OTTUMWA — Both candidates could be described as civil, but neither appeared passive during the mayoral debate Thursday evening.
Challenger Tom Lazio and Mayor Frank Flanders agreed that economic growth is important to Ottumwa.
Yet Lazio said he has been to most meetings of the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation. And he had not seen Flanders at those meetings. Flanders said he has been at meetings of the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation. He, however, didn't see Lazio there.
Despite the disparity, Ottumwa City Hall remained peaceful during the event, which drew a nearly full audience in council chambers. That includes the portion of the debate where the sponsor, KLEE/TOM-FM Radio, allowed a rarity in current forums and debates in Ottumwa politics: Direct questions asked by each candidate of their opponent.
But questions from the public and the moderator were the first to be asked. One was, what does the mayor do?
Flanders said the mayor is the M.C. at City Council meetings, has the power to veto decisions and the power to appoint members to various boards. Yet the main power is not a formal one: "It's one of leadership ... I'm the coach of the team," he said.
Lazio said the mayor does a lot of work behind the scenes: Setting the agenda, doing research on what's best for the town, and getting various groups to work together. Unlike his opponent, said Lazio, he'd be able to devote himself full time to the office. He had 45 years running an agency in which he was required to write grants, talk to state and federal lawmakers, and set a reasonable budget. As mayor, he said, he will "make decisions based on data ... not political gain."
Flanders said the community has come together over the past two years. He said he makes his mayoral decisions based on, among other things, compassion for all residents.
"I'm the people's mayor," he said.
And that's why there are times he will "respectfully disagree" with decisions by members of the council. He wants to do what the people want. He said he noticed Lazio was a neighbor of Ottumwa Veterinary Clinic. And that he was the only neighbor to get up and speak in support of allowing the business to be rezoned. Now, asked the mayor, what does the challenger have to say about that decision?
"They've been good neighbors, they've done everything they said they would do," answered Lazio, who said as a neighbor, he'd still want to support their business growth.
He said there used to be one vet there. Now the small business has five animal doctors.
"They live here, they work here," said Lazio, "and I want to keep them here. I think it was a good decision."
Lazio said he had to question Flanders' talk of doing the will of the people: A unanimous vote by the zoning board to approve the request, two unanimous votes by the council to approve and a 4-1 vote by the council to approve. Then Flanders steps in and vetoes the approval.
The pair disagreed on chasing a casino license if one was up for grabs. Lazio said prior to doing that, he'd focus on affordable housing and on bringing in good-paying jobs by supporting the expansion of local small businesses. Flanders said a casino could help the tax base enough that it would be worth it to pursue. But he knows it's not a perfect solution, he said.
I know there are people who have concerns, and legitimate concerns, Flanders said, but the community would have to weigh the good against the bad. And in this case, the good outweighs the bad; those negatives, he believes, could be addressed.
Flanders touted his support of street improvement, as well as a partnership with Deere and Co. to do infrastructure work that should help ensure that Deere will be a part of the community for a long time to come. But it's those streets citizens have pushed for most, Flanders said, and he has thrown his support into that effort. The city has put $9 million toward those repairs, he said. And that's not going to stop.
When Flanders asked him what some of the most positive changes have been over the past two years, Lazio agreed street repairs really have taken off, but he credited the council as a whole for supporting street funding. But more needs to be done, he added. For one thing, he said, we're playing catch up.
A group recently "shopping Ottumwa," he said, didn't reveal their presence until after they'd left. The challenger said one message the group had for community supporters: The streets are terrible.
To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermar