City Council candidates sound off

Benny Westcott

Five of six Sweet Home City Council candidates took part Tuesday, Oct. 18, in a forum hosted by The New Era at City Hall.

About 40 people attended as hopefuls Greg Mahler, Susan Coleman, David Lowman, Dylan Richards and Josh Thorstad (James Risinger was not present) discussed, primarily, encouraging economic growth and improving the city’s infrastructure. Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce President Christy Duncan moderated the event.

The forum began with candidate introductions and motivations for running. Many spoke of their longtime residences in and affection for the city, beginning with Mahler, who has served on the council for 16 years, spending the last six as Sweet Home’s mayor.

“I’ve lived here almost my entire life,” he said. “I’m a homeowner and a parent, and I want this to be a great town for our families to be raised in. I have the experience in finance and community service necessary to be an effective city councilor and to make a difference. I will work very hard to make sure that the voice of the citizens will be heard.”

Coleman reflected on her half-decade with the council.

“I love Sweet Home,” she said. “I’ve always adored it. I am grateful to be in this community. I want to be a voice for the community and listen well to people, as I have. I have a protective nature about me. I want to be here for Sweet Home.

“I think that local government is here to create a successful framework,” she continued, “and then the community members make up the painting of the picture. We provide the framework and services and infrastructure for the community to exist and to have freedom.”

Richards spoke of adding to his two-year tenure.

“I believe that if I remain on the City Council, I could help facilitate more businesses coming to Sweet Home by cutting regulations and reducing taxes on businesses, which would stimulate economic growth and prosperity,” she said. “I love this town and I want to provide for the working people.”

Lowman – who wears multiple local hats as a city planning commissioner as well as a three-year and one-year member, respectively, of the Sweet Home budget and charter review committees – elaborated on civic dedication.

“I give and donate my time because I love this city,” he said. I want to be the voice, the eyes and the ears for our community. I think I have experience to be a council person because of the volunteer work I’ve done for this city. I believe in giving back as much as I can. It shows how much I love this community. That’s the reason why I do it. Not because of pay. Even if there was pay involved, I would give it away, donate it to an organization in Sweet Home, just because I love this town.”

Local circumstances spurred Thorstad, a former Linn County Republican Party co-chair, to run.

“I think I can be a good resource for the city of Sweet Home,” he said. “The homeless camp and some other issues really drove me to get involved. I promised the city that I would not miss another meeting, and I’ve been here ever since. I just want to serve.”

The candidates addressed their perceptions of the city’s greatest needs.

“From what I’ve heard from citizens over the past two years, I think [those] are leadership, business, lower taxes and less regulations,” Richards said. “People in the community are frustrated by not having a say in their mayor. One of my goals is to change the charter and get the mayor on the ballot, and give the power back to people, where it belongs.

“We need to give businesses incentives to come to Sweet Home such as tax breaks and lowering rates, taxes and fees,” he continued. “It will give the working people of Sweet Home a much-needed break from President Joe Biden’s disastrous economic policies and inflation. In order to lower these taxes, we are going to have to make tough decisions and cut spending.”

Thorstad and Lowman also wanted to see the mayor position on the ballot. The latter said he recommended just that to the City Charter Committee last year but was “shot down.”

“A charter review committee did go over it, and they rejected putting the mayor on the ballot and having it elected, due to the cost,” Richards recalled. “We had another councilor that sat there and said that people don’t know enough about council to elect a mayor. I felt like that was one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard.”

Thorstad emphasized other issues.

“Homelessness, crime, taxes and water bills are all huge problems.” he said. “I want to get to the bottom of it and try to figure out how to fix it.”

Coleman pinpointed infrastructure as the city’s largest problem, describing it as “lacking in many ways. Without working infrastructure, we can’t see economic development and growth. I’ve heard from many people that they’d like to see more businesses on Main Street and more economic development, but if we don’t get our infrastructure fixed, we can’t sustain new growth.”

As a city councilor, she added, she would seek more federal funding and grants to repair the city’s 75-year-old wastewater treatment plant, which saw its last upgrade in 1974.

She also discussed economic growth.

“I would continue to be an advocate for entrepreneurs and small businesses, advocating for RAIN [Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network] and SBDC [Oregon Small Business Development Center] to be active in the city of Sweet Home,” she said.

Mahler agreed that infrastructure was a priority.

“Our town is growing, and with growth you have to have strong infrastructure,” he said. “A lot of companies are looking for not only solid infrastructure in your community, but also services. Besides just basic infrastructure, they look at your parks, schools, police, fire and city hall.”

He noted positives in that regard during his tenure.

“As I’ve been a councilor for the past nearly 16 years,” he said, “we’ve improved Sankey Park and gotten a brand-new police and fire department. We’ve built a new water treatment facility, and currently we are working on trying to rebuild our wastewater treatment facility.”

He described the latter as challenging, particularly in securing renovation funds, as inflation, he said, has doubled upgrade costs.

He also emphasized the importance of streets.

