Candidates vying in two contested city races in Marion, answered a range of questions during a candidate forum March 12 at the Marion Senior Center.
Three candidates, Dick Varenhorst, Jerry Kline and Chris Meierhoff, are seeking two open seats on the council, while Councilor Steve Smith is challenging incumbent Mary Olson in the mayor?s race.
Both Stacey Collett and Gene Winkler, current council members, decided not to seek re-election, opening the door for new faces on the council.
During the 90-minute forum, about 40 people listened to what the candidates had to say as moderator Greg Bowers asked the questions.
Following a special city council meeting Friday alleging Olson violated a state statute, she decided on the advice of her attorney not to attend the candidate forum, but asked that a letter be read explaining her absence.
QUESTION: What is the role of the mayor and city council members?
Meierhoff said the mayor and council members should be good leaders, but the mayor is out in front and should be professional in how they act.
Smith said he sees the role of mayor as someone who is a good representative.
?The mayor has to listen to both sides and have leadership qualities and be a representative of that city,? Smith said.
Varenhorst said the mayor is point guard for the council. The council is there to advise, but all must come together.
Kline agreed with what everyone else said, adding the mayor has only one vote, but also takes a lot ?of heat.?
Question: Should every problem and criticism be brought before the council?
Smith said a lot of issues can come up that may not pertain to the day-to-day operations. But, he said, he believes there is a fine line on what should or shouldn?t be discussed and that it is the mayor?s responsibility to step in and make those decisions.
Varenhorst, a military veteran, said he believes in a chain of command. If there are problems that cannot be taken care of by the city administrator, roads department or another staff member, Varenhorst said, then he thinks the council should be made aware of it.
Kline said he thinks that if someone asks about something, it should be brought before the council. He agreed there are different ways to handle criticisms or problems, but overall he said the council should be aware of it.
Meierhoff said that if someone has a problem, the public forum is a good way to express those concerns. Then, if the council agrees, the issue can be further discussed.
?If a citizen does not get satisfaction (from staff),? he said, ?then it should be brought before the council.?
One concern he said he has is that in the three to four months he has attended council meetings, he doesn?t see a lot of people in the audience.
QUESTION: What is the role of city administrator?
Kline said the city administrator?s No. 1 job is budget and day-to-day activities and issues.
Varenhorst said the city administrator is hired to oversee department heads and run the city.
?He is there at the request of the council, and he administers the day-to-day problems of the city and reports to the council,? he said.
Meierhoff agreed with Kline, saying the administrator runs day-to-day activities and gives good information to the council for basing decisions.
As an example, Meierhoff cited how Mayfield supplied information about Kansas Power Pool and Westar Energy so the council could make an informed decision.
Smith said he thinks the city administrator works behind the scenes.
?He makes sure everything happens the way it is supposed to happen,? he said. ?He has a big responsibility he has to shoulder for the city of Marion.?
QUESTION: Are you pleased with the current accomplishments of the city council; what would you do differently?
Kline said he didn?t come with an agenda; he can?t say he?s happy nor unhappy.
?I think they are doing a good job,? he said. ?Not sure if I can accomplish this, but I would like to see (the council) get along better.?
Meierhoff said he also is pleased with the accomplishments thus far. When two council members decided not to run again, Meierhoff said someone had to step forward and be part of the solution.
?Five people are not always going to agree,? he said.
As for doing things differently, Meierhoff said he wants to see the council working together better.
Smith said the question struck a chord.
?I would like to see us work together as a team,? he said.
In addition, he said the council needs to work with the five-year plan the planning and zoning committee produced.
?The young people in a community make a difference,? he said. ?We have to get the community more involved for big change.?
Varenhorst said he is pleased with the accomplishments of the council, but the council needs to work more as a unit.
?Infighting and bickering is not helping,? he said.
He suggested council meetings could be streamlined, citing a recent meeting as an example.
?The chief of police (Josh Whitwell) was asking for an administrative assistant and somehow the council got off on dogs running loose,? he said.
He also believes Marion should be more ?user friendly? when it comes to helping new businesses coming to town.
question: Does the current city commission take too long, the right amount of time or not enough time in making decisions?
Meierhoff said it takes too long.
Smith said it depends on the issue.
Varenhorst said the majority of items presented take too long; Kline also said it depends on the issue.
question: Should the council be able to overturn previous decisions?
