Mayoral endorsement

Published 10:18 pm Saturday, November 1, 2008

With six candidates on the ballot and one running a write-in campaign for the job of mayor of Suffolk, city voters have faced the somewhat daunting task this election season of separating fact from fiction, bombastic from bona fide. Now comes the moment of decision.

Linda Johnson deserves the first look, as she is the incumbent, chosen by her City Council peers to take the leadership role two years ago in the last mayoral appointment prior to this year’s historic direct mayoral election. Her incumbency carries some weight, but it does not balance her unwillingness to acknowledge the gravity of certain problems Suffolk has faced during her term: a revolving door for the city’s administrative leaders, the assessment mess that consumed Suffolk two years in a row and the perception that the city government operates beyond the oversight of its citizens.

It’s instructive that her pat answer to that last concern is to point out that the city now has an office to deal with Freedom of Information Act requests, as if Suffolk’s FOIA office is a groundbreaking effort to provide citizen information and full disclosure, rather than a handy way to help the city narrowly comply with state law. Open government is a need that FOIA offices can help to meet, but those offices shouldn’t be the sole extent of a municipality’s efforts to be transparent.

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Tom Powell brings a fresh perspective and an abundance of style to the race, but he lacks the substance and experience needed to lead Suffolk in these days of growth and change. Conversely, Andy Damiani seems to represent Old Suffolk and sometimes comes across as out-of-touch with the city’s 21st-century directions.

Dwight Nixon connects strongly with those who wish to see growth and development in Suffolk, but economic development isn’t the answer to every question before the City Council, and a more moderate approach is called for than it seems he would take.

Roger Leonard is by far the most articulate of the candidates, but the condescending demeanor that he adopts can be abrasive and might not be the face that the city wants to project while seeking partners in its growth. Furthermore, his reputation as a naysayer could hinder him from building the bridges needed to connect Suffolk’s disparate social groups.

Deborah Wahlstrom, a write-in candidate, is justified in feeling left out of the process, as various candidate forums and roundtables left her uninvited. But she bears part of the blame for her relative obscurity, as she hasn’t made an especially strong effort to make herself known. Write-in candidates have especially high hurdles to clear, and doing so takes extra effort.

Michael Debranski has made a name for himself as a member of the Suffolk School Board, where he is a smart, effective leader, skillful at building a consensus. His answers to candidate questions put to him by this newspaper reveal him to be a savvy manager with a solid plan to improve the operation and accountability of City Hall. His election to the position of mayor would be a loss to the school system, but it would be Suffolk’s gain. We endorse him for that position without qualification.