Development and traffic are among a range of familiar issues eight candidates for four seats on Powell City Council are focused on as the Nov. 7 general election looms.
Powell residents will elect at least one new representative to the city's governing board, as Councilman Jim Hrivnak has decided against seeking another term. Frank Bertone, who has served on council since 2014; Tom Counts, a member since 2006; and Brian Lorenz, who has served on council since 2010 and as the city's mayor since 2016, all are seeking re-election.
Among the five residents challenging the incumbents are attorney David Ebersole and IT analyst Sharon Valvona, who are running a joint campaign. The pair have clashed frequently with council over the board's decisions regarding housing developments planned in and around the city's downtown.
Newcomers Christina Drummond, a management consultant; Jeffrey Gardiner, a portfolio manager with JP Morgan Chase; and attorney Melissa Riggins also are seeking seats on council.
As residents prepare to head to the polls, council's incumbents pointed to improving traffic conditions as an achievement. City officials in 2016 launched the Keep Powell Moving initiative, teaming with consultants and the public to find ways to ease traffic congestion in and around the busy Four Corners intersection of Liberty and Olentangy streets.
Lorenz, 44, said he thinks the city is "really on the right path" concerning traffic. He said residents are seeing the benefits from a new traffic light at Grace Drive and Olentangy Street, as well as turn restrictions at the Four Corners.
"We've got a lot of great momentum with the Keep Powell Moving plan," he said.
Counts, 56, said council's decision to extend Murphy Parkway to create a new bypass of the Four Corners has "made a huge difference."
Bertone, 47, said the decision to react to a road closure outside city limits by banning left turns during evening rush hour at the Four Corners showed he and his colleagues are willing to act quickly to ease congestion.
"We had to take a stand on that," he said. "Something had to happen, quick."
Ebersole, 32, said the current council has laid the groundwork to exacerbate the city's congestion problem by approving new housing developments in and around the downtown area.
"They can't just approve every project that comes in the door," he said.
Valvona, 67, said council should hold off on approving "high-density housing" projects downtown until the city makes greater strides to reduce congestion. She said she supports "smart development" -- approving projects adjacent to suitable infrastructure.
Riggins, 54, said she views the Keep Powell Moving plan as a "good guideline," but noted she may suggest some tweaks. She said she's been impressed by the changes and improvements council has supported in the past few years.
"I think traffic has immensely improved," she said.
Drummond, 40, said she thinks the city needs to do a better job warning residents about closures and other potential traffic complications in and outside of the city. She said the city did not do enough earlier this year to help residents plan for the closure of state Route 315 just east of town.
"I would like to help the city be more proactive in its communications and decision-making," she said.
Gardiner, 34, said he "fully supports" the Keep Powell Moving initiative and thinks council has made progress recently.
He said the city should work with neighboring local officials and the state to explore unorthodox solutions to traffic -- such as adding a commuter train to existing railroad tracks in central Ohio.
Gardiner said he thinks leaders from all over the region would be interested in finding ways to reduce traffic congestion.
"We need to bring everyone together to find a common solution to a common problem," he said.
During conversations about potential traffic improvements in Powell, the city's 0.75 percent income-tax rate often is mentioned as an impediment.
Counts said he's running for council again in part to find a way to pay for the city's infrastructure needs. He said he wants to assemble a group of residents to recommend potential solutions.
"What I hope is there will be a consensus that will come out (of the group)," he said.
Bertone said he's "not on board with (a tax increase) yet," but also is interested in hearing a recommendation from a group of residents tasked with studying the issue.
"I'm going to let the committee do their work and come back with a recommendation for us," he said.
Bertone said he also thinks the city should consider hiring an economic development director. He said attracting firms to town could help ease the tax burden on residents.
Valvona said the city needs to reach out to residents before proposing any kind of tax increase. She said city officials need to ask residents what kind of projects or expanded services they would be willing to pay for before putting anything on the ballot.
"I'm not opposed to considering a tax increase as long as we can show how it will benefit people," she said.
