The turnout at Monday night’s Van Alstyne Chamber of Commerce Meet the Candidates Forum was sparse but the opinions were not as the six candidates for office met members of the voting public.
To be fair, only five of those appearing at Grayson College South Campus can actually be called "candidates" as Robert Jaska is running unopposed in Place 3. This drew a few chuckles when the question of "What makes you the better candidate" was read by moderator Kim Teel.
The other two seats are up for grabs, however. Place 1 is a three-way race with incumbent Kaaren Teuber running against Larry Cooper and James Lewis. Place 2 is a two-way race between two-time incumbent Jim Smith and Timmerle Kelly.
The format was simple: candidates would answer a total of five questions, four submitted by the Chamber and one selected from the public. The assembled audience, including Alderman Billy Plake and Mayor Teddie Ann Salmon, would hear each candidate’s answers in 1 1/2 minute slices.
While there is not enough space here to go over each and every answer provided by candidates, I will attempt to touch on a few highlights.
In response to the question of priorities for Van Alstyne most all agreed that the water system (infrastructure), streets and growth were at the top of the list. "I think the key we need to focus on is keeping the good things we have and adjusting to the growth that is coming," said Jaska.
When asked what Van Alstyne can do to make it stand out among other cities the answers were a bit more varied. Lewis said the town needs to accept positive growth, while Cooper said the city needs to guide future growth. Kelly said she would like to see Van Alstyne as a destination point, while Smith concurred, stating he sees his own restaurant, Buck Snort BBQ, and The Durning House as current destination points. Jaska stated that the senior citizen population made the city stand out, while Kaaren Teuber said she would like to see more emphasis on young people in the coming years.
"What’s there to do after they get home from school? Where do they go? What do they do," asked Teuber.
The City of Anna was brought up for a growth comparison, prompting candidates to state what kind of businesses they would like to see come to Van Alstyne. Teuber said the need to concentrate on small shops is there while also looking at industrial-type companies, while Lewis suggested any growth was welcome. Kelly said that the EDC can help to bring light-industrial jobs to the area and mentioned that Target, a grocery store and even a hospital would be welcome. Cooper stated that downtown could become a great square but that the city also needs larger retailers. Smith spoke of needing more business but accommodating customers local businesses already have; i.e., businesses need to stay open longer hours to accommodate the working class.
"It’s a two-way street — citizens need to support us and we need to support the citizens," said Smith.
Candidates were questioned as to what the city would look like at the end of their two-year terms. Lewis spoke of growth, "I would love to see it as a family town, not [some] high-speed, fast-paced city," while Kelly spoke of getting water to the west side of the freeway to enhance development along Highway 75. Cooper said he sees more houses being built, "I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say we could have 300 more rooftops," while Smith spoke of the city "under-spending" on street repairs last year and the need to ease building restrictions downtown. Jaska spoke of laying a foundation for growth, while Teuber stated her case against over-regulation.
The last of the scheduled questions asked, "What makes you the better candidate?"
Kelly spoke of her background as a financial consultant, while Teuber said she tries to be a problem solver and Lewis said he is level-headed and loves the city.
Cooper spoke of working closely with different department heads by talking to them one-on-one before meetings to shorten the notoriously-long council meetings. This prompted Smith to claim that he is "not allowed, extremely discouraged" to do so by the city manager and that he will not blindly follow.
This marked the end of the scheduled question and answer session, but Chamber President Wendelyn Tilleman talked to the candidates and decided that there was plenty of time left to take questions from the audience. One of those came from Plake, who asked the candidates where they stood on the issue of a city manager versus a strong mayor form of government.
Smith said it would be a substantial savings to have a city administrator versus a city manager, while Jaska said he felt that as a councilman his duty is to work with whichever official is in charge of operating the city. Lewis said that the city manager form of government is the right way to go, a belief that Cooper echoed. Teuber talked of increasing debt since the city became a city manager form of government in 2003 with over $10 million worth of debt currently. Kelly disputed that assessment, stating that in ‘03 the city had debt of $10,603,218 while today that debt is at $$9,035,958.32
"I am for a professional form of government, council-manager form of government. I feel it’s important for us as we move forward," said Kelly. "I feel that the cons of having a strong mayor form of government…I feel like there’s little accountability, a potential for cronyism and personality conflicts with department heads."
When all was said and done, Tilleman said the forum was good for the city and the upcoming election.
"It was succinct, it was civilized," said Tilleman, "and I think some major questions were answered. I thought the key part was at the end where the questions from the audience came up and pretty much caught the candidates unaware and we ended up having a nice back and forth.
"That, I think, says a lot about the civility of Van Alstyne."
The Chamber will host the second of its two candidate forums at 6:30 p.m. on April 28 at Grayson College South Campus.