INDEPENDENCE, Ohio—The Cuyahoga Valley Chamber of Commerce held a Candidate’s Forum on October 17 at the Civic Center. Candidates running for the offices of School Board Member, Finance Director, City Council Member, and Mayor were in attendance to answer questions and explain their platforms.
Every candidate was given two minutes for an opening statement, one minute to answer each question, and one minute for a closing statement.
The evening began with the candidates for School Board. There are two positions open and it is a four-year term.
There are three people running for the position; Hanna Harb, teacher for 27 years; Joanie Mencl, current School Board member running for re-election and former Independence school teacher for 35 years; and Andrea Marek, 30-year resident and past and active member of the Independence School PTO.
The first question was: What do you see as the main issues facing our schools?
Harb said changing the school’s overall report card from getting Cs to Bs and As as well as curriculum mapping. Marek said implementing youth programs and improving gaps in curriculum. Mencl said ensuring the kids are safe and secure in the buildings.
The next question asked what ideas the candidates had for reorganizing resources to use tax money as efficiently as possible.
Marek said the school needs to rationalize the needs together with the city. Mencl said the state changes requirements every year and if the Independence school continue to give a well-rounded education, they can be in the top ten. Harb said to max sure taxpayer money is spent correctly and there is a call back on contractors to make sure any work on the schools is done properly.
The third question was: Do you support or oppose the bond issue and why?
Mencl said she does because the facilities need to prepare the students to enter the world. Harb said she does not because she believes the issue was put on the ballot too quickly without community engagement. Marek said she does support the bond.
The next group were the candidates for Finance Director, this position is a four-year term. The candidates are Vern Blaze, former Independence Finance Coordinator; current councilperson Patricia Wisnieski; and Independence resident Chris Zamborsky.
The first question was: What is your accounting and finance background, specifically your government accounting experience?
Blaze said he has government accounting experience on a school board where he worked on appropriation legislation and a five-year capital plan. He also holds a BA in Accounting and MBA in Finance. He said he was the Independence Finance Coordinator for seen years. Wisnieski said she has been on the Finance Committee for 14 years and has been through 20 budget cycles during her time as a councilperson. She also spent five years in the private sector teaching financial planning to government employees.
Zamborsky said he has worked with private sector systems that are ore complex than the finances of the city. He said he would bring private sector scrutiny to the position.
The next question was: Why do you feel you are most qualified to be the Finance Director?
Zamborksy said he could run the city on 20 percent less and is approachable and easy to contact. He again said that he would bring private sector scrutiny to the position. Blaze said he is the most qualified and is the only degreed accountant running. He also earned his master’s in public administration to work well with people, too. Wisnieski said her experience going through 20 budget cycles on City Council and background in financial management qualifies her for the position.
There were two rounds for the city council candidates as there are total of ten people running. This is a two-year term.
The first round of people included Speech Pathologist and Independence resident Dawn Corrigan; former Independence firefighter and paramedic, Bruce Flower; current Vice Mayor, David Grendel; and eight-year Independence resident, Kyle Kaiser.
Before this round of questions began, the forum moderator, Ed “Flash” Ferenc, read a statement from candidate and current councilperson, Kathleen Kapusta who was unable to attend due to a pre-planned trip out of town. Her statement said that the evening was an invaluable resource and that it had been a privilege to serve the past six years on city council. She plans to make financially responsible decisions regarding legislation and wished the other candidates well.
The first question was: What was your motivating factor to serve on city council?
Corrigan said she loves the city and wanted to be a part of what they’re doing. Flower said he would like to help the city move forward and spoke of how the city is in a good financial position with the current debt covered by TIF financing. Grendel said this is his 11th election, his ninth for city council and he ran twice for school board. He said he loves to make the community its best. Kaiser quoted his Boy Scout mantra which was, “Always leave a place better off than when we got it.” He applies that to the position.
The second question was: What are your thoughts on regionalization or collaboration with other cities.
The general consensus was that regionalization can be beneficial on a case by case basis but the services that Independence provides should remain benefits for residents only.
The third question was: What city services are in need of improvement and which, if any, can be reduced or eliminated altogether?
Grendel and Flower both said they don’t see a need for reductions or eliminations. Kaiser said to add a service to help seniors maintain their homes and Corrigan said there is no elimination needed but to add services for younger children.
The final question was: Do you feel the city council and mayor have a shared vision or agenda for the city?
Kaiser said they do a good job of being cohesive and generally want the community to be as great as possible. Corrigan said she hopes they do, and the important thing is he way you handle a situation and treat each other. Flower said the spirit of cooperation and level of commitment is evident in the committee meetings. Grendel said there is respect for each other even when there are disagreements.
City Council candidates for the second round were: current councilperson, Tom Narduzzi; Independence resident Ken Synek; current councilperson Jim Trakas; current councilperson Dale Veverka; and Independence resident Chris Walchanowicz.
