WORTHINGTON — At the last of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce-hosted 2020 candidate forums, Worthington city council hopefuls pitched their ideas to voters Tuesday night.
In Ward 1, two new candidates are on the ballot for the seat soon to be vacated by Alan Oberloh. Worthington native Chris Kielblock and longtime Worthington community member Aida Simon are both running for the position.
In Ward 2, first-term council member Amy Ernst is challenged by David Janssen.
Also on the 2020 ballot is Worthington's council member at large, Chad Cummings, who is unopposed.
Simon was unable to attend Tuesday's forum, but she provided a written statement that was read during opening statements. In her statement, she explained that her history as a community advocate has given her experience working directly with the people and engaging with the community. Simon highlighted a number of policy priorities: workforce and community development; budgeting to support housing, health care and essential workers; investing in roads; and including everyone's voice.
Simon also announced that she will host a follow-up conference near the end of the month to provide answers to the questions asked by community members Tuesday.
Because Cummings has no opponent, he chose not to participate in the Q&A part of the forum, giving only opening and closing statements.
Potential Shopko purchase
Tuesday's initial topic was the question of District 518's potential purchase of the former Shopko building to be used for community education. Some current council members have expressed concern that granting a conditional use permit to the school district for that property would take the building off the city's tax rolls.
Moderator Ryan McGaughey asked each candidate if they would support the District 518 buying the old Shopko building or the searching for a retail buyer.
Ernst said she would support either direction. The Shopko building has been for sale for six years, she noted, without any interest from retailers, but it would be great if a business wanted to purchase the site. On the other hand, the space would also be a good fit for the school district, she added.
"I can see that decision both ways," said Ernst, who is employed as District 518's technology director.
The other candidates were more adamant in their responses.
Janssen prefaced his response with the caveat that he is not currently involved in city politics and doesn't have all the information about this discussion.
"The Shopko building is one of the largest retail properties that the city of Worthington has," he said. "I am 100%, hands down, against the school district taking that building off of our tax rolls forever. I will not waver; that's my stance."
Kielblock also said that he would support a retail use of the Shopko site. He noted that District 518 already owns 300 acres of land within the city limits, and suggested that the district find space on existing property to build a new facility for community education.
"I think it would be a bad decision to take this prime piece of highway commercial real estate and make it into a school facility," he said.
The city of Worthington has planned an outdoor aquatic center near the YMCA. When the city council decided on this location, some community members were dissatisfied, submitting that the location of the old outdoor pool near Centennial Park would be a better fit.
At Tuesday's forum, city council candidates were asked if they were open to reconsidering the location of the aquatic center.
"I would definitely be welcome to readdressing the location of an aquatic center," Janssen said, but noted that the decision has already been made.
Kielblock pointed out that there is some nostalgia involved in the push for the new aquatic center to be located at the former outdoor pool site. While that location has some advantages, he said, the Y property allows for more future expansion. Putting the aquatic center on the west side of town will not stop people from going, he added.
Ernst reviewed some of the reasons the city council chose not to put the aquatic center near Centennial Park. The planned aquatic center is bigger than the former outdoor pool, so size of the lot was a concern. The old pool site also doesn't have room for parking. With the splash pad across the street, council members were concerned that using that site for the aquatic center might create a hazard with kids crossing the busy road between the two amenities. Additionally, placing the aquatic center near the Y saves money on management costs, she noted.
Prior to the city council's vote, the city surveyed parents, and the general response was that either location would be fine, Ernst said.
After hearing that feedback, city council members determined that the Y location made "the best business sense," she explained.
The Worthington Police Department is in the midst of its second lawsuit for excessive force. Community members wanted to know how each candidate proposes to hold WPD accountable for brutality.
"That's one of the reasons we hire professional administrators in our police department," Kielblock said, suggesting that the city council's role should be to hold management responsible, not the officers themselves.
"Community policing does not mean the community in the form of the general public takes control or direction of local law enforcement or police personnel," he added.
Kielblock said it would be helpful for police officers to be more visible in the community and more interactive with the public.
"They live here and are part of our community and are accountable in that way, too," Kielblock said of police.
Ernst declared her support for local law enforcement.
"I think they do a great job in a difficult situation," she said.
However, when police misconduct does occur, appropriate discipline needs to follow, she added.
"We want to make sure all people are treated the same," Ernst said, suggesting more training in de-escalation and cultural sensitivity.
Janssen wasn't sure how to respond to the question.
"I don't know the inner workings as to why they were sued," he said. "I don't really have an answer."
Increasing civic engagement
The candidates were each asked how they plan to engage more people, especially underrepresented demographics, in the city's decision-making.
"Just be approachable," Kielblock said.
He pointed out that some communities repeatedly say that they aren't invited to the table, and argued that they actually are invited.
"People are welcome to attend (committee and council meetings), but nobody shows up," he said. "Decisions and input are made by those who show up. An individual has to take the initiative, has to want to be involved.
"If they truly are wanting to be involved, they will find a way," he added. "That's how I did it. That's how Chad (Cummings) did it. That's how we all did it."
Janssen said that it would be helpful if more people were willing to run for city council.
"I don't know how to inspire someone to want to be involved," he said.
"If I had a dollar for every time we asked the question," Ernst said, "I would be a lot richer than I am now. The white community is very well represented (in city government), but the other communities are not well represented," she said.
The city is working to solve this problem, she noted.
Vision for future
Each candidate was asked their vision for the future of Worthington and how they plan to work toward it.
"I am an optimistic person," Kielblock said. "It takes a team, and I want to be a part of that team."
Janssen said that city leaders should focus on Worthington being a regional hub and encourage private enterprise.
"Worthington is great already," he said.
Ernst named a number of projects in the works and said she'd like to keep working on those until they come to fruition.