Mayoral Forum offers insight into how candidates would govern Lincoln

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[February 25, 2017]  On Wednesday night, the auditorium at Lincoln College’s Johnston Center for Performing Arts filled with residents of Lincoln and supporters of particular candidates running for the office of Lincoln Mayor in the February 28th, Republican Primary.

The night was tagged as a forum with each of the four candidates, Kevin Bateman, Seth Goodman, Marty Neitzel, and Wanda Lee Rohlfs given equal opportunity to provide answers to questions presented by moderators Cathy Wilhite, Director of the Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce and Tom McLaughlin, Director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College.

The questions presented to the candidates had been compiled by a committee consisting of members of the local media organizations, after receiving submissions from the public. The public was asked to email questions in advance of the forum to the Chamber. Those questions were reviewed by the committee, then presented to the moderators in advance. The candidates did not know in advance what the questions were to be. Also, questions were accepted during the forum and added to the evening agenda as time allowed.

At the beginning of the program, Lincoln College President David Gerlach welcomed guests. He spent a few moments talking about Lincoln College and its bond with the city. He noted the economic impact of the college on the community and spoke about the college’s ongoing work to return to a four-year University as it had been when founded.

Gerlach shared that the college is expected to double its enrollment over the next few years as the four-year programs grow. He also announced the college had just been approved to implement four new four-year baccalaureate degrees next year, which will be added the eight baccalaureate degrees already established and available.

The forum, Gerlach explained, was also being aired live and recorded for future use by the college's newly established LCTV with the work being done by students working in one of the new baccalaureate programs. The nearly two-hour event was aired via Comcast Cable Channel 5, live-streamed on Facebook, and a YouTube video was also posted on the internet.

When Gerlach finished, Wilhite thanked everyone for coming. The candidates were then allowed an opportunity to speak about themselves and their choice to run for mayor of the city of Lincoln before formal questions began.

During the question and answer session, each candidate was allotted up to two minutes to answer. Throughout the evening, the candidates did well containing their answers within the time allotted.

The first question of the evening addressed what each candidate considered to be his or her leadership style.

Each of the four related their leadership style to their professional careers, speaking about what they have accomplished in their careers and how they had been or are currently leaders in those roles.

During those comments:

Marty Neitzel

- Neitzel said that she would lead by making sure she had the right people in the right place to assist in running the city.

- Rohlfs noted her keyword would be “collaborative” and discussed being open with the people, gaining their respect, and showing them respect.

- Goodman said his style of leadership would include involving others in the process.

- Bateman noted his history as a leader of large groups as well as his successful involvement with the county board. He said his primary goal would be to “make things work with less dollars.”

Asked what the most pressing needs of the city would be:

Wanda Lee Rohlfs

- Rohlfs said the city needed to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability.” She noted the projects and mandates that are ongoing. She emphasized that mandated projects coming up, are just that, work that must be done according to other agencies and the state, and said the city would have to pay those bills, there was no choice in the matter. She concluded that she would look at making sure the city was operating within its means.

- Goodman agreed the city needed to operate within its means, and also commented on the need to bring property tax relief to Lincoln residents.

- Bateman said the most pressing need was for strong leadership. He noted that the City Administrator position is stronger than it needs to be and that there needs to be a strong mayor as well as a strong city council.

- Neitzel, somewhat in response to Bateman’s comments, said that the public needs to remember that the mayoral position is a part-time position. There is a need for good staff and department heads to assist in running the city. She concluded that a strong leader would know what to assign to whom.

The candidates were asked to share their thoughts on the mandated upgrades to the city’s sewerage system.

All four agreed that paying for that mandate was going to be a large burden on the city.

Seth Goodman

- Goodman said that it would be a priority for him as mayor.

- Bateman said he would look to apply for grants to assist in the payment as also low-interest loans through the state.

- Neitzel took a few moments to explain the mandate. She noted that there were no grants available that would pay the entire thing so the city would also have to secure loans.

- Rohlfs said that it was a mandate, so there was no choice. She said there would be more information coming in July that would give the city a better idea of what they were going to have to do.

 In answer to a question about the repair and maintenance of streets, Bateman said he would work toward quality, not quantity. He spoke about investing in equipment to make a better road surface before treatment, saying the city could lease, purchase, or contract equipment that would grind up the existing surface and recycle it back onto the street making it smooth, flat, and with proper drainage.