Smith said yes: ?There are times we need to step back (as a council).?
Varenhorst agreed: ?Yes, we need to be able to rescind or amend a decision if an injustice was done or something needs to be corrected.?
Kline said the council should rescind decisions.?Yes, it?s that simple.?
Meierhoff concurred: ?Yes, we should be able to rescind a decision.?
One example of when not to rescind a decision, he said, was the South Cedar sidewalk issue in conjunction with Safe Routes for Schools.
?The council already had a plan with certain areas deemed as No. 1 (priority) and 2,? he said. ?South Cedar was one of the last two blocks on the plan.?
Based on the budget, those last two areas were probably not going to be included.
Yet, Meierhoff said, it took two meetings to review a decision already made that was then rescinded.
QUESTION: Hypothetical situation: You know what ought to be done, but there is no current city ordinance or statute covering it.
Varenhorst said he would not make a decision by himself.
?What I may think is justified may not be what the rest of the council thinks is justified,? he said.
Kline said he would make sure whatever the council did was by the law.
?Then, if there is leeway (to negotiate the issue), I would get it back on the table and get it worked out,? he said.
Meierhoff said it first has to be legal.
?If it?s something that is wrong and needs to be right, then the council should make it right,? he said.
Smith said he would first look at policies and procedures regarding the issue.
?It must go in front of the city administrator and if it is illegal, we must have city attorney, city administrator and council in a special meeting,? he said.
?(The situation) would be no different than any other day-to-day operation and not something one person should address.?
QUESTION: What is the worst thing the city council has done in the past two years?
?I don?t know if it?s the worst thing,? Kline said, ?but I think not working together as a council is the worst thing.?
Smith said, ?I think we are going to have to make some adjustments in the next four years. We are looking at some very serious issues, but yes, the worst thing has been making the paper every week.?
Varenhorst said he believes the worst thing the council has done is to not get along.
?When the council isn?t getting along, it holds things back and they can?t act as a unit,? he said. ?Disagreements will come up, but we don?t need all this bickering and shouting matches.?
Kline talked about the budget and how it will continue to be a concern.
QUESTION: What is the role of economic development director?
Smith said the role requires the director to bring in new businesses, industries and other things to promote the community.
?We are not going to have Wal-Mart knocking at our door for economic development,? Smith said. ?Marion needs open arms for entrepreneurship and bringing more people to town.?
Varenhorst praised the work of Doug Kjellin, current director.
?Doug is doing a great job,? he said. ?His main focus has got to be attracting small businesses and opening new businesses without red tape?being user friendly.?
Kline said he supports economic development and keeping the businesses Marion has.
?We also need to help (existing businesses),? he said. ?It is one of the most important jobs.?
Meierhoff complimented Kjellin?s work, adding ?The economic development director needs to bring people to town and be a cheerleader for Marion.?
Meierhoff also said the director should assist with expansion if a business asks for help.
QUESTION: What are some ways the council can encourage business development?
Varenhorst said the council needs to streamline the process for start-up businesses.
?We need to be working with banks to make sure they know who is out there,? he said.
From the administrative side, Varenhorst said council members should encourage Kjellin to do as much as possible .
Kline talked about incentives and less red tape to spur business development.
Meierhoff agreed that council members do have rules and regulations to follow.
?At the same time, the council needs to be willing to negotiate a little bit,? he said.
Although Smith agreed with others, he also said prudence is required.
?We cannot just allow a business to start up (ignoring guideliness),? he said. ?We need to open our doors wider and get businesses in, getting Marion to grow.?
QUESTION: Do you have any conflicts of interest, employers, to prevent you from making the best decision for Marion?
Kline and Meierhoff said they have no conflicts.
?I want to step up and serve my community. I have no agenda,? Meierhoff said. ?I choose to live here because I like this community and it?s time for me to give back to the community.?
Smith said he knew the question was in reference to him because he is employed with the county, but serves the city as a council member.
?I am a representative of the city of Marion,? he said. ?My children and grandchildren are here and that?s above and beyond what my job is.?
He said he can do a good job of stepping back and making the right decisions.
Varenhorst said he is retired and has no conflicts.
?Most of you know, I used to work at the Hillsboro Free Press, but the reason I worked there is because I couldn?t find a job here in town,? he said. ?We need more jobs here.?