Issues, corruption topics at forum

Candidates give views on how they would run city

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About 100 local residents came out to hear three candidates running for mayor and five of six candidates seeking two seats on the West Liberty City Council Thursday evening at a candidate forum hosted by the Rotary Club of West Liberty at the West Liberty Community Center.

With a slate of more candidates than ever, residents came out to help choose whom they will be voting for in the Tuesday. Nov. 2 local election to be held in the same place as residents got a feel for who may lead the community through at least the next two years.

Incumbent Mayor Robert Hartman sat next to challengers Katie McCullough and Joe Olsen while incumbent council member David Smith was amidst a trio of ladies that included Vanessa Espinoza, Nadia Olsen and Dana Dominguez along with Ralph Remour. Unable to attend the event because of a state certification test he was taking that evening as a West Liberty Fire Fighter was Omar Martinez, Dominguez saying Martinez “really wanted to be here” and apologized for not being able to participate.

Hartman reiterated in his opening remarks that the slate of candidates may be the most interest the city has had in the positions in the last 30 years or longer. He called it a “great step forward” in seeing that much interest. The two-year mayoral seat would be Hartman’s sixth term as mayor, pointing out it will “definitely be my last.”

“We have a few things I’d like to make sure get done,” Hartman said, talking about quality of life issues that include new housing developments in the community, retaining jobs and rebuilding infrastructure, noting the Dutton Sports Complex was created during his tenure.

McCullough said democracy only works if people participate, so she decided to run for mayor as well even though she’s been a resident of the community for less than two years, pointing out she brings a new, fresh perspective to the city, hoping to “create a new start.”

McCullough is determined to “make this a wonderful place to live,” noting while statistics have shown people are locating to larger cities, West Liberty has a lot to offer as a rural community, hoping to enhance the quality of life.

Joe Olsen, a builder/businessman with spiritual aspirations who has been in the community more than a decade, said his reasons for running for mayor are more personal – saying he wants to investigate the corruption in the city in particular in the building inspection area and with utility bills.

“I want to eliminate unnecessary building permits,” he said, hoping to provide refunds for those who have been victims of wrong-doings. “No one should have to go through what my family did,” Olsen said.

The candidate said he’s “here to serve,” pointing out he has no other agenda and wants more transparency in government. “I will protect this community,” he said.

City council candidates all had their reasons as well for getting on the ballot. Dominguez pointed out she is a life-long resident of West Liberty and that her father was a police officer for the city and she even helped run the 2020 caucus. She called herself a “mediator” and said she’s always been at a disadvantage as a Latino, but that taught her and fellow students to become fighters in working for change.

Smith said he’s had a long career at P & G in Iowa City since retiring to West Liberty from eight years of service in the Navy. He admitted the city does have problems, but believes “we can fix any problem.” He says he knows the town isn’t corrupt and said there are ways the council has to act on issues that sometimes aren’t popular.

Remour said he’s running with hopes of making some changes, noting he’s been in the community all his life and worked locally for four decades.

Nadia Olsen said she came to America from Mexico and is a Spanish teacher in the West Liberty Elementary Schools, saying she’s “ready to serve the community outside the classroom.”

Olsen said she doesn’t trust the city administration and feels they ignore the community. She was disappointed in the fact that although more than 50 percent of the community is Latino, very few showed up for the forum, saying there needs to be better communication.

Espinoza said she grew up in Iowa after beginning her life in Mexico and called herself a “small town girl” that was drawn to West Liberty, a teacher in the high school. She feels like she belongs in the community and hopes to bring her leadership skills to the council position, seeking one of two seats.

Espinoza said residents should strive to leave West Liberty “a better place than they found it” and said she wants to be “at the table” when decisions need to be made. “I want people to feel like they belong here,” she pointed out.

Top priorities

Rotarian Sara Sedlacek, who served as master of ceremonies, asked the eight candidates their top three priorities if elected.

McCullough said she would first listen to city workers about their department needs, drill down on issues with the Rural Fire District, West Liberty Fire Department and the Ambulance Department, noting a lot of the community is upset over the problem. Thirdly, she said she would work to “engage people.”

Hartman said the city should have a goal to get to 5.000 population, qualifying the city for more grants and funding, so housing is a priority the city is presently moving forward in developing while he also said infrastructure is a major concern, noting water is going to be a big issue in the future.

Espinoza wants to make city information more attainable and said her short investigation of utilities, is well worth digging into to “figure out what’s going on.” She also said housing development has to be a priority as well.

Nadia Olsen said she would like to investigate the utility invoicing problems as well, something she says is upsetting with a lot of residents, while she also hopes to resolve the issues with the first responders and get more voice from the Latino population.

Remour said a lot of the candidates already said what he wanted to say, but noted the city needs to help create more apartments in the community and create more “fun” things to do.

Smith said the city pool, the oldest pool in Iowa, needs to be replaced and the city needs to create some kind of recreation center for children, noting the West Liberty Public Library shouldn’t be that place. He said better utilities are also a priority noting water and sewer systems in the community are quickly aging.

Dominguez said she understands “how special this community is” and complimented the pride in the school system, praised the police department and said West Liberty has the potential to make a statement as a standout community in Iowa. “I want to make sure this little town gets the recognition it deserves,” she said.

Joe Olsen said the city is corrupt, blasting utility rates and the city’s handling of the 28E agreement with the fire department. He also said that if West Liberty wants more industry and to grow, the city needs to stop raising taxes. “That just makes sense,” he said.

