Hilliard voters had a chance to hear first-hand answers from prospective city council candidates Oct. 21 in the only public forum of this election season.

City council candidates field public's questions

Hilliard voters had a chance to hear first-hand answers from prospective city council candidates Oct. 21 in the only public forum of this election season.

Organized by the Franklin County Consortium on Good Government, the forum included candidates for the Hilliard city council, Norwich Township board of trustees and the Hilliard City School District board of education. The forum was held at the Joint Safety Services Building, 5181 Northwest Parkway, on Oct. 21.

City council candidates Brett Sciotto, Kelly McGivern, Meagan Pandey and Stephanie Kunze fielded several questions during the forum, giving one-minute responses. Council candidate Jim Ashenhurst said he was out of town on business and could not attend the forum.

Voters will choose between the five candidates for four open seats on Nov. 3.

The candidates fielded questions pertaining to proposed city charter changes, city and school district cooperation, economic development, incentives offered to businesses considering Hilliard for relocation, and civic organizations such as the Hilliard Community Foundation.

Some of the candidates' answers differed when asked whether proposed charter changes that would grant the council the power of executive session is a good idea, along with changes that would remove term limits from some positions.

"When it comes to executive sessions, that is something you need to take a hard look at," Pandey said. "We don't want the public to feel like they are shut out of making decisions. I don't think executive sessions are a good idea."

Sciotto emphasized the years-long process of charter review that has been conducted before the changes were presented.

"That document, I think, is extremely sound," he said. "A lot of these changes have been needed for awhile. I have watched most of those meetings (of the charter review commission), and they contested for truth and what was best for the city."

McGivern also said she stood by the committee's decisions.

"Those changes came out of a committee of Hilliard residents who spent significant time and effort going through our charter and identifying those changes," she said. "I support those decisions and encourage every resident to take a look at them and consider them thoughtfully."

To encourage cooperation between the city and school district, Kunze said one way Hilliard can assist the school district is to work on its tax base.

"I think the best thing the city can do is to limit its residential growth - every door I knock on, residents are asking me what we're going to do about their taxes," she said. "I believe bringing commercial growth to the area is how we will alleviate that burden."

McGivern stressed the need for strong communication between the two bodies.

"I've reached out to many members of the school board, and I believe it takes those collaborative efforts," she said. "I believe a phone call before something becomes an issue can go a long way."

Sciotto also said strong communication is key to cooperation between the two groups.

"I think that collaboration is essential; we're tied at the hip in terms of our future," he said. "Hilliard United has really be breaking down barriers, and I think we've been making tremendous progress."

Pandey said city leaders have not worked hard enough on communicating with the school district.

"We can sit here and say we want to work with the district, but the fact is those lines haven't been open for some time," she said. "The solution is to open those lines."

Finances dominate school board candidate forum

When all was said and done following the Oct. 21 forum for Hilliard City Schools board candidates, the bottom line was the bottom line.

The seven candidates vying for three seats on the board of education agreed on key issues, such as maintaining the district's "Excellent" rating on the state report card, but finances and taxes dominated the discussion.

All candidates addressed the importance of closely scrutinizing school district expenditures during a down economy and making the most of the 6.9-mill levy approved by voters in 2008.

Challengers Justin Gardner, Paul Lambert and Don Roberts, who are promoting their campaigns as a team promoting change in the district, said they would work to limit pay raises for district teachers during future contract negotiations.

Gardner said 7-percent salary increases included in the current contract were the result of "irresponsible contract negotiations" by the school board.

Lambert, a retired vice president with CompuServe, mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the school board two years ago. He said his business experience would prove valuable as a board member.

"This isn't a club and it isn't a popularity contest," Lambert said. "Our school district is the most significant institution in our community, entrusted with the kids and hundreds of millions of our tax dollars. It needs to be covered by individuals who know how to operate at this level."

Roberts said his experience as an attorney would translate to his service as a school board member.

"As an attorney I have the skills of negotiation to effectively protect those dollars entrusted to the school board to spend wisely," he said.

The other two challengers, Terry Botsko and Christopher Courtney Jr., are both longtime Hilliard residents with children in the school system.

Botsko, a 20-year Hilliard resident, said she has been involved in the school district for eight years with the Hilliard Darby, Station and Heritage PTOs and served on both the redistricting and levy committee.

"I'm running for school board to continue my service to th community and to be a voice for the community," Botsko said.

Courtney, a 14-year Hilliard resident and a firefighter for the city of Worthington, was also a redistricting committee member.

Incumbent Andy Teater, an Ohio Department of Transportation employee with three children in the district, said the current board has taken the issue of financial accountability seriously.

"Over the last four years, we have implemented $7.5-million in staff reductions and budget cuts," Teater said. "We have cut 100 staff positions, including teachers, administrators and support personnel. We have had 5-percent cuts in all departments and all building budgets."

Incumbent Lisa Whiting was appointed to the school board in September 2007. She said she takes her role as a board member seriously.

"Our decisions affect the lives of students and their families, the livelihood of district employee and the economic well being of our community" she said. Whiting said her top three priorities are to promote financial responsibility, to ensure that the district's policies and procedures continue to meet the needs of students, staff and the community and to strive to have excellent communication with all of her constituents.

Trustee candidates discuss challenges, opportunities

The three candidates for two Norwich Township board of trustees seats sat down in a public forum Oct. 21 to field voters' questions.

Incumbents Chuck Buck and Larry Earman and challenger Fred Berkemer answered questions dealing with the township's biggest challenges, what strengths they bring to office, a trustee's role in the promotion of fire officer candidates, and their opinions on collaboration between the township and Hilliard.

Voters will choose between the three candidates for two open seats on Nov. 3.

There were no fireworks during the 30-minute discussion as the candidates continued what has been a non-confrontational campaign.

Berkemer began the forum with friendly comments toward the incumbents, saying he is running for office to give voters' more than two choices for two seats.

"I think they're (Buck and Earman) good people, but I think it's important for voters to have a choice in who goes into office," he said. "I think I can offer a little different perspective."

When asked what the biggest challenge facing the township is, all three candidates pointed toward funding.

"Funding is always a challenge for us, to get the dollars that we need," Buck said. "I think the way to manage that is to be judicious with the dollars we spend, and to make sure they go as far as possible."

"By 2017 we won't receive any money from personal property taxes," Earman said, remarking on the elimination of tangible personal property taxes at the state level. "That is the biggest challenge we'll face, financing and funding. If I was a council member I'd be granting TIFs (tax incentive financing agreements) but as a trustee I hate them - they take money away from the township. We don't have the money from expanded commercial development."

I think obviously all governments are going through this right now, how to maintain services they already provide without putting additional burdens on residents," Berkemer said. "We need to get creative and take a hard look at how we do that."

When asked what their strengths are, Berkemer said being a resident of the unincorporated portion of Norwich Township offers him a different perspective.

"I think it's important for people who don't live in (Hilliard) to have some input," he said. "I think I work well with about everyone I've had to deal with - that ability to get along and work with people would be one of my strengths."

Earman pointed to his 40 years' experience as a practicing accountant.

"I've worked with others to analyze and find the most service possible for the dollars we have," he said. "We've gone 11 years without increasing (the property tax levy for fire services), and I don't know how much longer we can continue that, but for the next few years I think we can."

Buck said operating his own business for decades has given him perspective on running a township.

"I've had to make my payroll every two weeks, and I've lived in this community my whole life, except for when I was in the Air Force," he said. "I try to represent everyone that lives in our community, including those in the unincorporated part of the township."