By Community Contributor
On Thursday, March 23rd, The Woodstock Independent hosted a Mayoral and Trustee candidate forum featuring Incumbent Woodstock Mayor, Brian Sager, challengers, Gregg Hanson, Owner of The Backdrop, and Chiropractor and current County Board member, Michael Rein, as well as Woodstock City Council candidates Gordon Tebo and incumbents Michael Turner and Joseph Starzynski, and newcomers Scott Gessert, Jim Prindiville and Michael Stanard.
There were no real surprises as the candidates introduced themselves. All mayoral and city council candidates want to lower property taxes, fix Woodstock streets, and bring more businesses to Woodstock. Three of the candidates tried to differentiate themselves by deviating from a standard bio: Gessert went on a tangent about money corrupting the political system, Stanard gave a pitch for his business rather than speaking to his experience, and Handson bluntly stated that he’s not a politician. Their first impressions didn’t seem to impress the crowd.
Infrastructure and Streets
On the hot topic of city streets, Sager, Turner, Starzynski and Tebo are in favor of a 1% sales tax increase to fund more road repairs. The rest of the candidates were against the sales tax increase, but gave varying answers as to where the funds for road repairs would come from. Rein stated that gaming income should fund the roads, but neglected to mention that would only cover a tiny portion of the dollars needed to meet the budget requirements. Gessert said that money spent on repairing and renovating the Square should go to roads instead. Prindiville claimed that the City Council had managed the budget poorly in the past, but never stated where the money could come from. Stanard said he would negotiate with city vendors to reduce fees, and Hansen stated that property taxes should never have been cut in prior years so that the funds would have been there for the roads.
On the topic of the Old Historic Courthouse and Jailhouse, only Scott Gessert was in favor of letting the building go neglected, to save money. The rest of the candidates had a narrow spectrum of opinions on whether the buildings should be owned by the city or privatized. But since there is a study underway to find an ideal use for the space, most of the panel stated they needed more information to form a solid recommendation.
Attracting New Businesses
A question was asked about how the candidates would attract businesses to Woodstock, and their answers truly differentiated the candidates who knew what they were talking about and those who could only speak in vague generalities:
- Brian Sager spoke of his track record of success, giving numbers and statistics of jobs gained since 2015. He also established the Economic Development department, mentioned the Enterprise Zone, and the new high-speed fiber optic network.
- Gregg Hansen said we should be incubating businesses and not increase the sales tax. Michael Rein mentioned that he used to work with big businesses in the past, and that working with these companies decades ago would somehow translate into an ability to bring them to Woodstock.
- Mike Turner also is running on the current achievements of the City Council, including the Enterprise Zone, the Real Woodstock campaign, the business incentives already in place, and lowering taxes.
- Gordon Tebo spoke of making the community an attractive place to live through green initiatives, the arts, and the schools.
- Joe Starzynski reiterated that our high property taxes, crumbling infrastructure and roads, and lack of skilled workers are the #1 concerns he has heard from business owners looking to relocate to Woodstock, and that these items are already a priority with the current City Council.
- Jim Prindiville, after complaining about high property taxes earlier in the evening, stated we should “sell” business owners better on the idea that our high property taxes are worth paying.
- Mike Stanard said that we should end the Real Woodstock publicity campaign; that the city should be cold calling prospects, and then stated we need to… publicize Woodstock better? The incongruence of that statement threw off several people in the audience, and was called out later by Mike Turner.
- Scott Gessert stated he would promote the current Enterprise Zone, increase communication with other city departments, and keep taxes down.
Attending as a member of the community, I was interested in seeing how political party loyalty would affect the messages of the candidates. After having several conversations with others in the audience after the event, here are a few opinions from the crowd:
- Brian Sager is running on a long track record of several consecutive terms as Mayor, and certainly didn’t bring any politics to his statements at the forum. His opponents seem to be running on the sentiment that it’s somehow Sager’s fault that Woodstock hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession, something that almost no town in the United States has done. He has wide support from both Republicans and Democrats, but it is rumored that money from outside of Woodstock is being funneled to his challenger for not being ‘conservative enough’.
- Michael Rein has consistently voted for lower taxes and against infrastructure improvements on the County Board, and his anti-tax agenda prevented him from proposing any realistic way of paying for our road improvements. He gave nobody a compelling reason to vote for him, except that he wants to make Woodstock great like it used to be. I’m not sure that pitch will work in a town that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
- Gregg Hanson made some excellent points about how the entire panel of candidates were white males, and that a sales tax might hurt the most vulnerable people in our community. I wish he had been running for a council seat rather than the Mayor’s seat, because he just didn’t convince anyone that he has the experience needed for the job.
- After meeting Jim Prindiville at the Hate Has No Home in Woodstock Rally, we found his message at the candidate forum to be angry, unrealistic, and off-putting. And I left with the impression that he had been pandering to progressives [counter protesters] that day, and that he likely had worked the crowd [Trump supporters] on the inside of the Square simultaneously.
- Scott Gessert was fixated on lower taxes and ending corruption, but since he offered no evidence of corruption in the current administration, his concern seemed both misplaced and irrelevant.
- Joe Starzynski kept his answers very non-partisan, and specifically stated that he doesn’t run on a platform. Instead he asks voters what they want him to do, and he does it.
- Gordon Tebo, is a former teacher, supporter of the arts, and an environmentalist. But his fiscal positions are in alignment with Mike Turner, a proud and vocal Republican on the board. In fact, Mike Turner was the big surprise of the night.
Most of the democrats I knew in the audience were unexpectedly impressed with his [Turner’s] experience and pragmatic approach to bringing funds and opportunity to the city. He made the point that the anti-tax conservative candidates weren’t being realistic about what it takes to actually govern and balance a budget. He did an excellent job of appealing to a wide audience, so it’s no surprise that he has a large number of people supporting him in the community.
Editor’s Note: GPI would like to thank this contributor for her thorough and well- written report on the March 23rd Woodstock Independent’s Candidates Forum. If you would like to become one of our Local Government Watchdogs, attend meetings and report back to the community, please contact us.