Prime time debates

Candidates for Marietta City Council and treasurer made their cases to voters Tuesday during live televised debates on the campus of Marietta College.

Five candidates for council’s three at-large seats stated their positions on issues ranging from the Armory renovation project to the proposed revitalization district in the downtown and Harmar areas.

A question submitted by a citizen asked how closely the candidates have been following the meetings of groups trying to resurrect the 99-year-old former National Guard Armory on Front Street.

Incumbent independent Councilman Michael Mullen said he’d been involved for years and looked forward to a ribbon-cutting “in the very near future.”

“I guess it’s one of those projects that really says great things about how our city works,” he said, referring to the money raised by citizen groups to draw down matching funds for state and federal grants for the renovation.

Republican candidate Michael Boersma said he wants to see the Armory project completed but questioned Mullen’s optimism over the timeframe.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be anytime soon … and that’s disheartening,” he said.

Fellow Republican Jon Grimm said he believes restoring the Armory is important, but had his own reservations about the situation.

“I believe to this point we have not established a way for the Armory to sustain itself,” he said.

The project has had delays and a plan to use historic tax credits had to be scrapped, but Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, said a great deal of progress has been made in the last year, including replacing the roof and making the building watertight again.

“There is a business plan for the first floor (in which) cash flows,” he said. “We have spent a fantastic amount of money in the past year through grants, not through the city treasury.”

Current plans call for the first floor to include space for WASCO Inc., a bus ticket office, a welcome center and more.

Democrat Kathy Downer said it takes time to make progress on such a project, but “I think it is a wonderful addition and tribute to the veterans of Washington County.”

The candidates also differed in their responses over how they would vote on a proposed revitalization district that would allow as many as 15 liquor licenses in an approximately 120-acre area encompassing downtown and a portion of Harmar. It is expected to be voted on before the end of the year.

“We have to look at it carefully before this is passed and make sure it doesn’t dilute the liquor licenses already (in place),” Downer said.

Noland, who owns the building that houses the Levee House restaurant, said the additional licenses would dilute that value.

“Approximately a million dollars will be vaporized in downtown Marietta,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the best method.”

Grimm said he would vote yes for the district.

“The fact that liquor licenses have become an economy of themselves (shows) this is an area that has been over-regulated,” he said.

Mullen, who also owns a downtown business with a liquor license, said he would support the district.

“I think that we need to make every tool available to encourage development downtown,” he said.

Boersma said increasing the number of restaurants downtown could boost competition and result in better products.

In the first debate of the evening, city council president candidates Kevin Paskawych, a Democrat, and Josh Schlicher, a Republican, both said they favor the district.

“But I want to look at the size of the district. There is some concern, I know, from local businesses, from local residents of the number of liquor licenses,” Paskawych said.

Schlicher called the zone a “door-opener.”

“We need all we can do to improve downtown business environments,” he said.

Schlicher touted his experience, having served a year as an at-large council member and eight years on the city traffic commission. Paskawych said he’s been working with current council President Walt Brothers, other council members and Mayor Joe Matthews to learn the ropes.

The only other contested council race is in the 2nd Ward, between Democratic incumbent Mike McCauley and Republican challenger James “Chip” Wilson. The two found themselves in agreement on parking enforcement downtown and historic preservation, but not on the city’s recent adoption of the 2012 version of the International Property Maintenance Code.

“I would suggest that the council repeal the property maintenance code,” Wilson said, adding that it “has huge conflicts with Ohio’s building code.”

McCauley said concerns about the code have been overstated and the city simply updated to the latest version after using the code since the late ’90s. The county also uses the 2012 version and it “does all of the building permits, all of the enforcement and inspections” for the city, he said.

The final debate of the evening was between city treasurer candidates Cathy Harper, a Republican, and Willa O’Neill, a Democrat.

Harper pointed to her experience as a four-term City Council member and coordinator of the Right Path for Washington County, as well as her time spent with retiring Treasurer Valerie Holley and her staff as reasons people should vote for her. O’Neill touted her 31 years in the public sector, including 25 with the Ohio Department of Transportation. She noted she has spent time meeting with Holley and visiting treasurers and municipal income tax officials around the state to learn about best practices.

Both women agreed state code only provides so much latitude in doing the treasurer’s job. Asked how they would maximize return on investments with low interest rates, Harper said there were limitations since the city must invest locally. O’Neill pointed out that the city’s investments could be placed with any bank in the state, but said she would prefer using local ones when the rates are right.

Contacted after the meeting, Holley said money can be invested with any bank in the state, although she’s usually found local banks to give the best rates. The city is limited to local banks when going out for bid on services like its checking accounts.