The Ottumwa Courier

October 4, 2013

Council candidate profiles

Ottumwa Courier

---- — Ottumwa voters will soon go to the polls for the city council primary. Each of the candidates for city council was asked a set of five questions. Here are the questions and the candidates' responses:

1. Why are you running for office?

2. What do you see happening with local economic development, and how would you advance development?

3. The city has codes to address dilapidated buildings. How would you encourage enforcement of those codes?

4. How would you improve Ottumwa's parks as a community resource? Do you support the Legacy Foundation's proposal to pay for a consultant to examine the parks?

5. What is your top priority if elected.

The candidates for the primary are Keith Caviness, Robert LaPoint, Belinda Smith-Cicarella, David Gordy, Skip Stevens, Matt Dalbey and Bob Meyers.

You can also click on the candidate's name to jump to their comments.


Keith Caviness

1. Caviness says he still feels he has something to add. A lifelong Ottumwan with almost 50 years in business, he pointed to his prior terms on the council as well.

“I actually enjoyed my first eight years of service,” he said. “I understand the anxiety downtown and I understand the anxiety in the community. I feel like I have some background and history I can work with.”

2. Caviness thinks property tax relief should help boost economic development efforts citywide. Recent developments with rehabilitation are encouraging, Caviness said, but the next challenge is redeveloping living space, particularly in the city's downtown district.

“When I say downtown, I'd like to include the South Side [Church Street district] too. I think people forget they're there.”

3. Balancing enforcement of codes with the rights of property owners is a delicate thing to do, Caviness said. While some codes specifically protect city and public property from damage, there must also be a recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works.

“I'm not sure if enforcement is the right word. I think some codes are on the books that are too intrusive. … People just need to be conscious of what they're doing and be a good neighbor.”

4. Ottumwa's large parks system is a significant asset, Caviness said, but developing it for future use will require careful thought. He favors expansion at the Beach and the campground in Ottumwa Park, with an eye toward eventually adding a better water and sewer system for the campground.

“Ottumwa, 25 years ago, led the state in developing parks. The cost was significant but it was worth the investment.”

5. While Caviness said streets and sewers are always a top priority, he wants to find out what residents' priorities are rather than pursue personal goals. Opening doors to new business is also important.

“You cannot just close the door on any business that wants to come in. I will not deny any business assistance that wants to come into the community.”


Robert LaPoint

1. LaPoint has served on several city boards and believes that background, along with attendance at most council meetings, prepares him well to serve on the council.

“I have always had a keen interest and passion for city government.”

2. Development efforts downtown are very encouraging, and LaPoint believes the city and county should take a new look at the Dahlonega developments that were discussed about 10 years ago. The completion of the bypass could offer new opportunities for development there.

“There are a lot of wonderful things going on downtown. Downtown has gotten economic life. I think we're at a good position; I think we're at a turning point.”

3. LaPoint favors a review of the city's codes, particularly the new nuisance ordinance. The city's enforcement of maintenance codes for properties depends on complaints from residents or other business owners, which leads to uneven enforcement.

“We're not in any way, shape, or form going to count how many yard sales people have. If you can't enforce a code, why do we have it?”

4. The city has a parks plan, but hasn't reviewed it recently, LaPoint said. He favors a review of what has been accomplished, what has been set aside and what remains viable.

“I'm not an anti-Legacy person. I thought the consultant thing was taken care of. I'm going to work with anyone, any group, that wants to move the city forward. We have to communicate and we have to have a positive attitude.”

5. The city's budget is the number one responsibility for the council and managing it should be the top priority for anyone elected to the city council. The council needs to find ways to live within the city's income, if possible without raising taxes or cutting services.

“I'm a strong believer that what you bring in is what you have.”


Belinda Smith-Cicarella

1. Smith-Cicarella is an Ottumwa native who moved away, only to return in 2003. She's concerned about the increases in property taxes since she came back.

“We're starting to see a trend of our property taxes going up. Ottumwa is not attractive to taxpayers. Perhaps, instead of complaining, I can help.”

2. Ottumwa has seen some growth in recent years, but Smith-Cicarella thinks the city can do more to encourage new businesses to come to town if it invests in infrastructure to support them. She thinks the rise of technology in business offers opportunities to capture satellite offices for businesses with headquarters elsewhere in Iowa and favors the city's efforts to find grants to help fund infrastructure improvements.

