Candidates for positions on the Benton City Council shared their views on issues facing the city in a political forum jointly sponsored by The Saline Courier and YCAT, the local community access television channel.
Dennis Byrd, chief of the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, was moderator for the event held Monday night at the Royal Theatre in Downtown Benton. Byrd, a Benton resident, is a former editor of The Saline Courier.
An additional forum featuring Bryant City Council candidates and candidates for Saline County offices will be taking place at 6:30 tonight at the Benton theater.
In Monday's exchange, candidates from four aldermanic races responded to questions prepared by the Courier. The following questions were presented by Byrd for the listed races.
â€˘Ward 1, Position 1, which includes incumbent Frank Baptist and challenger Mary Deitemeyer.
Baptist was asked:
"The lower Military Road project has experienced issues that have increased the anticipated costs to complete construction. Shortly after Military Road is finished, the expansion of Alcoa Road is expected to begin. As chairman of the council's Street Committee, how have you prepared for the needs of regular maintenance of city streets and other needed improvements in the city infrastructure with the looming Alcoa project expected to consume the majority of the street department budget?"
In his response, Baptist said he has confidence in the ability of the mayor (David Mattingly) and the street department manager (Tony Floyd) to oversee such matters. Infrastructure plans are in place to meet the various needs, he said.
Deitemeyer was asked:
"You are a newcomer to politics in Benton. Was there a specific event or situation with the current council that drew you into the race? If so, explain and discuss it. If not, why did you decide to run?"
Deitemeyer said animal control issues in the city were a factor in attracting her as a candidate.
"We need to get into the 21st century ... there are so many things that are needed. And you can't do anything to help unless you get involved ... "
Baptist also was asked this query:
"The recent creation of a parks department for the city of Benton came about following an investigation of the handling of cash from the concession stand at Tyndall Park. What part did you play in the creation of the city department and what deficits do you see the city needs to address related to parks?"
In his response, Baptist said: "We had a number of aldermen willing to step forward and address this matter. I did not opt to serve on this committee."
Deitemeyer was asked about a particular posting she entered on the website MySaline.com, which was: "Can we just say NO to taxes even when needed to be spent to make our lives more comfortable, our roads safer, our children safer?
She was asked if this were a statement in support of additional taxes or one that says "no tax increases and make do with the revenue on hand?"
In explaining her rationale, Deitemeyer said that people should have a clear understanding of the purpose of any tax. With understanding, "people won't be against it,'" she said. She did not make an absolute statement as to whether she is for or against taxes in general or any particular tax.
â€˘Ward 1, Position 2, incumbent Kerry Murphy and challenger Greg White. White had said in advance that he could not attend because of health reasons.
No prepared questions were addressed to Murphy, other than a question about the state's Freedom of Information Act, which was posed to all of the candidates.
In his response to the FOI question, Murphy said it is his belief that most of the time it is not necessary to rely on the act. "Usually you can just ask for the information (and receive it)," he said.
He referred to an incident in which the act was abused by a resident "who presented an FOI request every day. That takes staff time ... "
Murphy did make a statement, in which he said the city has accomplished a lot during his two years on the council. He pointed out his support for the events center that is under construction and the work he has done with the city's animal control department.
He noted that "under-budgeting" is a concern for streets and drainage, but said he has worked on both needs and hopes to be able to continue with these issues.
"There are a lot of creeks in Benton," he said. "I didn't know how many."
Though he represents Ward 1, Murphy pointed out that he is "serving all of the city."
â€˘Ward 2, Position 2, incumbent Joe Lee Richards and challenger Roger Winfield. Richards had been expected to attend, but health concerns reportedly kept him away.
Winfield was asked the following questions:
"You are one of several candidates entering politics for the first time this fall. In your view, in which specific areas do you think the city should concentrate attention and what specifically do you bring as far as experience and qualifications that would benefit residents of Benton?"
In his response, Winfield said, "I like the direction the city is going in right now."
Citing his experience as owner of a small business, he said he believes this can be of value to the council. "I'm all for big business, but small-business owners make up a bigger percentage of Benton."
His second query was: "The newly created parks department has taken a first step forward by hiring a parks director, John Eckart. Did you support the change from a parks commission to a parks department and what specific projects do you think Mr. Eckart should focus with somewhat limited resources available to him?"
Winfield said he has not met Eckart, but believes the city made a good choice by putting a professional in charge of the parks.
He cited his volunteer activities with the Optimist Club's ball program and said he would support expansion of park programs.
"I can't believe a city this size can't have more parks," he said. "We've got to use what's available, but we need more."
Regarding the FOI query, Winfield said, "I have nothing to hide. It should all be out there on the table."
Ward 3, Position 2, incumbent Jerry Ponder and challenger Rick Holland.
Holland, a former mayor, was asked about his decision to re-enter politics in his run for city alderman.
"I love helping people," Holland said. "I enjoyed my eight years as mayor. I bring a lot of institutional memory with me."
He said he had "no particular reason" in choosing one position as opposed to the other.
Ponder was asked about his role as chairman of the Finance Committee and in particular about his preparation regarding the expiration of the city's 1.5 percent sales and use taxes in 2016.
He said he is "making every effort to make citizens of Benton aware of the sales tax expiration and to make them aware that this tax is truly the lifeblood of the city of Benton."
He noted that 1 percent goes into the city's general fund for operations of several departments; of the half-percent tax, a quarter-cent supports parks and a quarter-cent supports streets.
Both candidates were asked about the Lower Military Road widening project.
Ponder said this project is critical to the commercial development of Benton. He noted that the cost of the project has exceeded the contract bid, but said funding has been made available.
"This was more of an engineering problem," he said. "We need to be meticulous in every aspect."
Holland was asked about change orders delaying the project, which have been attributed to soil problems. He was asked whether soil tests were part of the planning process.
Holland noted that during his administration, through Metroplan, the city acquired $6.2 million for this project, which was part of a $14 million fund that was sought by several cities. The funds included the costs of soil testing, he said.
"There's always going to be bad soil (in a project)," he said.
Ward 4, Position 1, incumbent Brad Moore and challengers David Sparks and Suewonna Robbins. Robbins was ill and did not participate in the forum.
Sparks, who is currently serving in the Position 2 seat for Ward 4, was asked why he did not run for re-election to that post. The only candidate to file for the position was James Herzfeld.
Sparks did not give a definitive answer, but said he talked with a number of people and learned that Herzfeld, who had already filed his candidacy, is highly respected and admired.
He also was asked about the problems in the parks department that led to the dissolution of the parks commission.
Sparks said he learned about the problems through information presented to the council from Karen Scott, the city's chief financial officer, "who is very thorough."
Moore was asked about his role as a former member of the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission. He was specifically asked about lobbying for four groups that he wanted the commission to support financially, but was outvoted by others on the panel.
Moore said he believed the four groups he favored for support fulfilled the true mission of the A & P Commission, which is to bring people into the city.
"I made the best case I could, but others did not see it my way," he said.
He also was asked about the city's animal control department and recent changes in personnel and organization.
Moore said he believes the department needs a professional director, but said the mayor has not chosen to do that,
"I would prefer new leadership," he said. "The people of Benton deserve this."
in response to the FOI issue, Moore said, "It's the law. When you take the oath of office, you swear to uphold the law."
He said he prefers information to be disseminated "through service," but said the FOI is one of the tools that is there to "make good government work in a good town."