The October 11 Citizen Action Sector meeting focused on the issues and candidates of the November 7, 2017 General Election, giving area residents a chance to garner information for informed voting decisions.
Information about the statewide issues appearing on the November 7 ballot may be found here. Those issues include Issue 1: Rights for Crime Victims, and Issue 2: To require state agencies to not pay more for prescription drugs than the federal department of veteran’s affairs and require state payment of attorney fees and expenses to specific individuals for defense of the law.
Candidates attending the Citizen Action Sector meeting were Neil Chitwood, candidate for Clerk of Mansfield Municipal Court; David Scott, candidate for Mansfield City Council, Council-at-Large; Cliff Mears, candidate for Mansfield City Council, Council-at-Large; David Falquette, candidate for Mansfield City Council, First Ward; Jon Van Harlingen, candidate for Mansfield City Council, Third Ward; Gary Feagin, candidate for Mansfield City School District Board of Education; and Judy Stahl Forney, candidate for Mansfield City School District Board of Education. Each candidate spoke briefly to attendees, outlining their experience and issues of importance.
Cliff Mears, who said he has been on Mansfield City Council for five years, addressed the attendees. “My background is business. Prior to coming on council, I had a fortunate career,” he said, noting many of the organizations he has worked with over the years, as well as his extensive experience with budgeting, cost-control, and problem solving. “Those are the skills I feel I bring to city council.”
Mears noted he’s been on a series of committees during his time on council, including the Claims Committee, Streets Committee, and Economic Development Committee. Referring to his time on the Claims Committee, he said that he has worked to streamline the processes.
Mears said he tries to make himself accessible to the community, “It hasn’t been unusual for residents to call me or text me and have me show up on their doorstep in half an hour.”
David Scott, a Mansfield native, graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science. He has served on the Charter Review Commission, “That’s a highlight of my life, serving Mansfield in that capacity.”
He noted that millennials want fun and economic opportunity. “We don’t want a handout; we just want an economy that helps us,” he said, adding that Mansfield needs more small businesses as well as to aggressively seek larger corporations.
Scott noted that continued downtown revitalization is important. “I’ve seen downtown go from something I would never dream to bring my friends to, to someplace I want to show off to all my friends. We need to continue that.”
“I’m also running just because I love Mansfield,” he said. “I appreciate the opportunity to serve you and fight for your interests on City Council.”
Falquette spoke briefly, noting that his constituency lies in the southern part of Mansfield in the city’s First Ward.
“I’ve been involved in neighborhood watch for ten years,” he said. “I really am running as an extension, or next step, of being on neighborhood watch.”
Falquette said he had a feel for why companies come and go, and he hopes to bring insight to council to attract business and to be aggressive enough to retain area businesses.
Jon Van Harlingen
Van Harlingen, who is currently serving in the Third Ward council seat, said, “I am running unopposed. That’s why I’m not going to take a lot of your time.”
“The last four years I have thoroughly enjoyed, although there have been a few moments that weren’t very much fun,” he continued. “But I do look forward to serving the citizens of Mansfield for the next four years. Even though I am running for Third Ward Councilman, I feel that all of our votes count for the residents of the city of Mansfield.”
Chitwood lives in Ontario with his wife and four children, he said. He is a graduate of Lucas and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Recently promoted to Lt. Colonel, he now serves in the U.S. Army Reserve.
“What I really want to do, as Clerk of Courts, is bring fiscal responsibility to the office,” he said. “My opponent has decreased the staff from 20 to 16, but the budget has actually increased over the past five years alone by 26%. That’s a big chunk of change, especially when you consider that the average employee got most of that increase. Most of the employees got a 26% pay increase, with two of the top three getting a 40% pay increase. That’s an equivalent of a $21,000 pay increase over the past five years. We just can’t keep going along that same route.”
Chitwood noted that he wants to protect the municipal district, which is made up of the entire county except the Shelby, Shiloh, Plymouth area, which has its own court. He noted the current situation at the clerk’s office as an example, “If a person is arrested after 4 p.m., they have to stay in jail overnight. There’s no opportunity for someone to post bond between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m. If you have the money to post bond, you should be able to post bond. I want to protect the citizens.”
Feagin, a lifelong resident of Mansfield, said he has volunteered for over 20 years with Mansfield City Schools. He has coached, taught Junior Achievement, and mentored many young men. “It has been one of my goals my entire life to be part of Mansfield School Board,” he said
“I believe Mansfield itself is predicated, and moves forward, with Mansfield City Schools. When you are talking about bringing in businesses, one of the first things they look at is Mansfield City Schools,” he said.
Feagin addressed the low report card the city schools received, and said the board is working very hard to improve.
Feagin was appointed to the school board in 2016, and said he’s learned a great deal about how a board should operate. “Not only do I love Mansfield City Schools, I’m trying to educate myself on what a board should do, and what a board member should do.”
He noted that would like to see graduation rates improve, and added the current lack of diversity in faculty may be a contributing factor. “A study just came out that says that 40% of Mansfield City Schools is made up of underprivileged African-Americans. Our teaching staff and our administrative staff is probably two or three percent. We have to do better. When students see people that look like them, talk like them, act like them, the study says they are more likely to graduate.”
Judy Stahl Forney
Forney is a Mansfield native. “Mansfield is the most important place in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
She was appointed to the board in February. She said she has served 37 years in public education, served as a school board member twice, and has nearly 20 years as a public school Treasurer/CFO.
“This is a district with much to be proud of, but in recent years our reputation has suffered,” she said, noting the number of students that choose other options rather than attend Mansfield City Schools.
