As expected, the incumbents in Vandalia’s contested mayoral and school board races touted their experience and accomplishments at a Candidates’ Forum on Tuesday, while their challengers offered to bring fresh ideas and change to those positions.
The forum, sponsored by the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce and held at the Kaskaskia College Vandalia Campus, also featured two of three candidates for an aldermanic seat on the April 7 ballot.
“I feel there is a lot that has happened, a lot of growth has happened,” Rick Gottman said in his opening statement in talking about his eight years as mayor.
Gottman cited the purchase of land in the area of the city’s western Interstate 70 interchange and the development of much of that area. “We’ve opened up the west interchange,” he said.
But, he said, “all areas of the city are important. We must continue to build our downtown; economically, it is important to us.”
Gottman, who also cited his leadership on important issues, including the rescue of the Vandalia Correctional Center in 2004.
“We did it, but I led the fight, as Sen. (Frank) Watson would tell you,” Gottman said.
He also noted that numerous infrastructure improvements have been made over the past eight years, to prepare the city for economic growth, and added that more improvements are coming.
Gottman mentioned $1.144 million in state monies the city will receive in 2013 to make road and bridge improvements, and obtaining $300,000 for road improvements in the past year.
One of the challengers, Neil Clark, said he decided to run after being urged to do so by some local residents.
“Most of the people feel they’re being left out, that there is no one to actually speak for them,” Clark said.
“I think we need some fresh leadership and a change in the leadership of the city of Vandalia,” he said.
In these tough economic times, he said, it’s important for the city to “account for every penny” and make sure it’s spending its money wisely.
“It will take someone with business experience, because the city of Vandalia is a business,” Clark said, explaining that he has “run several successful businesses.”
Clark also said he feels he “can be the closest thing to a full-time mayor that the city has had in quite a few years.”
John David Wehrle Jr., the third candidate for mayor, said, “I bring no political experience, which, in a way, gives me an advantage – I bring a clean slate.
“My sole agenda and purpose is to make this community a better place to live, a better place to work and a better place to raise a family,” Wehrle said.
“Although we have done a lot of the right things over the last few years, I believe we can do better,” he said.
Wehrle said he believes improvements to the entrance to and roads near the Kaskaskia College Vandalia Campus will show people that “we are serious about education,” and that he would like to see land on the north side of Interstate 70 developed, “to leverage this traffic to our advantage.”
He also cited a desire to have the property at Kennedy Boulevard and Gallatin Street that formerly housed Jr. Food Mart cleaned up and converted to something useful, and spoke at length about the development of Veterans Avenue.
In his campaign ads, Wehrle called Veterans “the new mainstreet.”
“Perhaps I should have chosen my words a little bit more carefully,” Wehrle said, noting that he means no disrepect to downtown business owners and the Vandalia Main Street Program.
“But I think the fact remains that we have evolved and Veterans has become the heaviest-traveled corridor with commerce, and I’m not the only one saying that,” he said.
The three candidates were asked how they would go about bringing jobs to Vandalia.
Gottman said city made that a priority last year when it hired JoAnn Sasse Givens as full-time economic development director, and that he believes another key to success in that area is ongoing lobbying with legislators on ways to make Illinois more attractive to business and industry.
The mayor said he learned that a prospect asked to meet with Gottman and Givens in St. Louis this Wednesday. “I’ll be there,” Gottman said, talking about the need for Vandalia’s mayor to get out and establish contacts and meet people.
Clark agrees that Illinois “is one of the most unfriendly states for business,” and said he expressed in a letter to the editor to The Leader-Union last year how he feels the city can create more jobs. In that letter, he said that the city should work to lure businesses already in Illinois.
In his response to the question, Wehrle brought up Orgill’s decision to build a new distribution center in Missouri and close the one in Vandalia.
“I didn’t sit in out the meetings,” he said. “Possibly, we did everything in our power. It would be unwise of me to point blame.”
What’s important, Wehrle said, is, “We’ve got to see that this doesn’t happen again.”
He agreed that the hiring of an economic development director was a wise decision. “We need to be patient with the economic development job. Creating it does show that we have focus.”
All three candidates voiced their support for the downtown project that’s getting under way this week.
Wehrle said he had mixed feelings about it in the past, but was “encouraged” when it was downsized.
“My hope is that we stay in budget. Our downtown is very important, and we need to do everything in our power to maintain it,” Wehrle said, adding that he hope it doesn’t have a negative affect on parking and traffic for downtown businesses.
Clark said, “It’s about time (for such a project). Who could be against it?
“Our history is very valuable. It’s one thing we don’t have to buy and they can’t take away from us,” he said.
