OTTUMWA — The questions ranged from the 2040 Our Ottumwa Comprehensive Plan, to whether Ottumwa is best served having more industry or a hotel, to how the mayor's office should be viewed.
Over the course of 2 1/2 hours Thursday at City Hall, the city candidates for elected office made their views known to the public, many for the first time.
Seven of nine council candidates and all three mayoral candidates appeared in a public forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Ottumwa, just days before Tuesday's primary. The only candidates not in attendance were Ashley Noreuil, who was taking part in drill for the U.S. Marine Corps reserves, as well as Brad Stines, whose job took him on the road.
There were some hot-button issues asked to the candidates, namely the recent agreement the city entered with Cobblestone Hotels to build an 84-unit hotel next to the Bridge View Center. The opinions ran the gamut.
"The hotel will bring jobs. The restaurant is upscale and that will bring in revenue, and that's an industry that definitely needs a boost," council candidate Russ Hull said. "Why can't we have both industry and a hotel? We need both. It's not one or the other for me."
Council candidate Mitch Niner, who served eight years on the council, pushed back.
"I hope everyone remembers me saying this, whether I make it out of (the primary) or not," he said, "The hotel is not going to affect the bottom line of Bridge View. It's just not. Being on council before, giving them land, I think that's wrong. I don't think we should be giving them money."
Council candidates also were asked how they would stem the exodus of Ottumwa High School and Indian Hills Community College students from the area for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Both education entities currently have partnerships with employers such as John Deere.
Council candidate Cara Galloway, who sits on several local organizational boards, believed strengthening those partnerships was essential, but also believed boards and commissions play an important role.
"We need to increase connection with the students to the city," she said. "We have commissions and boards that have spots open for students. When people feel connected, they stay. By helping them and teaching them how to do that, they'll feel more integrated in the community."
Council candidates also were asked what they felt "the single most-important issue" is facing the city, and how those issues are connected.
"A lot of the issues are important, whether it's housing, streets, public safety. It all boils down to funding. Everything is a juggling act," Niner said. "New faces would bring new ideas, and that's probably what it's going to take to better approach some of those issues."
Sandra Pope, also running for council, lumped affordable housing and affordable care into the same issue, and encouraged the largest employers in Ottumwa to form a partnership to deliver at least one aspect.
"Affordable housing on our community is growing. We're getting more people into our city so we need affordable housing," she said. "We also need affordable child care and adult care. Some people have to take care of their elderly parents and grandparents. I'd talk to JBS and John Deere about forming a partnership so we could have affordable child care and adult care put in place."
Council candidate Matt Pringle went in a different direction, noting the "now hiring" signs in the community.
"I'm not sure what the highlighted issue would be, but I see a lot of 'help wanted' signs and wonder where our workers are, and I'm kind of concerned about that," he said. "I think when we find out an issue, learn about the good and bad, we can come up with a solution as quickly as possible."
The three mayoral candidates — Rick Bick, Rick Johnson and Robert LaPoint — also addressed the public. They were asked many of the same questions, but most importantly, were asked how the mayor should be viewed. Only Johnson has served in public office, and that's as a placeholder on the council as he replaced Skip Stevens in September.
"The mayor needs to be the CEO of the city, and in a lot of ways, the face of it," Johnson said. "You really have to be proactive and positive, especially when you're talking about bringing new industry to the community. There is a lot of negativity, but I think it's changing for the better."
LaPoint, who ran for mayor in 2017, touted his work with the public as part of two city boards, and wants that to translate to the mayor's office.
"The mayor should be the first one people come to when they have problems," he said. "You have to be able to listen, whether they agree with you or not. You have to remember, if you're the mayor, you're going to alienate someone if you make them mad. You'll never get everyone to agree."
Bick, the pastor of New Life Center, agreed with Johnson's position that the mayor should be the face of the city.
"You have to be the concerned face, a happy face, a positive face for the future," Bick said. "He needs to make lemonade, not lemons. My background for 50 years is being a listener and understanding people, and bringing an encouraging voice. The mayor needs to be uplifting and seeing the good things with the city."
Regardless of what transpires in the primary, council candidate Doug McAntire, said it all starts inward.
"I want to start working with the culture here. There's so much negativity now, and if you change a culture, then all the ideas for the next 20 years will automatically happen," he said. "It's going to take a while, but it can happen."