Forum airs candidate views, municipal issues

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 05:47 PM

Monroe residents got a chance to hear from their mayoral and city council candidates Tuesday night, thanks to a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. 

Attendees wrote questions and turned them in. Each candidate received two minutes for opening and closing statements, and moderator Virginia Bjorlin asked questions that each candidate answered. 

The first group of candidates to speak were Kyle Hayes, Lynn Keziah and Bobby Kilgore, who are running for mayor. 

Hayes explained to the full room at the Chamber of Commerce that over the years he has watched jobs and businesses leave town. He said that many leave because of utility rates and regulations. 

“I want business here,” he said. He added that there was a need to reduce taxes and utility rates. 

Hayes said he was also concerned about “corruption issues” in the city. He noted that he had not previously held an elected office and did not have any relatives who worked for Monroe. 

Keziah said that “everything connects” from quality of life for residents to attracting businesses. He said that he has previously served as mayor and currently serves as mayor pro tem, in addition to many years on the council. 

“I want to continue to lead Monroe in a positive manner,” Keziah said. 

He said he would like to work on the Monroe Bypass, economic development and the airport. 

Kilgore, the incumbent candidate, said the town has many issues. He said the airport, economic development and downtown are all very important. Kilgore talked about the Center Theatre project and said years ago he and Council member Billy Jordan worked together to improve the Old Armory. 

Kilgore also said that he has represented the city on a state and federal level, traveling to Washington, D.C., to ask local congressmen for help with improving the city. 

“We’ve got to do this together,” Kilgore said. “We’ve got to get along.”

The first question asked the candidates how they felt about the role of city manager in running the city. A report commissioned by city council and conducted by Anthony Fox with the Charlotte-based firm Parker, Poe, Adams & Bernstein found that there is not a clear understanding of the city council/city manager form of government established in the city’s charter. The report said that there was often meddling and micromanagement, and the job of city council is to set policy, while the job of the city manager is to carry it out.

All three candidates said they believe in the city manager/city council form of government set forth in the charter. 

Keziah said the employees work for the city manager.

He said meddling would be “the worst thing we could do” as a city council. He added that Monroe employees answer to the city manager, not to the city council. 

Kilgore agreed with Keziah’s sentiment.

“We must let the city manager run the city,” Kilgore said. He added that the council cannot try to change his view or push forward their “pet projects.” 

With regard to the city manager/city council form of government, Kilgore said, “I don’t have a bit of problem with that.”

Hayes noted that the city had lost previous city managers due to “meddling.” He repeated the notion that the city manager acts as chief operating officer of the city and thus runs the city. 

Bjorlin asked about the report issued by Parker Poe and asked what direction the city was going in response to the report. 

City council recently passed some policy and heard some new personnel policies inspired by suggestions in the Parker Poe report. The human resources policies and resolutions dealt with nepotism and secret recordings of employees.

Kilgore said that the report gave the city direction on which way to go. However, he noted, the report only interviewed abour 24 people and did not give people a chance to rebut what other people said.

He said they need to look at the report and do what is necessary but should keep in mind the report features 24 employees out of about 400. 

Keziah said the report was well done and needed.

“I took it as constructive criticism,” he said. Keziah was mentioned a few times in the report. He said they have to cut out nepotism and meddling.

“This is too great a city to be in the mess we’ve been in,” he said.

Hayes also said the Parker Poe report was legitimate and brought to light a “ton” of problems in the city, from misinformation to meddling. 

Bjorlin asked which features of the Downtown Monroe master plan should be implemented first. 

Keziah said downtown is the focal point in a wide scope of projects.

“One thing, too, is we can’t spend money until we got it,” he said. 

He said the council should move slowly and complete one piece at a time so as not to accumulate debt. 

Kilgore said that they must take the master plan and follow it slowly but surely. 

Kilgore said the Scott property along Old Charlotte Road is a “must.” It was torn down, but they cannot touch the foundation until an environmental study is complete. Kilgore said it needs some type of beautification. 

He said the town looks good but can look better.

“We’ve got to move, we’ve got to get it done,” Kilgore said. 

Hayes talked about the businesses in downtown. He said the existing ones need to be profitable and the vacant buildings should be occupied before the city thinks about building new office space. 

He said there is no need to build a new space when there is so much empty space in the downtown area. 

Kilgore, in his closing statement, said he thinks he has done a good job as mayor. He said he has represented the town on a state and federal level and wants to make it better for his children and grandchildren. 

Hayes closed by saying that he has not been on council and has a lot of experience working with people in Monroe. 

“I can make a difference,” Hayes said. “I love Monroe.”

Hayes reiterated that he is not related to anyone working for the city. He noted that downtown is a great place, but it’s dying. 

