The elected office of Hilliard City Council is arguably more significant than ever before now that Hilliard's first city manager, Michelle Crandall, is set to begin her term Jan. 2 under a three-year contract.

CORRECTION: Hilliard City Council candidate Deryck Richardson II is 38 years old, and his wife is Desiree. The print and earlier online version of this story gave his incorrect age and his wife's incorrect name.

The elected office of Hilliard City Council is arguably more significant than ever before now that Hilliard's first city manager, Michelle Crandall, is set to begin her term Jan. 2 under a three-year contract.

The city manager is tasked with overseeing department directors and the daily operations of the city yet is appointed by City Council in a relationship similar to that of school superintendent and board of education.

Two Republican incumbents, one Republican challenger and three Democrat challengers are vying on the Nov. 5 ballot for three open council seats.

Incumbent Republicans Pete Marsh and Omar Tarazi were appointed to council in 2018 and 2019, respectively, succeeding Joe Erb and Albert Iosue; another Republican, Nathan Painter, is not seeking reelection.

The Republican challenger in November is Bob Stepp. The three Democrat challengers are Tina Cottone, Deryck Richardson II and Cynthia Vermillion.

Marsh, 39, owns Blue Oak Patio & Landscape and lives on Goldenrod Street with his wife, Beverly, and their three children. He earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame and a master's degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State University.

Stepp, 63, is retired and lives on Huntwicke Drive with his wife, Cathy. They have one daughter. He is a graduate of the former Columbus North High School -- now called Columbus International High School -- and attended Ohio State.

Tarazi, 40, is a lawyer and lives on Sandbrook Lane with his wife, Heather O'Bannon, two children and three stepchildren.

Cottone, 66, is retired and lives on Dublin Road with her husband, Rick. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Ohio State.

Richardson, 38, owns Richardson Marketing Group and lives on Drayton Road with his wife, Desiree, and four children. He has a business degree from Ohio Dominican University.

Vermillion, 59, is a residential real-estate agent for Coldwell Banker King Thompson and lives on Tallowtree Drive with her husband, Sam. They have four children ages 17 to 25. She earned a bachelor's degree in telecommunications and film from San Diego State University.

ThisWeek Hilliard Northwest News posed three questions related to municipal issues and policies to each candidate.

After the conviction for theft in office by former recreation and parks deputy director Heather Ernst in 2018, is Hilliard doing enough to monitor and/or protect its finances?

Cottone: Heather Ernst, former recreation and parks deputy director, was accused in early 2018 of embezzling approximately $540,000 from two city pools over a four-year span (May 2013-November 2017). She deposited around $270,000 cash into her checking account, the rest of the amount stolen is an estimate.

On Oct. 3, 2018, she pleaded guilty to one count of theft in office and a reduced charge of attempted tampering with records and is currently serving one year in prison January-December 2019. Ernst paid $271,898 in restitution. Too much trust was placed on this long-term employee with a good standing in the community.

Schneider Downs, an outside accounting firm, was hired for the review of these processes and submitted their review of business and accounting practices in September 2018. The city has indicated they have implemented the recommended financial and security controls in all of Hilliard's departments. However, there has been no transparency on when and how these were implemented. I think it would be beneficial for the community of Hilliard to know where and when these changes were made and if any additional reviews have taken place.

The city is also moving forward with a civil trial to which $315,000 has been committed and I'm wondering how much money we will end up spending and will it eventually be more than was stolen. Once elected to City Council, I will ask for regularly scheduled and timely updates on new processes for safeguarding city funds.

Marsh: The lack of adequate checks and balances allowed Heather Ernst to carry out her brazen scheme to steal city funds over the course of many years. A subsequent audit, which I pushed for as a member of City Council, and a deeper forensic audit revealed additional potential points of weakness. Weaknesses were identified across many departments and recommendations were made by a professional auditing firm, Schneider Downs. Those recommendations are currently in various stages of application. There is no question, though, that more still needs to be done. In addition to following the recommendations laid out by Schneider Downs, all policies need to be reviewed and strengthened, not only this year but every year, especially those that pertain to finances and cyber security.