“We saw that with Kohls. It's the old Iowa adage: If you build it, they will come.”

3. Smith-Cicarella says that while the city should make every effort to use a carrot instead of a stick for maintenance of properties, that's not always going to work.

“Unfortunately, sometimes you have to force people to do the right thing. I would think that most people would want our city to look better.”

4. Parks can attract revenues, but Smith-Cicarella is very concerned about the lack of maintenance on the oxbow lagoons. The lagoons could help with flood control, but they have silted up to the point they can't do the job for which they were retained when the river channel was straightened. Lack of signage, particularly along entrances to Ottumwa, are a problem.

“We have all of these possibilities for people. But we have nothing that tells people about that. We have a lot of potential here, but the marketing doesn't seem to reflect that.”

5. The city needs to take a hard look at spending, said Smith-Cicarella. That means how things are funded, what is being studied and whether the city can make Ottumwa Regional Airport the transportation hub it should be.

“It's obvious to me that we need a regional airport. I used to fly out of Ottumwa. That's not even an option now unless you charter an airplane.”


David Gordy

1. Gordy grew up in Ottumwa. Both his parents worked in town, his father at the fire department and his mother at Cargill. He thought about running after he started to watch the city's actions and realized he didn't know the reasons behind decisions. He wants to communicate better with the public.

“The more I saw, the more I said someone needs to fix it. My friends said, 'Why don't you?' We're redoing things. Common sense. It just got me asking that question we don't ask enough: Why?”

2. Gordy sees opportunities downtown, if the city can position itself to take advantage of them. That means cleaning up the district and working to offer incentives for business development. The combination of a vibrant district with a resurgent airport could become self-sustaining.

“Downtown is a great example of opportunity. I see opportunities for downtown to really come into its own. I would like to see downtown turn into specialty shops, little mom and pop shops.”

3. Gordy is not a big fan of the city's revised nuisance ordinance. He believes it nitpicks on people's yards but fails to address what people passing through town, including prospective businesses, see. Efforts like those aimed at renovating the theater or homes in town are set back when they are adjacent to sites that have been all but abandoned.

“There's no enforcement on that. It looks like garbage. “I truly think we need to actively pursue warnings [for negligent property owners]. When you're talking about the face of our town, that's it there.”

4. Gordy sees Ottumwa's parks as one of the major resources for the community and a good example of the potential the city has as an outdoor destination for people. He wants to see the lagoons in Ottumwa Park properly maintained and believes they have been allowed to deteriorate over the years. He would support efforts to bring in a consultant to look at how the parks can be developed.

“If there is a charitable organization in town that is wanting to donate that, I'm all for it.

5. Taxes and jobs are Gordy's top priority if elected. He said the two tie into each other much more deeply than most people realize. Tax policy helps determine whether businesses will come to town and determines revenues in more ways than just the money current businesses generate.

“Those things are so interlinked it's not even funny.”


Skip Stevens

1. Stevens spent more than 45 years working for the city while raising two children here with his wife. He knows the issues facing the city's road networks from his time as public works director. His time also overlapped with the start of the ongoing sewer separation program.

“I think with my experience and knowledge I can add to the city council.”

2. Revitalization of downtown involves multiple factors, from the owners who are willing to work on restoration to the need to change the appearances of buildings. If downtown doesn't look like a business district, it's not going to attract businesses. He welcomes groups who are willing to help.

“Revitalization of downtown is going forward and I'm pleased with the progress on that. The Legacy Foundation has been a big help and I'm pleased with that.”

3. Correcting eyesores is an issue throughout Ottumwa and Stevens said it matters for both residential and business concerns. That hurts efforts to develop the city's economy. Piles of trash or bulky items on the curb used to be picked up once a week without the need to call for specific pickups, and that might have to be revisited. He supports having code enforcement personnel to work on targeting unkempt properties and junked vehicles.

“There's got to be a way. We have out of town building owners downtown who drain every penny and don't give anything back. We're Ottumwa and we need to do what's best for Ottumwa.”

4. Stevens sees potential risk in the failure to maintain the oxbow lagoons as a working waterway. Getting those lagoons back in working order would be a major challenge, but he believes it has significant potential as well. Usable waterways could help boost economic development as well. He's skeptical of turning all of Ottumwa Park over to a sports complex.

