Candidates answer Chamber’s questions

Published 10:27 pm Thursday, October 11, 2012

From left, Kevin Alston, Raymond Batton and Roger Fawcett participate in a candidate forum hosted by the Suffolk Board of Directors of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. The candidates answered questions posed by moderator Ira Agricola.

Candidates for mayor and City Council seats answered questions on economic development, school funding, waste disposal fees, government transparency and more from the Suffolk Board of Directors of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce on Thursday evening.

The three candidates for mayor, three candidates for the Sleepy Hole borough seat and one of two candidates for the Nansemond borough attended the event at the Hilton Garden Inn. They spoke about why they are running and also answered questions concerning the role of City Council, budget waste and priorities, transportation and industry diversification.

In many areas, the candidates for mayor — incumbent Linda Johnson, Councilman Leroy Bennett and newcomer Art Bredemeyer — presented different visions of the city’s current state. While Johnson painted a rosy picture of the city in nearly every respect, her challengers pointed out what they see as shortcomings.

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Bredemeyer and Bennett blasted the creation of a new $17.50 monthly fee for trash and recycling services, saying it has burdened taxpayers.

“It’s an example of fiscal irresponsibility,” Bredemeyer said. Bennett pledged to “go back and revisit” the fee if he is elected.

But Johnson said the fee was needed because of a state mandate to recycle at least a quarter of the city’s waste and the near-demise of the Southeastern Public Service Authority three years ago, pointing out that Bennett was on the SPSA board at the time.

“I think the user fee is the correct way to do this,” she said.

On the issue of waste in the budget, Johnson said the city has sliced $17.9 million from its spending in recent years and reduced the number of highly-paid staff in the city manager’s office.

But Bennett and Bredemeyer contended there is waste in the budget. Bennett zeroed in on the growth in the number of staff in the Media and Community Relations Department, while Bredemeyer focused on former chief of staff Sherry Hunt, who was moved to a new position dealing with legislative matters and grants.

Johnson contended Hunt’s move was a cost-savings measure, because it did away with the need to hire an outside lobbyist.

Talking about transparency, Johnson said Suffolk government is “more open and transparent than it has ever been,” citing the city’s social media presence.

Bredemeyer and Bennett pledged to make themselves accessible through regular meetings with citizens.

Three candidates for a different seat, the Sleepy Hole borough, also answered questions during the night.

Responding to a query on the roles and responsibilities of the City Council, Kevin Alston said their job is to be transparent and work with the people.

“I handle complaints all day long, so I’ve learned how to work with people,” said Alston, the assistant superintendent for Suffolk Public Schools.

Raymond Batton said, “I think we need to be there for the people. The decisions need to be made on behalf of the citizens.”

Roger Fawcett compared the council-manager form of government to a business.

“Council in my opinion is the board of directors, and the city manager is the CEO,” he said. “The council works for the citizens.”

Councilman Robert Barclay was alone in his campaign on the dais because his challenger, Lue Ward, had a conflict, according to a Chamber of Commerce official.

Responding to a question crafted for him, as he represents the northernmost borough of the city, Barclay said the city has balanced the needs of North Suffolk with those of downtown and more rural areas by creating a special taxing district along the Bridge Road corridor. Businesses in that area pay higher taxes, which go into a special fund for infrastructure projects in the area.

“I think the special taxing district has worked well,” he said.

The next chance to hear from candidates in a public forum will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at the King’s Fork High School Black Box Theater, hosted by the Education Association of Suffolk.