I believe that it would also be beneficial to have periodic "war games" to simulate attempted breaches of our financial procedures to ensure they are robust. I believe that our new city manager, Michelle Crandall, will also have the opportunity to place a fresh set of eyes on the policies and procedures to make sure that they are watertight, and I look forward to working with her to implement needed reforms. When it comes to handling taxpayer funds, we must do everything possible to demonstrate to the community that their hard-earned dollars are being protected and managed wisely.

Richardson: We recently learned that the city is suing the firm (Dayton-based Clark Schaefer Hackett) responsible for the financial audits. In my opinion, this is behavior conducive with passing blame rather than owning responsibility. If we want to start making positive changes that will protect our finances, we need to look at policies and procedures, not place blame. Some of this may be happening, but it's not being made public at this moment. To directly answer the question, from what I know, there is not enough being done. True transparency may include a section on the city's website that gives continuous updates to the residents.

Stepp: If elected, a central focus of mine will be ensuring city government operates transparently and accountabilily to the taxpayer. I'm optimistic that our city manager taking over day-to-day management of City Hall will bring a new level of professionalism to the job and move the city in the right direction. By working with other members of council and the city manager, I will make sure the city handles every taxpayer dollar with care.

Tarazi: Some internal reforms have been put in place and others have yet to be implemented by the current administration. Council has worked hard to hold people accountable and bring reforms to the city, but there are limits to what council can do until we complete the transition to the city manager form of government at the end of this year. Aside from the theft, in my opinion, Hilliard has lost a lot of money over the years due to mismanagement as well. By working together with the new city manager, Michelle Crandall, we will be able to complete the reforms the city needs to make sure taxpayers get the best value for their money.

Vermillion: Unfortunately, it is very unclear to the residents of Hilliard whether the city has implemented the necessary safeguards to monitor and protect the city's finances.

In my research, I found that City Council was told about the investigation into Heather Ernst's possible criminal activity in October 2017. An immediate internal review of the systems and controls of the Recreation and Parks Department should have been initiated. In fact, the city took eight months to hire an auditing company, Schneider Downs (SD), for $48,000 to determine the deficiencies in how the department was handling incoming receipts for its programs.

The SD report of the business and accounting practices of the city of Hilliard was given to the law director in late September 2018. Interestingly, I could not find a copy of the report on the city's website. I obtained a copy through other means.

I have searched and cannot find any references regarding any changes or measures being implemented in the various departments as a result of the report's recommendations. The SD report states the city has "no knowledge of the total proceeds from concession sales" and no way to know if the "payments received from the third-party provider are accurate." In addition, third-party vendors handle most registration fees for the department with no way for the city "to review registration lists." According to this report, the city cannot verify what amounts are owed to the city. These problems are in addition to the lack of controls regarding the handling of cash payments that led to the theft of over half a million dollars.

In my opinion, the city should not have needed an outside firm to tell them major problems existed at Recreation and Parks. City leaders should have been more vigilant and been aware of current practices. In fact, one of our current City Council member's biography states he was on the Hilliard Schools Audit and Accountability Committee. I would think he could have had positive input into guiding this process.

In addition, we just learned the city is suing the accounting firm that did audits for the city during the last 10 years. According to ThisWeek News, "the suit alleges that during the 10 years of audits of city finances and practices, the firm of Clark Schaefer Hackett failed to identify material weaknesses in the city's cash-handling policies that could have prevented the theft ..." The city will be spending more money on another lawsuit in addition to the civil lawsuit against Heather Ernst, where Hilliard may never recover any of the additional money that was stolen.

When elected, I will recommend and work with the city manager to ensure we have systematic reviews of all city departments' operations and processes, with an emphasis on ensuring adequate financial safeguards.

Hilliard just hired a city manager after outsourcing much of the hiring process to Novak Consulting Group, culminating in a public-records request by ThisWeek to learn who had applied for this new public position. Do you believe the city was transparent enough during this process?

