Gladstone candidates talk issues at forum
ESCANABA — Candidates vying for three seats on the Gladstone City Commission were in Escanaba Tuesday, trying to differentiate themselves from their opponents during a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
A total of nine candidates are seeking election or reelection to the seats, however, not all of the candidates were present Tuesday. In attendance were challengers Brian Godfrey, Diane Godfrey and Steve Viau, as well as currently seated commissioner Robert Pontius — who is seeking election to the commission for the first time following his appointment last May — and Mayor Joe Thompson. Absent from the forum were challengers Jeff Diebolt, Jason Leonard, Mike O’Connor, and current Commissioner Greg Styczynski.
Following brief introductions, the candidates present Tuesday were asked a series of questions submitted by the audience. While in many cases, the candidates agreed on fundamental issues, some questions raised highlighted the extreme differences between the candidates. The most varied opinions from the candidates were over whether or not the city should pursue entering into combined service agreements with the city of Escanaba for things like water and wastewater treatment or police and fire protection.
“If we have to wait for police or fire to come from Escanaba or Escanaba Township and not have that rapid response that we have right now, I think it’d be very detrimental to Gladstone. We’d also lose our identity as the city of Gladstone,” said Thompson, who noted the city had looked at the issue before.
Brian Godfrey agreed, briefly recalling his experiences growing up in Gladstone and the rivalry between the Braves and Eskymos to highlight the differences between the two communities.
“I feel like we could lose our identity, and I would not want to become a suburb of Escanaba. Now, not that there’s anything wrong with Escanaba, but because I am so wrapped up in Gladstone, I bleed purple and white, I would really make sure that it would be beneficial before following through with it,” he said.
Pontius held a moderate position, which, similar to Thompson’s, was open to exploring the possibility of some services, but taking a firm stance against any consolidation of public safety services.
“I’d be interested in looking at whether or not there’d be demonstrated efficiencies in combining wastewater, electric, that kind of thing, but I’ve also heard of some situations where municipalities have done just what we’re talking about, ended up having a big boondoggle, and backing out of it at great expense, and it was a huge waste of money. Where I draw the line though is on public safety,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum was Viau, who has served on the commission previously and said he had attended sessions put on by the Michigan Municipal League about the success of combined authorities and services.
“It would enhance everything in Gladstone. We wouldn’t lose our identity. They’ve done it downstate,” he said, adding he was for anything that provided better services at a lower cost.
Diane Godfrey was unsure of her position on the issue.
“I would like to really study it out before I give my answer, and anything that is going to save money or cost money, I want to know the ins and outs of it. I don’t want to just give a quick answer,” she said.
Diane Godfrey’s feelings on the city’s plan to become a majority stakeholder in the North Shore property — which the city has been trying to develop for years — for around $775,000 rather than applying city funds to offset special assessments for street projects were more defined.
“Would you like it if I took your checkbook and went out shopping and give you no say in what is being purchased? Well, I feel like the residents of Gladstone is like that, and I’m one of those residents. And I feel like we have put too much in too many projects that’s gone downhill because they haven’t been fully checked out,” she said, repeatedly noting throughout the forum that the city’s budget needed review.
When asked what the primary duty of the commission was, Pontius said, in addition to commissioners’ regular business duties, it was their job to direct the city in a way similar to how boards of directors lead businesses.
“To push. That’s part of our job, not just rubber stamp what the city staff is coming up with. We have an excellent city staff, but we’re not to rubber stamp, we’re to lead,” he said.
Brian Godfrey saw the role of commissioners differently. In his mind, communicating openly with citizens was a top priority.
“I’ve never sat on the seat so I don’t know all the jobs and duties, but the one thing that stands out for me is not being so much a country club, and what I mean by that is when citizens actually come just tell them what they want to hear and then just do the opposite anyway,” he said.
Not all of the candidates had strong opinions about which city policies — if any — needed review or adjustment. However, Viau expressed he felt the city’s policies shouldn’t need to be enforced based on complaints if the policies were good; rather, they should be enforced universally. He also said the policies should be inline with residents’ views.
“Policies are the lifeblood of the citizens,” he said. “I think a lot of policies need to be looked at and when they are looked at just get them up to date for the citizen’s point of view. Don’t make policies just to make a policy. Don’t take our freedoms away. Don’t take our liberties away, and that’s what I see happening anytime somebody complains about something.”
Largely due to candidate O’Connor, who was absent Tuesday but has been a vocal opponent of the city’s downtown development authority for years, audience members questioned the candidates’ support of the DDA. While all supported the authority to some degree, the authority’s biggest supporter was arguably Thompson.
“They are absolutely essential to modernizing our streets. I mean, if the DDA hadn’t contributed what they did to 9th Street, the special assessments would have been astronomical and they bring the power to be able to get that kind of stuff done to Gladstone. So, we could never function without the DDA,” he said.