Keziah closed, saying that he has served as mayor before and would like the opportunity to serve again. He said he has the experience and integrity to move Monroe forward. 

City council candidates

Candidates for city council took the dais next. Candidate Joy Heath was absent. 

Many candidates discussed being a native of the town and having roots in the community. 

Surluta Anthony said she has a “great interest” in Monroe. She has not held an office but serves on the planning board and diversity council. 

Anthony said she is not running against anyone and that several people approached her about running. 

“Maybe you’re looking for change, and I hope I am that change,” Anthony said. 

John Ashcraft, an incumbent, said he believes in fairness and would like to continue to serve. 

“I feel we have a lot of issues we need to address,” Ashcraft said. 

Margaret Desio, an incumbent, said she has served on the council for four years.

“I’m a business owner,” she said. She said she owns a business in downtown Monroe.

Desio said she is a conservative person when it comes to finances and that she feels she has the communicative ability to talk to people about Monroe and ideas about running the city. 

Debra Duncan said that as police chief she interacted with a lot of the community and would work to improve economic development, transparency in government and public safety. 

“We’ve got to check our egos at the door” and work together, Duncan said. 

Freddie Gordon, an incumbent, said he has the education, knowledge, experience and integrity to serve. He said he is committed to fiscal responsibility and believes in the results of the Parker Poe report and the city council/city manager form of government. 

“I care about this city, I want it to be the best it can be,” Gordon said. 

Kenneth Graham worked for Union Power Cooperative for many years and retired as a district superintendent.

“I can work with anybody,” he said. 

Graham said he wants to see the city grown and be all it can be. He also noted that he thinks the new police chief should come from within the department. 

Cary Rogers is an Army veteran and former N.C. Highway Patrol officer. 

“I would like to continue a lifetime of service,” he said. Rogers added that he would like to walk in Monroe with his grandchildren someday and know he had a small part in helping it. 

Bjorlin asked the candidates under what circumstances they would raise taxes. 

Duncan said taxes should be raised when the city needs to pay for services.

“I’m not a proponent of raising taxes just for the heck of it,” she said. She said there needs to be a reason and there should be some community involvement before the decision is made.

Gordon did not want to promise that he would not raise taxes, however, he said it should only be done as a last resort and after looking at the budget and cutting waste where possible.

Graham also said he would ask the city manager to go to department heads and see where cuts can be made and money can be saved without cutting employees. However, he noted, sometimes taxes have to be raised. 

Rogers said the conservative in him says “no” to raising taxes, but the realist in him knows that sometimes it must be done. 

“Right now is not the time to be raising taxes on anyone,” Rogers said. 

He said he would oppose a tax increase unless it absolutely had to be done and after the city manager had looked for ways to save money.

Anthony said she was not a proponent of raising taxes and would only support it if it was to cover a cut in services and after a public referendum.

Ashcraft said that during the budgeting process, council looks at where they want to be and directs the city manager on whether or not to increase the tax rate. He said unless there is a public safety issue or something that was needed, he would hold the line on taxes.

Desio remembered a $4 million deficit in 2009 when the majority of the council said they would absolutely not support a tax increase. She said they told the city manager to “cut to the bone.” That year, 27 positions were eliminated without firing anyone, she said. 

She said she would only support a tax increase for an infrastructure need.

“(It) has to be for the good of the whole,” she said. 

Bjorlin also asked the candidates about their view of the city manager’s role. Each candidate said they believe in the current form of government where council sets policies and the city manages carries them out. They said the city manager can do his job more efficiently without micromanagement and meddling from council. 

Duncan said that there also needs to be accountability and council needs to make sure the city manager is doing the job he was hired to do, a sentiment that Gordon and Rogers agreed with. 

Graham said it is important that the city manager surround himself with good people. 

Bjorlin asked about sidewalks being a priority and the question submitted specifically wanted to know about a sidewalk on Secrest Shortcut Road. 

The candidates agreed that sidewalks were a priority for quality of life and safety. Desio said it is the question she gets most often from constituents. 

“I don’t know how anybody could be against a sidewalk,” Gordon said. 

Many candidates said that sidewalks are expensive to build and maintain and there is not enough money for sidewalks everywhere. Gordon said there is a priority list

“Who in the world couldn’t be for sidewalks,” Rogers said. He added that as long as the budget allows it. 

Ashcraft, who sits on the transportation committee, said they recently met with the Department of Transportation and asked if there was money for sidewalks available. He said they are currently looking for money to build and maintain sidewalks. 

Early voting began Tuesday and will continue through Oct. 5. It is in the Griffin Room of the Monroe library from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. On Saturday, the final day of one-stop voting, the poll will be open from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.

The Monroe municipal election will be Oct. 8, which is a Tuesday.