“The city has let [the lagoons] go for so long. That should never have been let go. You could have canoeing, kayaking, paddle boats.”

5. Economic development must be the city's top priority, Stevens said. That effort needs a long-term vision, as does revision of the city's code. He'd like to revisit issues in the new nuisance ordinance to clarify them. Without clarity, he said, it's difficult for a citation to stand up in court.

“Probably the top priority would be economic development. We need a vision and we need goals. I think we need to look at our entire code book.”


Matt Dalbey

1. Dalbey is a union steward at John Deere and says he and his family are committed to Ottumwa and the city's future. He sees that future bound up in the city's ability to adapt to the new property tax structure following the state's reforms and having employers that pay a decent wage. They're challenges, he said, but not insurmountable.

“I would like to see an increased focus on making livable wage jobs come to Ottumwa. Whatever this business requires to locate here, we need to take that into consideration. Sometimes the choices are going to be tough.”

2. Incentives would provide a boost for downtown redevelopment, but the city needs to weigh how to offer them. Trust would help as well. When the sewer separation project is finished, Dalbey wants the taxes that paid for it to come off the books as a show of good faith that temporary taxes are not always going to be permanent features.

“That's an essential component. You've got to have those incentives in place.”

3. Improving the city's appearance is a necessary step, Dalbey said. That means getting people to buy in and commit to making it happen. Honest conversations between city leaders and residents are a first step, before tightening any ordinances. But if unkempt or dilapidated properties hurt Ottumwa's chances of growth, that's a concern for everyone.

“There's got to be a way to have people have yards with visual appeal. If we can sell it on a level that's honest … have that conversation, then go back and have that ordinance. If that's keeping [businesses] from coming here, that's something we have to address.”

4. Dalbey supports taking a good look at development options for the city's parks, but believes those development efforts can't be allowed to place the city in a position where it can't afford to maintain them. The Legacy proposal for a consultant is something he's willing to listen to, though he wants better information before signing off on any plans. He favors development toward the middle of Ottumwa, with outlying parks left to the neighborhoods for use.

“That's something we have to look at. We have to be able to sustain any of the developments. If Legacy is going to fund [a consultant], I don't see why it couldn't at least be looked at.”

5. Dalbey's top priority goes back to development. The city needs to do a better job of selling itself in terms of appearances, business options and incentives.

“That's what we need for our city. That's my top priority. What kind of community do we want? That's the question.”


Bob Meyers

1. Meyers likes what he sees happening in Ottumwa and said his experiences over the past eight years on the council make him more optimistic about the future. A former teacher, he has served two terms on the council.

“I'm fortunate to be part of a team that's moving forward. It's exciting to see good things happening.”

2. Meyers said his position as a member of the council gives him a slightly different view of development. There are times the city is approached about companies before they are ready to unveil plans for the public, and Meyers said both what comes to town and what doesn't helps him understand what the city needs to do better. He said his associate membership with the chamber of commerce also helps.

“I am aware of a lot of things that are being done for economic development. It [the chamber Ambassadors] gives me the opportunity to thank businesses, corporations, individuals for their investment in Ottumwa.”

3. The city's codes on property maintenance have to be addressed carefully, Meyers said. While templates from other areas can help, the council needs to make sure they fit the specific needs of Ottumwa. But the code doesn't mean much if the city won't support the people enforcing it, and he thinks the recent revisions to the nuisance code are a start.

“Unless the city is willing to back up what we have on paper it puts [inspectors] in an awkward position. I do think that, by enacting what we did, we've given them some teeth.”

4. Meyers is willing to look at a new review of the parks, but he also points to the city's assessment from just a few years ago. He said that gives the city a workable plan and ways to measure progress that didn't exist earlier. He's aware that many prefer Ottumwa Park be kept with more open space, in part because of the non-profit groups who use it.

“We are working from that master plan. We should be getting a written report (update) shortly. For all the people I see in this town who volunteer, how can we do all this without them? This town has to be so proud of the people who step up.”

5. Meyers sees several things the city needs to make sure of in the coming years. While he's proud of the work the council does, he believes the city can work better if people remember how the system is supposed to work. That means the council generally works through the city administrator, rather than trying to manage individual departments.

“It's one thing to say you wish we had a commission, but that's not what we have. The top priority is still continuing to work for all Ottumwa citizens.”