“We’ve done a lot of overlays of our city streets, but we can only do so much based on our city’s funding,” he said.

Addressing funding for infrastructure improvements, he said, “We are looking at a lot of grants and opportunities, and we will continue looking at those. It has been a challenge. My goal is to see what I can do through federal and state funding to make this happen.”

Lowman prioritized the city’s downtown corridor.

“I’d like to see [that] area fixed up,” he said. “I hear from the community as well as from new people who drive in here. They say, ‘Wow, your town just kind of scares me. It looks like it’s starting to be a ghost town.'”

He was referring to the downtown area’s vacant commercial buildings, the subject of multiple discussions earlier this year.

If we fix [them] up with grant dollars, as well as give these landlords some incentive, maybe we can also bring in some commercial businesses – give them a tax break,” he said. “The money that we don’t get in tax revenue from them, we will get in revenue with people coming in to see our city. If we beautify the downtown, people will come. People will shop. People will spend money. That’s what we need in this town.”

He advocated for a full-time grant writer on city staff.

“Other cities are writing grants and getting that money from the federal government,” he said. “Why aren’t we doing more of it? It’s free. We just need to ask for it.”

Other candidates also discussed the vacancies, with Mahler returning to the importance of infrastructure.

“My opinion is that there are a lot of empty buildings because they’re using them as tax shelters,” he said. “I can’t force a business owner to open their storefront, but we can see what we can do to hopefully give them an incentive to build downtown. Over the last couple of years, I have met with a lot of downtown business owners, and I’ve asked them what we can do to put businesses in their empty storefronts. A lot of the feedback has been to improve the city’s infrastructure, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

“I’ve met behind the scenes with several major corporations to bring them to Sweet Home, and again it comes back to infrastructure,” he continued. They’re asking specific things about our community which we don’t have thoroughly completed yet. It all comes back to infrastructure in our community to bring businesses to Sweet Home. That’s their biggest question they have with us.”

“Just last year, a councilor put forward that she wanted to fine businesses in downtown Sweet Home for the way they looked and everything,” Richards recalled. “I’m sorry, but when I buy a house, I don’t want somebody telling me what to do. Yes, I want to bring downtown Sweet Home back, but there’s a lot more than just downtown Sweet Home to look at.”

He supported freedom for downtown business owners.

“They own it. It’s their building,” he said. “They have all the right in the world to do whatever they want. I don’t think the city needs to come up here and tell someone what they must do.”

Richards mirrored that position.

“As far as I can see, government is a necessary evil,” he said. “We have to have it, but the smaller it is, the best it is.”

Thorstad also chimed in.

“I don’t think we should be hammering people about what to do with their property, but I would be willing to reach out to those people like the city has already and try to resolve something to get them to open it up or let people rent it,” he said. “They’re tax shelters. That’s what they are.”

The candidates then spoke of issues the council has yet to address.

“I think in some parts, the city is going in some right directions, about the infrastructure,” Thorstad said. “But I think the city can do more about public outreach and communicating with the public more. We don’t have a whole lot of social media presence and stuff like that.

“I would like to bring more small businesses to town,” he continued, “and try to get some grants or assistance to people that are wanting to start off being entrepreneurs and help with rent or help them get their lease payments, their deposits – something to help drive small businesses to town.”

“I’d like to see the wastewater facility further along, so that we know that when we bring business into the community, we won’t have overflow into the river,” Coleman said, adding that she wanted to see more engagement from local merchants on the city’s streetscape plan.

“I really appreciated the businesses that did show up when we discussed that on multiple occasions,” she said.

She also wanted to see more strength regarding the local homeless situation. Plans for a managed outreach and community resource facility are currently in development on a parcel of land owned by the Lebanon-based Family and Resource Center east of Bi-Mart.

“I know that we’ve partnered with FAC to address the issue, but it hasn’t been in play yet because the site is not developed yet,” he said.

Lowman stressed the importance of increased engagement with residents.

“I would like to see more council people actually go out into the community, one day a month,” he said. “Knock on some doors. Ask the community what is going wrong, and what we’re not doing right for you. We want the community to be involved in our decisions. They’re the taxpayers, and they should also be heard. And I feel like sometimes they’re not being heard.

“I went door-knocking, and everybody said that I was the very first candidate that came to their door and asked for a vote,” he recalled. “We need to get our community more aware of what’s going on, and I want to be one of the very first ones to actually go out there to show our community what we want to do.”

Richards wanted to cut taxes and lower the cost of living.

“Since I’ve been on the city council, the council has increased your stormwater fees and they’ve doubled system development charge fees,” he said. “And that has all resulted in increased cost of housing. The price … has gone up astronomically in the last two years. And they just doubled the rate of what it would cost to build a house through the city. That is something that I would like to see reformed and reversed after this next election.”

All five candidates indicated that they didn’t support any new taxes for Sweet Home residents.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. The three council candidates with the most votes will serve a four-year term, while the fourth will serve two years.

Watch the forum at bit.ly/3F8ZlYo.

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