The first question was: What was your motivating factor to serve as a City Council member?
Synek said a deep sense of gratitude living in a community and looks forward to working together being part of a team that works together to make good decisions. Trakas touched on his family history and said he comes from a family of activists and has an interest in serving. Veverka said he became interested in getting involved after learning about the Selig Rd. project years ago. He said he wants to give back to the community. Narduzzi said he started on the Zoning Board of Appeals and loved being involved. Walchanowicz said he talks to residents on a daily basis who are not always heard, and he wants to work on that.
The second question was: What are your thoughts on regionalization or collaboration with other cities?
Trakas said he thought the mutual benefit of purchasing makes sense but is skeptical of some ideas. Veverka said in some instances it makes sense but requires an individual basis review. Walchanowicz that the city should remain using in-house employees, so residents know who they are speaking with. Narduzzi said he does not want the city to share what he calls “paradise.” Synek said it’s best for the city to stay in its bubble.
The third question was: What services can be improved and which services, if any, can be reduced or eliminated?
Veverka said all the services are top notch. Walchanowicz said there cold be an increase in the amount of fire fighters and police officers on Rockside Rd. and mentioned a program to help seniors stay in their homes longer. Narduzzi said the services are the best but would like to bring back the tree service. Synek said there is no need to reduce the services and Trakas mentioned evaluating the Civic Center in respect to outsiders using the facility.
The final question was: Do you feel the City Council and Mayor have a shared vision for the city?
Walchanowicz said they are moving in the right direction. Narduzzi said together, council has worked well. Synek said yes and that the goal is to serve the best interests of the residents. Trakas said council works for the mutual benefit of the city. Veverka said yes and despite disagreements, the city is focused on the needs of the people.
Before the Mayoral forum, Independence Schools Superintendent, Ben Hegedish explained about Issue 5. This is a 3.4 million bond issue that would raise $32 million. It would cost approximately $10 per month per $100,00 home value.
This bond would allow the construction of a new school that houses both the Independence Primary School and Middle School. It would be built where the middle school is currently. Hegedish said the current buildings were built in the 50s and 60s and only have a 50-60-year life span.
According to literature from Independence Local Schools, the existing buildings have aging HVAC systems, are not ADA compliant and have leaking plumbing. The cost of renovation is close to the cost of a new building. This would be a 35-year bond issue.
The position of Mayor is a four-year term. The candidates running are current Mayor Anthony Togliatti and former Mayor Greg Kurtz.
The first question for Togliatti was: Why should voters elect to retain you?
He mentioned the accomplishments during his time as Mayor, like the work to replace and repair aging infrastructure and alternate senior housing through Vista Springs Ravinia.
Kurtz was asked why people should elect him as Mayor, to which he responded that people are willing to talk to him and explain what’s on their mind. He said that as a city, “we can do better.”
The next question asked both candidates what separates them from their opponent. Kurtz said that his work with the Selig Rd. project was one accomplishment that set him apart, He went on to say that, “If I didn’t think the best of Independence was ahead of us, I wouldn’t run.”
Togliatti said the biggest difference was leadership style. He said that he is inclusive and works collaboratively in a group. He said employees are more productive when they feel valued.
The next question was: What are your three most significant accomplishments in Independence that you either led or were part of that you are most proud of?
Togliatti said his top accomplishments were the Vista Springs Ravinia home for seniors, cleaning up the Downtown area land where a former gas station had left chemicals on the land, and the overall economic growth in the city over the past four years.
Kurtz said his accomplishments were the construction of the Civic Center, the increase in the tax duplicate to half a billion dollars, and the ability to talk to any of the residents.
The next question was: Do you feel the City Council and Mayor should have a shared vision?
Kurtz said yes, but that there needs to be leadership and he “leads from the front.” Togliatti said yes and mentioned the annual strategic planning session that the Mayor and Council have in December.
Moderator Ferenc then asked the candidates to address the topic of safety concerns in the city. Togliatti said the violent crime rate was the lowest in five years and that there is a 100 percent arrest and conviction rate. He also mentioned how the city utilizes technology like a camera on the top of the Crown Center Building. Kurtz said, “Safety is measured by perception.” He went on to say that the city must prepare now for serious situations.
The final question was: What are your ideas for the Independence Downtown area or the city in general and how do you plan to fulfill it?
Kurtz said that people want a livable and walkable Downtown area and mentioned the benefits of the existing shared use facility. He also said people leave because there are no smaller homes in the city. He wants to add smaller homes to keep people within Independence.
Togliatti said the consensus is to maintain small town charm and that the Downtown area should fit that. He explained a plan to utilize the area by creating a park with an Amphitheater for events as well as grassy areas and a fountain.
Each candidate then gave a closing statement. Resident Russell Fortlage said, “It’s great the community comes together to see who the candidates are. It was all very professional.”