Ebersole said he is not in favor of a tax increase if funding goes toward projects outlined in the Keep Powell Moving plan. He said he questions the efficacy of the plan.
Drummond said the city needs to clearly communicate its budgetary and infrastructure needs to the public before seeking any kind of additional funding.
Gardiner said he's not in favor of cutting services or raising taxes. He said the city needs to work at "pivoting away" from residential development to attract more businesses.
"We need to develop in a smart way to broaden our tax base," he said.
A recent $1.8 million settlement between the city and the developer of an apartment and retail complex has added fuel to an ongoing debate about housing in Powell.
CV Real Property sued the city in 2014 after Powell residents approved a charter amendment banning "high-density housing" in the city's Downtown Business District. The amendment also included a specific provision blocking the development of CV Property's planned 64-unit apartment and retail complex known as the Center at Powell Crossing.
The city in September settled with the developer after a federal judge invalidated the amendment.
Council's incumbents supported the decision to settle as a way to avoid further risk from the lawsuit.
Bertone said the settlement was a "very expensive civics lesson" for city residents.
"The residents certainly have a right to their opinion; however, the charter amendment went a bit too far in my view," he said.
Ebersole said council ignored the will of its residents by approving the project and by refusing to defend the charter amendment in court.
"Council has shown time and again they're not responsive to (public feedback)," he said.
Counts said he viewed the charter amendment as "indefensible," adding that he felt "vindicated" by the court's ruling.
Riggins said she believes council was forced into a bad position by the residents who approved the charter amendment. She said the judge's ruling was consistent with views expressed by the city officials before and after the vote.
"I cannot fault the city for anything that's happened," she said.
Gardiner said he's in favor of finding legal ways to limit "high-density housing," but viewed the settlement as a necessary step in this specific case.
"I think (council) did the right thing," he said. "It was time to make the deal and start the healing process."
Drummond said the city should consider adopting a scorecard for development projects to show the potential benefits and drawbacks of each project. She said the scorecard could clear up confusion about why council votes for or against a development.
Drummond said if she were elected, she would reach out to pro-amendment residents in the hope of establishing a productive dialogue.
"It's been very divisive ... " she said. "It's up to our public officials to find ways to build bridges."
Lorenz said he does not know whether council can have a positive relationship with the most-vocal backers of the charter amendment.
"We've tried to work with these antigrowth people, but they have such a one-sided agenda," he said.
The delayed opening of the Park at Seldom Seen has some candidates questioning the effectiveness of the current council members.
The city initially hoped to open athletic fields at the 23-acre park by mid-2018 -- a goal made unlikely by council's decision to reject all bids for initial work on the park last summer after they came in above estimates.
Ebersole said council "sold voters" on a 10-year, 1.8-mill bond levy in 2012 by promising a new park.
"People voted (for) that because they were expecting a new park, but what they got was no park," he said.
Counts said the first priority for levy funds always was the extension of Murphy Parkway, which workers completed last fall. He said city officials "absolutely" made the right choice by making the road improvement first before budgeting for the park.
"The No. 1 issue (in Powell) is traffic," he said.
Bertone said he agrees the road extension was "far and away" the more important project. Still, he said he wants council to conduct a "postmortem" review of the park's design process to see if city officials or its consultants made mistakes.
"I still think at the end of the day, it's going to be a great park," he said.
Gardiner said council erred by putting the park "so low on the priorities list."
"Five years later, we haven't seen anything -- not even one piece of soil moved," he said.
Valvona said if elected, she would make sure the park's completion is a high priority.
"I certainly would want to see that promise fulfilled for folks," she said.
Riggins said she thinks the current council is approaching the park project responsibly.
"I would much rather have the project slowed than commit funds that aren't there," she said.
Drummond said she thinks the park-development process is another area in which the city could benefit from creating a dialogue with its residents.
"I think there could be a lot more transparency about what the phases are and how they're going to fund it," she said.
Lorenz said the city is "on the right path" toward starting work on the park. He said residents have the right to feel disappointed it will not be open sooner.
"I'm disappointed," he said. "I would have liked to have this thing done and ready to go for next year, but we want to do it right."