new Ironton Elementary and Middle schools. Each of them also touched on the varieties of new technologies available at the school and how it should be maximized.

Most questions asked were generalized questions, but several did get all three hopefuls talking.

Smith asked the candidates about their thoughts on curbing the high school drop-out rate in the area.

Jerry Brownstead said the remedy comes from more time spent with students.

“We need to be having more one-on-one time with students in things like tutoring and study halls,” said Brownstead, who is a 1959 graduate of Ironton High School and recently moved back to his hometown from North Carolina.

“We need to encourage an atmosphere of the popularity of academics,” said A. Burton Payne, a 1948 graduate of Ironton High School

When asked about this district’s most pressing problems, Jay Zornes said he felt there is an uneven support of academics when compared to other facets of the district.

“What this district is lacking is community support of academics,” said Zornes, who is a 1985 graduate of Ironton High School. “What we need is an academic booster club that we can mirror after the athletic and band booster clubs.”

When asked what would be the first think on their agenda should they be elected, each had a different answer.

“Anyone on a board has a lot of learning to do,” Zornes said when adding his wish to get more kids involved in the community and in activities.

“I would examine the issues of the past, understand them and then consider the current issues at hand,” Brownstead explained.

“The first thing I would do would begin the process of setting goals,” Payne concluded.

Founded in 1925, the Ironton Co-Operative club has sponsored their “Meet the Candidates” night since 2001.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.