Cottone: No, I do not believe this process was as transparent as it could have been. The city did ask for resident input on "what qualities the city manager should possess" via an online survey. I can find no transparency into the process beyond that. Updates on the process of identifying candidates, given in City Council meetings, were limited to, "we're working on it."

I did appreciate the opportunity to meet and talk with the three finalists and submit my assessment of the candidates.

Once elected, I will promote extensive community involvement and transparency through the use of neighborhood planning groups.

Marsh: City Council was very transparent and committed to gathering the input of the public. As a member of the subcommittee that was formed for purposes of hiring the city manager, I can unequivocally state that at every step of the process, City Council pushed for additional public participation in the process. A community survey was created and the responses of hundreds of residents were compiled and read by each member of City Council. A series of workshops was held at the insistence of City Council at which invited individuals from local organizations and a cross-section of community professionals were brought in to discuss their thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses in Hilliard and their opinions on the traits that we should be looking for in a new city manager. Not one single member of City Council would have had any qualm about conducting a search completely in public, however, the privacy of the applicants was a very important consideration, just as it would be for any individual seeking a new job. To ensure the best applicants felt comfortable applying, discussions were held in executive session, where no decisions or votes were made.

As the list of candidates was narrowed, council was forthright and transparent in furnishing information to ThisWeek. At the insistence of City Council, Novak set up a public "meet and greet" event for our three finalists. The event was very well attended and every comment sheet that was filled out was provided to City Council members and read prior to deliberations so that those comments could be taken into account. I am proud of the work my colleagues and I put into the search, and based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from the public, I am confident that the community shares my enthusiasm for the future.

Richardson: ThisWeek published an article saying the city of Hilliard was breaking the law with delaying the release of details requested under the Freedom of Information Act. It is these sort of practices that must change to move this city forward and to gain more trust from our residents. I am happy with the selection that council made for our city manager. I had an opportunity to meet Michelle Crandall and I've done a bit of research. Though the information was delayed and it seems there were some transparency issues, I do feel that Hilliard has picked an excellent city manager.

Stepp: I believe City Council was very transparent. There was an update and discussion at every meeting during the review process. The public was invited to meet the candidates when the field was narrowed. I'm excited to see what the future holds for Hilliard with our new city manager at the helm, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of council to operate city government openly and transparently.

Tarazi: The city was very transparent in the process and hired an excellent recruiting agency with a strong track record to help with the process. The advertisements for the position were all public. The recruiting agency filtered the top candidates based on their experience and feedback from council and staff members. The top candidates' credentials were announced and there was a public forum to meet them and get public feedback before a final decision was made. I think we got to pick from fantastic candidates and I am very happy with our choice of Michelle Crandall for Hilliard's first city manager.

Vermillion: I do not think City Council members were transparent during most of the hiring process. I have attended almost all council meetings since the November 2018 vote that decided our city would become a city manager form of government. During that time, the only updates we as residents received from the council member in charge of the hiring process was that the process was continuing. No specifics were provided during council meetings. Early on, the city did post an electronic questionnaire for residents to write what qualities they would like in a city manager. I don't feel most residents were even aware of this questionnaire. The city needs to be much more proactive in reaching out to residents and communicate what the results are of any surveys they undertake. Additionally, we have no idea how many people even applied for the position. We do not know the process used to determine how the final candidates were selected and what qualifications were sought. Residents were provided an opportunity to speak with the three finalists for the position and to give feedback in writing on the three candidates during a 90-minute not-well-publicized meeting. Better communication at all levels is needed in order to make our city government much more transparent.

Is Hilliard effectively balancing development with appropriate amounts and types of traffic infrastructure?

Cottone: One of my main points of focus for Hilliard is planned development. Given the growth we've seen in the last 10 years and the projected growth of central Ohio of 1,000,000 additional residents by 2050, we should expect to see continued growth in Hilliard.

Now is the time for the city of Hilliard to begin a thorough review and revision of the current decade-old city plan. We need to plan for residential and commercial growth and infrastructure updates that support that growth.

