No response from candidates probably means more of the same: good-ole-boy government

I gave the six candidates a week to respond to, admittedly, tough questions, which were a litmus test that would scare off know-nothing candidates. I didn’t expect responses, and I received none.

 

I feel the hard-ball questions were warranted because T or C is in crisis and we desperately need leaders who will stop chasing tourism, development and business as the solution to empty coffers.

 

The incumbents, Shelly Harrelson, Rolf Hechler and Amanda Forrister, have passed budgets that transferred millions of dollars out the utilities. They have ruthlessly exploited the little guy who has paid their utility bills. Their solution to the utility crises is to do more of the same. They have raised utility rates as much as 70 percent and more than doubled property taxes.

 

They do not talk about the utility crises other than to preach, such as Harrelson did at an August meeting, that the people and bloggers like me need to say only positive things about T or C so that new businesses and residents and tourists come here. Hechler and City Commissioner Merry Jo Fahl wholeheartedly agreed with Harrelson’s advocacy for propaganda.

 

I fear that the non-incumbents are of similar ilk. Gordon Edelheit, a roofing and art gallery business owner, was and maybe still is the head of the T or C Chamber of Commerce. Swingle enlisted the chamber to push through the doubling of property taxes on last November’s ballot. Instead of using business people to convince the public, city commissioners and city staff could have informed them what crisis repairs were needed, their costs and financing. Educating the public on ballot questions is allowed under the law, but telling them how to vote is not. But accountability and planning and turning the ship toward good city management is hard and dopey PR ads are easy. The chamber’s campaign was non-informational, showing pictures of pot holes and water leaks and it worked.

 

A conscientious campaign for doubling property taxes would have first researched if the city had a long-term plan for addressing the infrastructure problems to ensure the public wouldn’t be ripped off—again. This lack of care for the public’s wellbeing and the public purse is not a good sign. We already have a city commission that rubber-stamps whatever is put before them, abdicating their leadership duties and thus enabling silent and thus inherently bad city management of public funds.

 

Edelheit did not return my request to contact me after the ballot measures passed. He did respond to my recent candidate email with questions attached. He told me to come to a series of open houses being held to meet the candidates. When I responded that I preferred written responses to ensure correct quotes, Edelheit was silent. I saw him at the last two city commission meetings and one other time, when the city had torn out nine trees while putting in water pipes downtown.

 

Ingo Hoeppner is also a downtown business owner. This is his third or fourth time running for city commissioner. He is very hard to understand, having a heavy German accent, which is the biggest barrier to his being elected. His previous campaigns always emphasize youth and youth activities and the city’s parks systems—he has sat on the city’s parks and recreation board for years. We already have Harrelson, Forrister and City Commissioner Destiny Mitchell flogging for youth, a special interest more appropriate for a school board member. Hechler and the other city commissioners also just voted to make a $12-million sports and pool complex one of the top five capital projects to be pursued. The people of Sierra County pay more than half their property taxes to fund the public school system, yet we are supposed to provide them with soccer and baseball fields and a competitive pool and sports complex? This emphasis on youth and recreation makes Hoeppner a more-of-the-same candidate who will likely further exploit the utility- and taxpayer. He doesn’t attend city meetings, demonstrating further lack of interest in larger city issues.

 

Chaz Glines is said to be a bartender at the T or C Brewery. I know nothing about him, but I know he hasn’t attended city meetings over the last four and a half years, the vast majority of which I have attended. Most city meetings are scarcely attended by the public, and if they are, individuals are usually there for a planning and zoning application or to promote a social or civic function. His job depends on tourism and regular customers with disposable income. I doubt he will be the person we need, one who will oversee utilities-crises master-planning with the aim of fixing our blighted infrastructure in the most equalitarian, expeditious and economical manner.

 

The no-talking, no-explaining, no-planning, no-accountability form of government will probably remain in place. Someone suggested not voting for any of the candidates in order to make their recall easier.

 

The questions for non-incumbent and incumbent candidates are below.

 

Questions for Mayor Pro Tem Rolf Hechler, Mayor Amanda Forrister and City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson

 1. Mayor Amanda Forrister and Mayor Pro Tem Rolf Hechler, you ran on a transparency platform. City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson, although you were appointed to the city commission and did not run for office, please also answer the question on government transparency.

During your tenure:

a. City meetings viewable on YouTube have been done away with, lessening citizen access.

b. numerous citizens attending the meeting have stated they can’t hear what the city commissioners or staff are saying, lessening citizen access.

c.There has been no discussion of the capital projects portion of the budget at least since 2019, which is now about $31 million, while the operations budget is about $21 million.

d. No written or verbal reports are required by you by city department heads, making it impossible for citizens to know how our city is being managed or what is going on.

e. Your personal reports are verbal and not substantive, that is, the various boards you serve on, such as the Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission, are not reported on.

f. The last three city managers have been hired behind closed doors and your supposed written goals for them have been secret and their evaluations secret.

g. The proposed sale of the electric facility has been carried out behind closed doors for nearly two and a half years.

h. In the numerous planning and zoning public hearings you have not made findings of fact, except once, when Hechler alluded to one or two of the seven findings of fact you are supposed to make when deciding whether to allow a “recovery house” in a residential neighborhood.

i. You have not ever responded to my questions as a reporter sent to you via your official city email.  

