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Pockets of dissent at election forum — Candidates address issues

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Last Thursday’s Candidates’ Night revealed broad agreement and pockets of dissent among local candidates for this year’s two competitive races, Yellow Springs Village Council and Miami Township Board of Trustees. In the Council race, nuance distinguished the views of three candidates, while the fourth staked out some clear differences, especially on the issues of policing and economic development. In the Township Trustee race, no sharp divisions emerged on the key issues of building a new firehouse and preserving the Township’s rural character. Audience questions about the proposed annexation of Glen Helen into Yellow Springs elicited caution from Council candidates and a preliminary nod from Township trustee hopefuls.

A candidate for the Yellow Springs Board of Education, running unopposed, gave high marks to project-based learning and shared statistics on open enrollment. And the longtime incumbent mayor, also running unopposed, urged a return to greater use of Mayor’s Court.

All but two of this year’s local candidates took part in the forum, an annual event organized by the James A. McKee Association. Candidates made prepared remarks in response to questions developed by the organizers, as well as answering audience questions. Jalyn Roe moderated. About 60 citizens attended, down from more typical turnouts of 100 or more, said McKee Association President Harry Lipsitt. The crowd was mostly older (free child care went unused, said Lipsitt), and by a show of hands, nearly all had attended previous forums.

Earlier this week, Lipsitt speculated that the absence of big issues like CBE could be partly responsible for lower citizen turnout. “The issues may not be earthshattering, but they’re important — they affect all of us,” he said.

Council hopefuls differ
For Council candidates, policing was an area of strong views and some divergence of opinion. Incumbent Marianne MacQueen, former Council President Judith Hempfling and challenger Chrissy Cruz, a member of the Human Relations Commission, all advocated for the Village’s withdrawal from the Greene County
ACE Task Force.

MacQueen stated her belief that the Village’s participation in ACE “hasn’t accomplished anything positive,” while Hempfling characterized it as part of the “failed war on drugs.” Cruz said she opposed ACE participation for “moral and ethical reasons” and because of its sizable annual cost to the Village.
“I don’t believe it’s a worthwhile investment,” she said.

But incumbent Gerald Simms expressed support for a continued Village presence in ACE. “I’m an advocate for the Drug Task Force,” he said. (Citizens will have a chance to hear more from sitting Council members and experts at the Greene County ACE Task Force community discussion, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m.)

A question from the audience linking “overly aggressive” policing to the fact that officers “no longer lived in the village“ elicited further views. Hempfling urged a “community conversation” about policing policies in line with the national debate on policing and police militarization. MacQueen noted that officer aggression often hinged on “interpretation,” and proposed adopting a mediation program to improve communication between police and citizens. Cruz emphasized that officers could, and did, involve themselves in the community in other ways beyond living here.

Simms offered praise for local police. “They do a very good job,” he said. He recommended equipping all officers with cameras “to document what happens” in interactions with citizens. “My eyes must be awful bad,” he said, referring to disparities between what he’s seen on videos from police car cameras and some citizen reports.

All Council candidates made a clear connection between economic development and affordability, but embraced different visions of development. Cruz said that her role in bringing CBE to ballot last year did not mean she was “anti-business.” Her priority was to strongly support “businesses already established” in the village through a revived revolving loan fund and other measures. She praised former Assistant Village Manager John Yung’s economic development plan as a “brilliant” document that offered a blueprint for the village. “We need to look at tried and true and creative new solutions,” she said.

MacQueen also referenced Yung’s plan, sharing its view that the “character of the village” was Yellow Springs’ best economic development asset. She advocated a reinvigoration of the Economic Development Commission, presently underway. “Village government has a limited role in what it can actually do” in supporting development, she cautioned, though it can “get out of the way” through, for example, flexible zoning.

“We don’t want our own rules to stand in the way” of economic development, Hempfling agreed. In her view, a revived Antioch College is the cornerstone of the local economy and will continue to “draw more jobs.” Hempfling also stressed her commitment to affordable housing for lower-income residents, and connected this issue to her support for repealing the landlord utility policy enacted by Council earlier this year.