One concern she addressed was the lack of consistency in local school administration, with school principals leaving the district after a short time. “That, in my mind, creates a feeling of turmoil,” she said. “In other districts, a principal will be there for fifteen or twenty years. There’s a real value to that. That means we have to get good people, put them in place, compensate them well, and support them.”
Q and A
The candidate introductions were followed by a short question and answer session.
Councilman Butch Jefferson asked how the school board was addressing the lack of parental involvement in an environment where students were living in poverty. Feagin responded by sharing the story of a teacher who visited a student’s home due to his lack of improvement in class.
“It was chaos in the home,” Feagin said. The teacher then realized that the student could not study there, and made an effort to make time for him to do his homework at school.
“He’s getting educated a little differently because of his environment at home,” he explained. “We have a lot of teachers and administrators that don’t get credit for that little extra step that she took to go into that home and see that he could be educated differently.”
One attendee addressed Chitwood’s remarks about the salary increases he had mentioned, asking where she could obtain this information. Chitwood explained he had performed a public records request for all pay raises from 2011 to 2017 for the Municipal Clerk of Courts office. “I just did a quick math calculation from what they had in 2011 to what they have today. The average employee got 26% pay increase over the last five years. Two of the top employees there have gotten a $21,000 pay increase over the last five years.”
“Can you give some background to that?” asked NECIC Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence. “Had they not received pay raises in a long period of time? Did duties change? Were there any other reasons why, with public dollars, someone would have gotten a 26% increase? Can you dig a little deeper for us?”
“That was over five years,” commented another attendee.
“Yes, over five years,” agreed West-Torrence. “And I know that for a very long time there were several city employees that didn’t get a pay raise, so I’m wondering if that’s the case with this. Are they catching them up?”
“I can’t speak to too much behind that, like years past,” replied Chitwood. “I didn’t request that. I don’t want to just guess.”
“That kind of makes me think of just the poverty rate in Mansfield, Ohio,” said an attendee to Chitwood. “You said that you live in Ontario. How do our salaries compare to those of Ontario? And if we don’t intend to increase the pay rate for our city employees, many of which wouldn’t have a college level of education, then how do we continue to attract people to Mansfield versus competing with Ontario, who would have people paid at a higher rate, I would think?”
Chitwood replied, “I haven’t compared the numbers for Ontario, in particular.”
“Or even surrounding areas?” asked the attendee. “Not everyone is an educator. Education and healthcare are the industries in Mansfield, unless you are a city employee. There aren’t a lot of job opportunities, so I would be concerned about not ever, as Deanna just said, not ever increasing the pay rate and expecting people to come here and work and live.”
“I can’t really speak to attracting new businesses because that’s not my lane. I don’t want to step on any city councilmen, in particular,” replied Chitwood. “But there’s so very little turnover in the city, in the clerk’s office in particular, I will speak to that. I don’t want to speak off the cuff.
Most of the employees have been there for a number of years,” he continued. “And I agree they should get pay raises. But when it’s that higher rate, and it causes problems between other city employees when they see that their union or their organization isn’t doing the same thing for them that this office is doing for [its employees], there’s that discontinuity, or that friction that it causes. Other employees have expressed frustration that it’s unfair that these people are being taken care of in a special way.”
“What’s concerning is, are you paying one person in the same job, and another person in the same role, fairly and equally?” asked another attendee. “Or are you compensating unequally and why?”
“We could go over it year by year if you’d like to, but some employees got a dollar pay raise per year, but some don’t, I’m not sure of the reasons behind it,” said Chitwood.
“You’re talking about opening the city up for a lawsuit,” replied the attendee, “and that’s an ideal way to get a lawsuit. If your pay is that disparaging of a difference, you are wide open."
“That’s a good point,” replied Chitwood.
It was pointed out that the Mansfield budget may now be found online, and West-Torrence noted that NECIC would be checking into the situation to see if perhaps this was a result of fiscal emergency and a freeze on pay increases.
Another attendee asked about the opioid epidemic. “I’m concerned about the sentiments bubbling up around opioid abuse and overdose, especially the cruelty and stupidity involved with saying ‘Let them die,’. I feel, in many cases, our leadership is very solicitous of people’s fear and anger. I’m looking for some better and more productive leadership around the way we speak about opioid abuse and overdose. So I guess for anyone who feels their work and leadership is relevant to that.”
Falquette responded, “As far as letting people die, I’m firmly against that. The police and fire department, when they are on the scene and someone is in distress, they are going to take care of them. And I do know that goes all the way up to the director level; she’s making sure they have plenty of Narcan that is bringing so many people back. Without that, you don’t stand a chance of making the ride to the hospital.”
“I do know that the city has done some outreach,” he continued. “They have a committee that, if you o.d. twice, a police officer, social worker, a couple of other folks show up at your house and offer those folks alternative ways to try and break that cycle.”
Mears responded that the outreach programs were trying to change people’s behavior. “They do this on a Tuesday night, and they revive them, and by the weekend they are doing it again,” he said.
Jefferson added that he had not heard anything on council or from law enforcement that encouraged letting people die.
West-Torrence noted that the North End Community Development Plan addresses the opioid epidemic under the Health and Safety section. She quoted from the plan, “Address the current opiate addiction crisis as an issue of public health, deemphasizing the use of the criminal justice system as a means to treat drug addiction. There is zero evidence that the war on drugs is effective. The number of addicts has steadily increased despite decades of mass incarceration and trillions of dollars spent to wage war on the American people. A local priority is to increase access to residential inpatient addiction treatment centers in Richland County.”
The plan may be found at the website.