How have you been transparent?

 2. You claim that you “inherited” the decay of the water and other utilities, claiming “bad management” by city commissioners in the past. Please explain how your management is any different than past city commissioners, since you too:

a. have passed numerous budgets transferring millions of dollars out of utility fees paid by citizens,

b. do not discuss capital projects in any detail,

c. have required only one or two list-like reports on capital projects, which are not included in the city packet,

d. have approved list-like Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plans each year with little discussion or communication with the public. thus contributing to the neglect of the utilities?

 3. Mayor Amanda Forrister and her husband were charged with animal cruelty, not having given their lion-hunting dogs rabies shots, not having a kennel permit and not having dog licenses from the city. Forrister also contacted the chief of police, using her power as an elected official to mitigate the charges, violating the Government Conduct Act, which disallows using one’s governmental authority for personal benefit. You not only did not condemn or censure her actions, you aided and abetted her by giving her a kennel license without proof of rabies vaccines or city tags, violating city code. Why should we not assume that you consider yourselves above the law as city commissioners?

 4. The city commission, over the last four years, has voted unanimously on all but a very few motions, such as the solar-energy ordinance. Do you meet in secret and decide how the city commission will vote before hand? Do you build consensus via the city manager’s written reports? Why are the written, weekly, city-manager reports secret and not part of your public meetings? How do you explain your clone-like voting?

 5. Last January, it was revealed in your meeting with legislators that we need about $20 million in emergency water system repairs and $1.5 million in emergency wastewater repairs. Why has this never been discussed in city meetings and why is there no written report by department heads or engineers accounting for this request to legislators? Do you know what the emergency repairs are? Please state what you know.

 6. Over the past four years, water rates have gone up about 70 percent, sewer rates 25 percent, trash rates 25 percent and property taxes have more than doubled. Despite the vast increases in utility fees and taxes, the city commission has presented no five-, 10- or 20-year master plan for dealing with our water, wastewater and electric system disintegration and how to pay for it. Why? And why are our trash rates so high?

7. City Commissioners Shelly Harrelson and Destiny Mitchell have been absent much more than three times, (I would say their rate of absenteeism is between one-third and one-half) which was cause for removal in city policy by fellow city commissioners, at least in prior years. Why have you not held them accountable?

 

 

Questions for T or C city commission candidates Ingo Hoeppner, Gordon Edelheit and Chaz Glines

 1. What governmental experience do you have?

 2. The Chamber of Commerce, at City Manager Bruce Swingle’s request, ran the campaign to pass two general-obligation-bond questions that more than double city property taxes to fix water and wastewater infrastructures and roads. The ballot questions passed with about 80 percent approval ratings. The campaign gave very little information to voters, showing pictures mostly of water breaks and pot holes. The city was also extremely vague about what the money would be used for, the vague and very general ballot language being basically the only guide to how the money will be spent. The city has no master plan for fixing the water and wastewater infrastructures. Do you feel it was responsible of the Chamber to push through tax-funded projects that are unplanned and unknown to the public?

 3. What will you do about addressing the water, wastewater and electric utilities crises conditions? Have you read any of the engineering reports on these infrastructures?

 4. What do you think about department heads never giving oral or written reports to the city commission?

 5. What do you think about the current $51-million budget?

 6. I have not seen any of you at very many city commission meetings. How have you informed yourselves about what is happening in city government? Why haven’t you attended city meetings?

 7. What do you think about the last three city managers being hired behind closed doors? What do you think about Assistant City Manager Traci Alvarez being placed in that position by the city commission without the job being advertised, without a job description, without revealing her qualifications?

8. What do you think about the city commission passing nearly 100 percent of its motions unanimously and with little discussion?

9. Two years ago, during the city commission’s traditional, once-a-year, policy-making retreat, held at the Holiday Inn Express, the city commission and city staff, when asked what was the city’s biggest problem or challenge, agreed with City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson that “CAVERs,” citizens against virtually everything, were the biggest problem. What do you think about that?

10.What is your platform?

 

 

 

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Kathleen Sloan
Kathleen Sloan

Kathleen Sloan has been a local-government reporter for 17 years, covering counties and cities in three states—New Mexico, Iowa and Florida. She has also covered the arts for various publications in Virginia, New Mexico and Iowa. Sloan worked for the Truth or Consequences Herald newspaper from 2006 to 2013; it closed December 2019. She returned to T or C in 2019 and founded the online newspaper, the Sierra County Sun, with Diana Tittle taking the helm as editor during the last year and a half of operation. The Sun closed December 2021, concurrent with Sloan retiring. SierraCountySun.org is still an open website, with hundreds of past articles still available. Sloan is now a board member of the not-for-profit organization, the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, which supported the Sun and is currently sponsoring the Sierra County Citizen, another free and open website. Sloan is volunteering as a citizen journalist, covering the T or C beat. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.

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