Simms voiced more guarded views. After voters’ defeat of CBE, he said, “it’s now up to the community” to bring forward a “Plan B.” He expressed doubts about the village’s ability to attract larger businesses absent a CBE-type infrastructure, and said the challenge now was to keep “smaller businesses that may grow” within the village. “Some may be growing faster” than we can accommodate, he warned.

On the issue of sidewalk repair, all four Council candidates seemed to agree: “the program has been less than perfect,” in the words of MacQueen. Candidates differed on who should pay — homeowners or the Village — for needed repairs. MacQueen and Hempfling said they believed the Village should continue to be responsible.

“Sidewalks are a public good,” said Hempfling, noting that as Council president she voted for the policy change that gave the Village funding responsibility four years ago. Similarly, MacQueen called sidewalks “public transportation” and characterized the current level of Village funding as “inadequate.” She added that she supported putting a sidewalk levy on the ballot.

Cruz advocated for a split between home­owners and the Village, but MacQueen countered in her remarks that such a plan would make carrying out repairs “even more difficult.”

Simms also invoked a levy. “The community has to tell us just how important sidewalks are,” he said. “If they’re important, then we’ll all pay for it,” Simms said, whether through the Village budget or a sidewalk levy.

Addressing questions about fiscal responsibility and the Village budget, incumbents MacQueen and Simms acknowledged the need for increases in utility rates. “The Village doesn’t make money on utilities,” MacQueen said, but “costs keep going up.” Villagers demand “the best of services,” Simms opined, so “we’ve got to pay.”

The projected 2016 budget is in the black, assuming the levy passes, several candidates pointed out. But if more revenue needed to be raised, MacQueen said she would consider examining the reciprocal arrangement for those who work outside of Yellow Springs. (Under the present arrangement, the Village does not collect local income tax — up to the Village’s current rate of 1.5 percent — from residents who pay tax to another municipality in which they work.) Both MacQueen and Hempfling suggested that the police department might be one place to look for cuts if budget deficits demanded spending reductions. Cruz said that identifying “places to cut expenses” should be balanced with valuing “the amenities that we do enjoy.”

Although Council candidates were not asked directly about environmental issues, both MacQueen and Hempfling touched on these concerns. MacQueen, a current Council liaison to the Environmental Commission, said she supports exploring environmentally friendly alternatives to storm sewers, as well as a village solar array. Hempfling, a past Environmental Commission liaison, advocated replenishing the green space fund, preserving farmland and reducing the Village’s carbon footprint.

Consenus on Township priorities
Candidates for Miami Township Trustee supported moving forward with building a new firehouse, which has been under consideration for several years.

“The elephant in the room is the new fire-rescue facility,” said Don Hollister, a candidate for the full four-year term. “We’ve been too cautious,” he added. “We have the cash, why not buy it?” Incumbent Chris Mucher and challenger Zo Van Eaton-Meister did not directly address the new firehouse in their remarks. However, they expressed support in their written responses to questions published in last week’s issue of the News.

Incumbent Lamar Spracklen, a candidate for the unexpired two-year term, predicted that a levy for the new firehouse would end up on the ballot. It’s “up to the community” not the trustees, he said. His challenger, Dale Amstutz, gave the project his blessing. “It’s a good idea and we need it,” he said.
All five trustee candidates embraced the goal of preserving the Township’s rural character, but emphasized different approaches to reaching it. Spracklen identified zoning board appointments as Trustees’ key role. “Zoning is key to [our] rural character,” he said.

Amstutz, a longtime zoning board member, also underscored the importance of zoning, as well as evoking the dilemma faced by farmers. “The farm is the 401K for farmers,” he said, and while Tecumseh Land Trust has “done a good job” with agricultural easements, rising farm prices may tempt other farmers into selling, he added. Hollister agreed. “Our biggest protection is the prosperity of farmers,” he said. Encouraging buy-local movements and developing niche agriculture are ways to help farmers make money, he said, which in turn ensures they “can’t contribute to sprawl.”