It is also in our best interest to look at innovative public transportation options so that our roads are not overburdened with car traffic. We can utilize increased bus services for transport around central Ohio, shuttles for transport around Hilliard and park-and-ride areas associated with each.

When I'm elected, I plan to work with City Council and the city manager to ensure our development plan is updated and managed.

Marsh: The short answer is no. Hilliard has not adequately balanced our types of development and our infrastructure needs and that is a primary reason for why I am running to remain on City Council. Our infrastructure needs have grown dramatically with the increase in residential development. Most obviously, this includes our roads that are not adequate to support the traffic demands placed on them. It also includes storm water and sewer issues and increased demand for recreation and sports facilities. Additionally, we have great needs in some older neighborhoods that have not seen the level of investment present in many newer areas of the city. In order to fund our backlog of capital improvement projects, we need to attract more commercial businesses and jobs. We must improve our image as a business-friendly community and make city government more responsive to employers who will grow in Hilliard. As an entrepreneur myself, I will lead the effort to balance Hilliard's development and infrastructure needs and ensure the city grows in a way that preserves our sense of community while positioning us for the future.

Richardson: Development is such a touchy subject in Hilliard. When knocking doors, and even while walking in the parade, you hear the same theme, "No More Apartments!"

Some of this comes from inadequate education of how apartments can benefit the city, if done properly. Luxury apartments are great for attracting young business professionals, but if they don't work in Hilliard, how much money is really coming back to our city? A young business professional with no children who works outside of Hilliard is probably shopping outside of Hilliard, stopping for happy hour outside of Hilliard, filling up their gas tank outside of Hilliard.

In my opinion, we could have used more family-friendly apartments. This way, the dollars that are generated from these families are more likely to stay in Hilliard -- school supplies, grocery shopping, fundraisers, etc.

One major misconception is that apartment dwellers do not pay property taxes. This is not true at all. The rent includes costs associated with maintaining the property, including property tax. I've had more than one conversation with a resident that did not understand this concept. Once these residents realized that there are property-tax dollars coming in from apartments, their attitudes shifted.

Planned development and growth moving forward must include the right type of commercial businesses, types that don't rely on tax breaks and keep some of our residents working in Hilliard.

Stepp: No, and that was the main reason why I decided to run for council. Just like many Hilliard residents, I am concerned by the worsening traffic congestion. Our commuters and children depend on safe roads and our local businesses depend on good infrastructure. I will work with city government, as well as our partners in state government, to ensure Hilliard remains a safe place to raise a family and a desirable place to build a business.

Tarazi: Hilliard does not have a good balance at this time, which is why the public overwhelmingly voted for a city manager form of government to get professional leadership in these areas. This is also why we are not in favor of additional poorly planned high-density apartment projects. I am looking forward to working with Michelle Crandall to rebalance the development in Hilliard to continue the change we want for Hilliard to keep it a great place to live.

Vermillion: Hilliard is operating under a 10-year-old master plan that has not been regularly updated by the city. So I think the better question might be, does Hilliard have a workable development plan for the next 10-20 years? I would argue no.

Actual development projects in Hilliard are often at odds with the city's goals of more evenly developing the tax base by attracting more businesses. Compounding this is the issue of sewer and water availability for sections of our city that have yet to be developed. We need city leaders who can have productive conversations with the leadership of Columbus in order to ensure we have the necessary sewer infrastructure needed for growth.

Over the last 10 years, we've seen a huge growth in the individual tax base (residents) while commercial tax growth (affected by abatements) has lagged. In Hilliard, approximately 85% of our taxes come from residents. We need to increase the share that businesses pay by increasing our commercial tax base.

I believe the city has worked to expand our roads in Hilliard to allow for better traffic flows. But there is still work to be done as we plan for the increase in population expected over the next 30 or so years.

I want to include the residents of Hilliard in planning for the future development of Hilliard. We have almost 40,000 residents. These residents have wonderfully diverse backgrounds that I will seek to tap into for fresh perspectives and expertise in areas that will add to our planning process. I've knocked on hundreds of doors. Hilliard has intelligent and talented residents. Let's use that knowledge.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo