Members of the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce provided voters a chance to hear from local candidates during the political forum held Tuesday evening, March 23, at the Litchfield Community Center.
The forum was livestreamed on the chamber Facebook page, and will remain there for those who couldn’t attend. The forum was moderated by Chamber President Mandy Jewell and Cory Evans, and streamed by Cass Cooper.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance led by Roberta Meyer, candidates for Litchfield School Board, including Julie Abel and Gregg Hires, had the opportunity to give two-minute answers to questions selected by the panel. They are running unopposed.
In answer to a question about their incentive to be a school board member, Hires said he strives to “do the people’s will” and serve as the bridge between the community and the school district. Abel said she believes in donating her time and talents to organizations and causes she is passionate about, which includes the district.
“I think Litchfield has a lot of potential, and I think at the heart of a strong community is a strong school district,” Abel said.
Both candidates are strong supporters for the proposed elementary school plans. Abel said the students and staff deserve newer facilities that meet their needs as the current buildings have outlived their time. She advised that the district would be able to move forward with the plan without having to raise real estate taxes. Hires added that building new facilities would attract new families to the community, and will cause morale among students and staff to increase.
When asked what they are looking to accomplish going forward, the candidates both touched on the new building, as well as growing the career and technical education program.
“I’m extremely proud of what this administration has done in the past year alone during this pandemic,” said Abel. “Our district is not only surviving, we are thriving, and there are great plans to move us forward.”
Candidates for Litchfield City Council were present, including Mark Brown in Ward 2, Ray Kellenberger in Ward 4 and Kassidy Paine in Ward 3, who is running as a write-in.
All three candidates were asked what their top priority is in their role as council. Brown said he would like more attention directed to Lake Lou Yaeger as it is the community’s source of water, recreation and tourism. Both Kellenberger and Paine wish to grow the population, with Paine stating retention is an important key factor. She also plans to continue focusing on clean up.
The candidates encouraged their constituents to reach out when issues surface, with all stating they’re available by phone. Paine said she is also active on social media and Brown said being present within the community helps him keep in contact with those he is serving.
As part of a question regarding city ordinances, Paine said she hopes the council can enforce some a little better, although they have difficulty enforcing some regarding clean up, which is something they are actively working on. Kellenberger agreed, emphasizing the need to update longstanding ordinances, while Brown listed derelict vehicles and animals running at large.
“We do have a great team of city council members. When we go in there and we make decisions, we don’t go in there and fight and bicker among ourselves,” said Paine. “We do try to work together to make decisions, and even when we disagree, at the end of the day when we leave, we still get along fine.”
Independent Carol Burke, who is running unopposed for city clerk, shared that her office staff focuses on good customer service as they are the face of the city. She thoroughly enjoys working with and meeting citizens, as well as the financial aspect of the role.
In the race for mayor are Dwayne Gerl and incumbent Steve Dougherty, both running on the Independent ticket.
In answer to a question about whether they think downtown is healthy and successful, Dougherty said he was a driving force behind revitalization downtown. He said he took advantage of a city program to help businesses downtown to grow. Additionally, he said many buildings have been restored and that a new elementary school being built downtown will help attract more business, something he is looking forward to.
Gerl said there are many empty buildings in downtown Litchfield. He emphasized the importance of the Litchfield Pickers Market and the need to grow the event, as well as recruiting more businesses to that area.
Gerl’s response was followed by a rebuttal by Dougherty, who stated that the city has been very aggressive in trying to keep businesses downtown and maintain empty buildings that are being neglected. In addition, under his leadership, the city has reluctantly demolished four downtown buildings.
When asked what they thought was most important to the city right now, Gerl said recruiting businesses to provide more jobs in town and fill buildings, while Dougherty mentioned that many local companies are struggling to stay fully staffed. The current mayor suggested working with schools and developing the economy so younger generations will remain in the area.
“I’m not for the use of marijuana; the state is and it’s legal. I am for the taxation and revenue that it will bring for the city that other cities in the area can’t get,” said Dougherty when asked what his stance was on the current dispensary.
Gerl said that while recreational marijuana may cause some issues, the city could desperately use the tax revenue due to the pandemic’s impact.
“In the long run, it’s going to help us. We lost a lot of money this year in tax revenue. The marijuana will bring it back in. Yes, is it going to cause trouble, but we’ve already got trouble here,” said Gerl.
Both candidates had high praises for the police department. Gerl said young officers have been added to the department. Dougherty said the city also has a professional fire department, and while both are expensive to operate, they are essential to the local community.
In going forward, Dougherty said he hopes to work more with the school district, specifically partipating in meetings, and that he is pleased with drug counseling coming to the hospital. Gerl mirrored Dougherty’s remarks.
If he were elected mayor, Gerl said he would like to see the council work more together, instead of frequent split votes. Dougherty said he would continue to work with housing as there is a great need for more inventory, as well as derelict housing, infrastructure and water lines.