“How many terms do you need to fix things,” Olsen went after the mayor. Olsen said he’s willing to listen to anyone, “whether I get elected as mayor or not.”

Learning about candidates

Sedlacek, who was aided in managing the forum with Rotarians Tom Barr and Bill Knoeller, said taking on a city position is a “thankless job,” but questioned if candidates had an example of leading people.

Hartman spoke first, saying the council does the best job they can to “make the most people happy.”

He said decisions made aren’t always his personal perspective and said he also strives to be a watchdog for residents with fixed incomes. “We try to do what’s best for the majority of people,” he said.

Espinoza said as a teacher she says students may get flustered with her going by the rules, but said she’s working to teach teenagers time management, She said you can’t take criticism personally and called teaching a “very thankless job” that she was proud to do.

Nadia Olsen told a story of coming to America for college education, noting her Mexican school wanted her to go to Ohio, but she wanted to go to Iowa, eventually working to get into UNI on a scholarship for her masters. She called it a lot of work, but the best decision she ever made.

Smith said handling the consequences from COVID-19, telling a story of a person who questioned whether he had the vaccine. He said people need to respect each other, noting everyone is an individual.

Dominguez said she’s worked with state legislators all the time and said her job is all about bringing people together. Declaring to be an independent, she said a legislator didn’t want her to participate in a particular event, but she questioned stereotyping and said that prejudice in the community needs to end.

Joe Olsen says he loves people and has “faith in Jesus Christ.”

“I don’t hide my faith,” he said, noting running for mayor wasn’t about himself, but about his beliefs. “I have respect for everyone.”

McCullough said she she’s worked all over the world as a consultant with the University of Iowa in solving problems and leading businesses into better places. She said people are happy when they are engaged and said she’s not afraid of giving people projects they might not want to do.

Audience participation

Audience member and local businessman Ethan Anderson provided the first question for the candidates, asking about experience in setting an annual budget.

Espinoza said she has a lot of experience working with budgets at the U of I and has experience digging into grants and other programs to help fund projects. She said some of the projects even involved setting budgets from scratch.

Nadia Olsen admitted she didn’t have a lot of experience in budgeting, noting her husband handles a lot of the financial end of their business. She did say she has had some accounting experience.

Remour said he’s balanced his checkbook as well as helping his parents in their old age with finances.

Smith said he’s worked through quite a few budgets since joining the board and said although there are things the city would like to do, it’s not always within the city budget. “Sometimes you have to make that hard decision,” he said.

Dominguez said she’s worked at investigating state audits by the city and said there are things that need to be fixed. She also said she’s worked with team budgets in her job the past seven years and said she is “seriously excited about helping the city council” fix financial problems.

Olsen said he has operated a number of businesses and has never had to file bankruptcy, although saying it hasn’t been easy on his health, having to stand a number of times during the forum.

He called himself “a cheap-skate” and said he’s always looking for the “best deals” and will continue to do so for the community.

McCullough said she used to help build call centers throughout the nation and handled million-plus dollar budgets for the U of I, noting she has a “solid background in accounting.”

Hartman said he’s obviously been involved in a lot of city budgets and state audits that have been given a “clean slate.”

He said the state continues to tell the city they don’t employ enough people in their accounting department, sometimes causing problems, but Hartman said the city is working to resolve that problem. He said the city has been involved in strategic planning and setting priorities in saving money toward major projects in nearly every department.

Rebuilding trust questions

Another question from Daleta Thurness asked candidates how they would rebuild trust, create transparency and open communication.

Nadia Olsen started by saying that she doesn’t trust anyone in the city offices and said the city needs to become more transparent.

Remour said the city definitely needs to fix the financing with first responders in the area and said there are some important city services that need better communication with the public, from the police department to the administration offices.

Smith said he found it surprising how few people have ever contacted him while he was on the council the past four years, noting, “maybe 12 people reached out.” He agreed the city needs more transparency, admitting, “We have a problem.” He said there are some council sessions that are required to be geld behind closed doors, but said his door is “always open,” willing to meet with anyone any time, whether they agree with him or not.

Dominguez said she wanted council members to strive to be “our local heroes,” noting she has had a lot of experience in operations and marketing and said planning is the key to success.

Joe Olsen said the city has to “start being trustworthy,” noting it’s difficult to build trust when corruption exists. He said the city needs to admit when it’s wrong, which would go a long way in building trust.

McCullough said communication is the key to building trust, noting the city needs to build more channels to get news out. “Not everyone’s on the same book,” she said, noting there are a lot of new ways to communicate.

Hartman called trust a “two-sided street,” noting the city operates under a particular budget and tries to reach out to residents as much as possible. The mayor said he’s “tried to keep the council on track” to resolve the fire department 28E agreement and ambulance hiring issues and said the council has asked for information they have not been provided.

Espinoza said working with students proves “they can see right through you” if you’re not upfront with them and said building trust is capable by just showing up, noting “We build trust within ourselves.”

Final question

The moderator presented one final question directed from former West Liberty businessman Larry Miller, pointing out “there’s been talk about a board being started consisting of two council members, two rural trustees, fire department members and community members” to serve on a board overseeing the fire and ambulance departments. The eight candidates were asked to give a yes or no answer on whether they would support such a board.

All agreed to supporting the board although Smith wouldn’t answer the question, saying the council is in “litigation” with the issue and the mayor saying he’d be willing to listen. Dominguez was the lone candidate with a giving an emphatic answer. “Hell yes!” she said.

Many of the candidates stuck around afterward to give those attending an opportunity to ask personal questions.

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