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Neitzel agreed that quality was better than quantity, and talked about the equipment the city had leased this year that produced a better, more durable repair to potholes and other damage to streets. She also mentioned a new software the city is looking at that would assist in making decisions about road resurfacing projects in the future.

Rohlfs said that the street issues are much more complicated than one would imagine and that it will take millions of dollars to get city streets in good repair. She said what was needed now was a good channel of communication between the city and the citizens to help Lincoln residents understand what is being done. She also suggested a special fund for streets, accompanied possibly by a tax referendum.

Goodman agreed it would take time to get the streets all repaired, and said transparency would be key.

Fielding questions about the police and firefighter pensions:

Kevin Bateman

- Bateman and Rohlfs both suggested that the current 30 percent being taken from the city’s utility tax was not sufficient. The both suggested that percentage be raised to 40 percent.

- Neitzel said that the budget for the city has for the last few years included funding the pension fund as required by the state. She talked about new accounting and actuarial requirements that were probably going to force the city to increase the annual funding. She ended saying in the budgeting process; the city would find the money needed to meet the requirements.

In answering a question about the fiscal health of the city:

- Rohlfs noted a jump in the annual budget from $13 million to $26 million and said she wondered what the city had taken on. She said the city needs to consider whether or not it needs to take on any new projects in the immediate future. She also mentioned the TIF funding and said that in the future the payment of the TIF bond might become a city obligation.

- Goodman said the city should finish what it has started, keeping its focus just on those projects for the time. He said again that transparency is needed between the city and public and that he will study carefully each line of the budget.

- Bateman agreed that transparency is key. He said that unexpected things do happen and the city has to handle those as they come up. He added that he too will study each line of the budget and will make cuts.

- Neitzel responded somewhat to comments from Rohlfs explaining that some of the items in the elevated budget were items such as the new street department facility and the Lincoln Depot project, which both projects will be reimbursed and that the portion of the budget that the city is responsible for funding is much less than the $26 million.

In answering a question about the challenges of economic development within the city, all four candidates agreed that the city needs to work to spur growth.

- Goodman said the city needs new businesses and new jobs so that it will not be just a bedroom community.

- Bateman agreed, adding that Lincoln doesn’t want to be a bedroom community. There is a need for new businesses and with the city’s location and access to highway and rail transportation that can be done. He said the city should work to bring in new small businesses but also manufacturing.

- Neitzel talked about the work of Retail Strategies and the business that has come to town because of that firm seeking those businesses out on behalf of the city. She added that the key is to “get the town in shape, so they will come to us.”

- Rohlfs said the people need to remember the condition of the state, and that what is going on at a state level has a trickle down impact on individual municipalities. She said Lincoln was a great location for high-tech businesses. She also suggested a movement away from higher education and toward more technical education. She said that when young people go off to college, they don’t come back, so part of the solution would be to prepare them for the workforce at the high school level, so they have employment opportunities after high school and don’t have to leave home for college.

The four candidates continued efficiently fielding questions throughout the evening.

They spoke on how they would improve the quality of life in Lincoln, manage their time between their careers or personal time and their mayoral duties, and how they would avoid conflicts of interest in the office of Mayor. They answered questions on how they would improve communications between city government and the public.

Near the end of the night, the candidates were asked if they would make any changes to the organizational structure of city government.

- Bateman said that at first, no, he would not change anything. But he commented that he feels the position of City Administrator has ‘gone awry,” and he would review that job description.  He did not say he would do away with the position.

- Neitzel expounded on the need for strong, qualified employees in the city and said again that the public needs to remember the mayor is a part-time person. She said a mayor cannot be part-time and handle everything that needs to be done, so people like the city administrator are key to managing the city.

- Rohlfs said she would make changes and would undo some of the changes that had been made by the first city administrator. Specifically, she would bring back council committees, and she would revamp the consent agenda. She would also require greater detail in the meeting minutes, saying that as they are recorded now, they are too vague and don’t fully define what is said in the weekly meetings.

- Goodman said he would make no changes at this time. He added that he felt the city administrator position was of value to the city.

The night ended with each of the candidates being afforded a few minutes to recap their political position and state why they feel they are the best candidate for the mayoral position.

The complete forum may be viewed via YouTube by following this link: 
The video is one-hour and 48 minutes.

[Nila Smith]

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