City contenders face off

Published 2:19 pm Saturday, October 18, 2008

Austin City Council and mayoral candidates faced off Friday in the first local forum of the election season, hosted by the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce.

The contenders met in the first of two Chamber forums to be held at the Eagles Club; the second will include county commissioner and state representative candidates.

Incumbents and their opponents introduced themselves and their platforms to the community through a series of prepared questions aired live on KQAQ radio.

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Candidates for mayor of Austin are Tom Stiehm, a retired Austin Police Department detective serving his first term in the office, and Mark Nagle, co-owner of South Central Athlete and Grinders Deli and also a business consultant.

City council candidates include: Jeff Austin, an insurance agent and 1st Ward council member in his second year of the four-year term, and Janet Anderson, producer at KAAL-TV, council member at-large; Brian McAlister, an incumbent who is retired from the APD, unopposed; incumbent and Akkermann Inc. mechanic Scott Pacholl and Steve King, director of Mower County Correctional Services, 2nd Ward; and Marian Clennon, clerk at Hormel Foods Corp., and Tony Bennett, co-owner of Robert’s Specialty Co., 3rd Ward.

Mayor and at-large offices are two-year terms; all other city and county offices are four-year terms.

Stiehm began the debate straight out of the gate, defending alleged accusations about the city.

“It’s been said the city lacks a vision for downtown, and that’s not so,” he said, referring to the jail and justice center project taking over the Robbins block. He cited accomplishments like ensuring the sheriff and city police departments remain together under one roof and securing funding for flood mitigation.

He also pointed out the city needs to continue improving its relationship with county commissioners.

“Cooperation has to be more than a catch phrase,” Stiehm said. “We need to make the county part of the team.”

Stiehm also brought up the issue of immigration, suggesting citizens not point out the illegal immigrant population and try to assimilate the current ones here, because it is a federal issue and the local law enforcement has no authority. He said the negative public attention turns off potential development.

“When companies look at Austin, they don’t look at a city in turmoil,” he said.

“I think there are people who would turn the city into a media circus if they could,” Stiehm said, referring to anti-immigration groups.

Nagle countered his opponent with a strong stance on selling the city as a place to raise a family and own a business.

“This town has a lot to sell, and we need to get that done,” he said. “The time is now. This town can move forward, but a times I’ve seen this town move sideways.”

The nation’s financial crisis was addressed, with most candidates giving brief responses, usually recommending fiscal responsibility on a local level.

“If it still works, maybe we don’t need to replace it right away,” Clennon said of some purchases, specifically Riverside Arena, which she said is “losing” money. She has pushed a campaign of building strong council-citizen communication, and has been a strong supporter of the proposed city dog park.

King, a former state employee and Pacelli High School graduate who has returned to live and work in Austin, said he believes “people want value in their taxes” and does not come with a “strong personal agenda.”

Bennett, who has been a staunch advocate of cutting what he believes are extravagant expenses in the city, said the “ridiculous” overspending needs to be stopped.

“We need some folks in there who are going to take a long look at how we spend money,” he said.

A non-profit volunteer who boasts networking skills and repeatedly uses “partnerships” in her campaign, Anderson said she has the “ability to work well with limited budgets.” She served for 14 years on the Austin Planning Commission and is co-chairperson of the Austin Human Right Commission. She has also been promoting environmental sustainability, flood mitigation and downtown and citywide business recruitment.

Austin, who is running for the at-large seat, but will still remain on the council to finish out his two years in the 1st Ward if not elected, said his connections in the community are an asset. The lifelong Austin resident praised Tom Dankert, the city’s director of administrative services, for his effective fiscal management.

Austin explained that the city has five-year improvement plans, so projects are essentially “locked in,” but are only implemented if “the funding is there.”

The jail and justice center is, as was to be expected, a hot issue in this campaign, with candidates — particularly mayoral — voicing opinions.

Stiehm said the center is the No. 1 issue he would face if elected to a second term.

“I still think the justice center is primarily the issue for the city and county to work on now,” he said. Stiehm said he would like the project kept at $30 million.

“We need to, maybe, re-address the jail and justice issue,” Nagle said.

Perhaps the most opinions were offered when economic development plans were proposed.

McAlister said someone once told him that economic development will happen in Austin if it was meant to happen. He considered that comment, and determined “economic development will happened if we make it happen.”

Clennon said she believes in promoting existing businesses as successful in the city, and explaining that the jail project is not “booting them out of town.”

Pacholl, a third-generation Austin resident, has been promoting economic development and “livable wages” in his run for a second term. He has also said flood mitigation efforts should be applauded.

At the conclusion of the forum, Stiehm reiterated suggestions the “city hasn’t been doing enough for downtown.”

“All you have to do is drive downtown,” he said.

Nagle concluded with his salesmanship platform.

“The bottom line is, we need to get out and sell the city of Austin,” he said.

The Chamber will host its second forum for county commissioner and state representative candidates from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24. The general election is Nov. 4.