Incumbent Mucher highlighted his own accomplishments in preserving Township land, including establishing a fund for purchasing easements. In Van Eaton-Meister’s view, “growth needs to be very slow, very well thought out” and mindful of ecological impact. “I’m a firm believer in ‘no sprawl,’” she said.
In an issue not addressed by other candidates, Hollister highlighted the need for an updated website, YouTube presence and other outreach to Township citizens. “It’s kind of a local mystery,” he said of the work of Township trustees. If elected, Hollister promised, he would put in place “consistent, regular communication with voters.”

Annexing the Glen?
Both Council and trustee candidates fielded audience questions about a proposed transfer of jurisdiction of 425 acres of Glen Helen from Miami Township to Yellow Springs. Responses split along Village/Township lines. Township Trustees voiced support. “It’s a net neutral,” said Mucher. “I don’t like the idea of losing acreage, but it’s a good cause.” Van Eaton-Meister praised the plan as “very positive” and an enhancement of “the safety and preservation of the Glen.”

But Council candidates were more cautious. Both Cruz and Simms expressed some reservations about the increased demands on local police, and both alluded to recent conversations with officers who were “uncomfortable” with the idea of policing the Glen. “I haven’t made a decision,” said Cruz. “The community hasn’t had enough conversation.”

MacQueen and Hempfling concurred. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” said MacQueen. “The village needs to understand the impact on the police department,” said Hempfling. “More information [is needed] to make a good decision.”

‘Yes’ on PBL, open enrollment
Yellow Springs School Board member Sean Creighton, running unopposed for his third term, expressed strong board support for project-based learning. Teacher backing for PBL was also robust based on recent internal surveys, he said. A second incumbent, Sylvia Ellison, also running unopposed, was ill and unable to attend.

Tackling questions about student achievement, Creighton noted that Yellow Springs students “take every test that others take in Ohio” and score as well as or better than students in non-PBL districts. He pointed to Yellow Springs High School/McKinney Middle’s consistently high rankings: first in Greene County and 30th in Ohio, according to the most recent U.S. News & World Report figures.

On open enrollment, Creighton said that Yellow Springs currently has 175 open enrolled students, about 22 percent of the district’s 780 students. The maximum allowable open enrollment percentage is 33 percent, he stated, adding that the district could have taken more students had it opened up another kindergarten class.

As for outflows from the district, Creighton said about 100 in-district students choose not to enroll in Yellow Springs, either enrolling elsewhere or opting for homeschooling. While open enrollment into Yellow Springs schools has increased in recent years, outflow has remained consistent, he said. “We’re trying to deepen our understanding” of the reasons for outflow, he noted.

Reinvigorating Mayor’s Court
Incumbent mayor David Foubert, running unopposed for his 13th two-year term, responded to questions about Mayor’s Court, advocating for its fuller use for all misdemeanor cases eligible for hearing there. (Current exceptions include juvenile cases, marital disputes and second DUI charges within six years, he said. These, along with felony cases, must be referred to Xenia courts.)
“I would love to have all cases that can be adjudicated here come to Mayor’s Court first,” he said. He expressed concern that local police have “absolute discretion” to send relevant misdemeanor offenders to Mayor’s Court or Xenia courts, and alleged that officers have faced pressure in the past to use Xenia courts. “If we have a Mayor’s Court, why don’t we use it?” he asked.

Cruz was the only Council member to take up the issue. “I believe we should make full use of Mayor’s Court” for nonviolent crime, she said. Echoing Foubert, she voiced dismay that local officers have the discretion to choose between Mayor’s Court and Xenia courts, a practice she believed could breed “discriminatory” treatment of offenders. She called for a “set policy as soon as possible.”

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. See next week’s issue of the News for coverage of local election results.


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