Gottman noted that he’s been involved with the project from the start, serving as an alderman when then-Mayor Sandra Leidner worked to procure the federal TEA-21 grant.
“It’s important to continue to improve the area. We have a lot of employees in the downtown,” Gottman said, estimating that downtown businesses create 300-400 jobs.
The mayor said the city has moved through the project with the help of an advisory committee he formed. Included on that committee are several downtown business owners and former city officials.
“I think you’ll really be proud of what we have there (when the project is done),” Gottman said.
The candidates were also asked by moderator Todd Stapleton why residents should vote for them.
Wehrle said, “I’m young, and I feel I have some experience in running a business.”
He said he offers “fresh ideas and a new vision.”
Clark said, “I’m going to be a mayor for the people. I have no political axe to grind.
If elected, Clark said, he would be available to meet with residents at city hall on Saturdays prior to council meetings. “I want to hear from the people,” he said.
Clark said he would also “spend time with each department head on an unannounced basis,” and that he would form a “kitchen cabinet” of advisers that would include senior citizens, business owners and youth.
Gottman said he’s already concentrated on serving the people.
“I am the voice of the people. I have an open door policy,” he said, adding that he is available at all hours of the day and that he makes sure people know how to get in touch with him.
“I have the experience, and I continue to learn each day,” Gottman said.
Also participating in the forum were Dean Black and Robert Bell, candidates for a two-year Ward II city council seat. A third candidate, Roger Hill, did not participate.
Black, who was appointed to the seat late last year, cited his experience on both the city council and county board. He served on the county board for nine years, and was it’s chairman for five years.
“I’m interested in economic development … doing my part for bringing in jobs,” said Black, a retired Exxon employee.
Bell noted that he is a retired trucker who “has an interest in the town. I’d like to see the town grow.”
Bell said he offers “new insight” to city government.
Black said he chose to run for the seat to which he was appointed because, “It’s interesting for me to have this to do. I like to be a part of seeing things prosper in Vandalia.”
Bell said he entered the race after being encouraged to do so by some city residents.
Both expressed support for the downtown project.
“I think it will be an advantage (for the city) when it’s done,” Black said.
Bell also said he feels “it will be a great value,” adding that he would like to see the Statehouse and downtown business district used more frequently for weekend festivals and activities.
Kicking off the forum were the two candidates competing for a seat on the Vandalia Board of Education.
Chris Palmer, who’s running for a second term, said he initially ran for the board “because I wanted to be a part of my kids’ education” and to address such issues as the open campus and attendance at the high school, increasing the district’s liability insurance, future district expenditures and teachers’ contracts.
During his time on the board, Palmer said, he has been involved in the board’s finance, building and grounds, transportation, policy and student discipline committees, and that’s he’s been a part of the board bringing in community members to deal with certain issues.
Palmer said he’s “addressed student safety issues with security cameras at the schools,” and that he’s been actively involved in improving the district’s financial condition.
“I am a property taxpayer, and the votes I make affect me,” he said.
Braxton Denton said, “I understand the fact that I’m young (21) might bring to mind some questions about my competence and whether I’m fit to run.”
He believes that his age can be of benefit to the board. “I see this as a chance to bring a young mind to the board. I see this as an experience to essentially expand the school board in a way that maybe hasn’t been done in a long time, if ever.”
Asked to assess how the district could improve the quality of education provided to Vandalia’s children, both supported ongoing technological improvements. Denton also stated that he would like to see high school students serving internships at local businesses.
On the issue of district finances, Palmer said, “What we’ve done – we used to just have board meetings. Now, the finance committee goes through every expenditure, and we are thrifty.”
He also touted a study of implementing a sales tax on high-priced items as a way of cutting property taxes. Through such a county-wide tax, he said, customers at local businesses – including people from other towns – would pay a 1-percent tax on high-cost items.
“But it would lower property taxes,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Denton said that now that the district has a good financial standing, “what the district needs to do is stay good.”
One way of doing that, he said, is securing grants when possible and looking for ways to avoid making cuts. “I don’t think there’s any reason to cut teachers,” he said.
Asked why people should vote for them, Palmer said, “The decisions I make are based on the fact that I own a house here, I have kids who go to school and I really want them to get a good education.”
Denton conceded that he doesn’t currently pay property taxes, but that he plans to buy a house locally after completing his college education (pre-law and political science) and getting a job. He added, “The decisions I make will affect my parents and grandparents.”
He said, “My youth and my insight would be beneficial to the board and the students and the taxpayers. I believe there are different ways we can do things.”
In his closing statement, Denton repeated that belief, saying, “I want to be a buffer between the students, the parents and the school, in general.”
Palmer said in his closing statement, “I just want to continue to decrease our expenses and improve the quality of education – keep doing it right for the right reasons.”