Tonawanda News — With less than two weeks until voters go to the polls Nov. 5 to decide the fate of most of North Tonawanda City Council and the mayorship, candidates met to debate top issues in a forum sponsored by the Tonawanda News and the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.
On Thursday evening in an auditorium partially filled with about 50 onlookers at Spruce Elementary School, both sides, Republican and Democrat, largely stayed in tune with platforms doled out over the weeks and months leading up to the election.
With Eric Duvall, managing editor of the News, serving as moderator, 10 candidates sparred on topics focused on taxes, development, crime and the betterment of the Lumber City at large.
The most involved portion of the debate fell on two candidates, one of whom will lead the city for the next four years. Mayor Rob Ortt, a Republican incumbent who won a landslide election in 2009 over former Mayor Larry Soos, and Democratic candidate Janet Zehr, tussled over the future of the city through development, the police department and the party makeup of the common council.
Ortt said he has sized down the government, overseen a bevy of development projects and 32 miles of paved roads, and held the tax rate steady during his term, with a plan in place to buckle down on the city’s aging water and sewer lines.
Zehr, pushing what would become a Democratic theme throughout the evening, said she would add to the police force and consider reducing the mayorship to a part-time position, opening up city goverment and forming town hall meetings.
Ortt called her claim that his administration was not transparent “intellectually dishonest,” and said that the reason Republicans have controlled the council was less about organized control and more about the voters realizing who would be best suited to improve the city. He said that the city holds “four meetings a month,” noting that much of the behind-the-scenes work is conducted in work session meetings, which are open to the public.
Zehr said the Republicans have captured minor party lines through “political maneuvering” to capture the majority of votes in a city that has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
While Zehr said more focus should be put on Oliver Street, Ortt said the city has applied for state grants for facade work that could lift the disheveled street out of years of dysfunction, much like a similar project on Webster Street once had.
Zehr said the city should “get beyond Webster” and turn its focus to other areas of the city, including the avenues.
“Oliver needs to be more business friendly,” she said.
Ortt, again refuted Zehr’s stance, stating that the city has a master plan in place for Tonawanda Island, “a prime piece of real estate” and that the city is continuing to focus on economic development projects throughout the city.
“Progress not promises,” he said. “That’s what you’ve seen over the last four years.”
Democrat David Kelly, a physical education teacher in Buffalo who is running for public office for the first time, and incumbent Russ Rizzo, an Independent who caucuses with Republicans and who has held various positions in city and county governance over the last 20-plus years, agreed that recent development at Gratwick-Riverside Park were moving the city forward, but differed on the influence of work conducted along Witmer Road to alleviate flooding issues.
Kelly said he has seen the problems in and around residential areas persist, including “tic and water problems still there.”
“I have a good friend living on the road,” Kelly said. “I will put pressure on people.”
Rizzo flatly disputed the claim, noting that the council has worked for years with state and county officials to bring in funding for flooding caused by the installation of a now-defunct county dump years ago.
“Phase 1 has a been a total success,” Rizzo said, also challenging Kelly to find any flooding issues near the 15 houses making up the neighborhood near the Town of Wheatfield border. “There’s no longer water up to their steps.”
Kelly added that he felt the city should not be paying $3,000 to the concert promoter who held three concerts at the park, noting that he attended three concerts held at Gratwick this summer.
Rizzo felt the greater issue was drawing more individuals from surrounding areas to the city, with the concerts benefitting businesses in the surrounding areas.
Kelly said he would like to fund ways to further youth activities in the city.
Donna Braun, a Republican more than two years into her first term on the North Tonawanda Board of Education, and Lisa Spencer, a Democrat who lost a 2012 bid for the school board and is involved with volunteer initiatives, locked horns over financial considerations for the city police department but mostly agreed on issues related to the resuscitation of Oliver Street.
Spencer said she sees the key to a turnaround along the thoroughfare would begin “once it’s cleaned up,” and would look to cut expenses in other areas of the city in order to raise money for more members of the police department, even looking at the possibility of a tax increase as a last resort.
“Public safety is major part of my platform,” she said. “I don’t think we have a choice when it comes to the safety of our citizens and to the safety of our children.”
Braun said she too has heard complaints of rising crime in the Second Ward, particularly in areas close to the police station. But, she said, she would instead focus on blight related to absentee landlords and community involvement.
“Every city in the country has crime rates,” she said. “I don’t know for a fact that we do need more police officers.”
Spencer said the city’s housing stock in the Second Ward was integrally linked to its crime and blight.
“We need to find a way to bring more business into North Tonawanda,” she said. “We need to build up our tax base some more.”
Republican Eric Zadzilka, vying for his third term on the council, focused on the introduction of Walmart in his ward, while Darlene Bolsover, an Independent endorsed by the Democrats who lost a 2012 bid for the school board, said the mega store’s introduction into the city has also had consequences related to increased crime.
The two sparred over flooding issues in the area and infrastructure, though Zadzilka said the issues were largely related to “a 150-year storm” that inundated the city in July and that the council has formed a plan that would alleviate many of the issues.
Bolsover said she’s seen issues arise in the Wurlitzer Park neighborhood, an area she said is slipping from its glory days as a new neighborhood, saying that the issues may be linked to the nearby addition of Walmart.
“I think that had an impact on Wurlitzer Park,” she said.
Zadzilka said during his term, the council has moved forward the Meadow Drive extension that will bolster business by connecting the city’s central business corridor to the area and that the crime is part and parcel with bigger stores, citing similar issues at Budwey’s Market. He also said that his ability to work with fellow council members helped to move the city forward with projects outside of his ward.
“The opposition would have you believe that there’s a lack of progress in North Tonawanda,” he said.
New to the political scene are Bob Clark, a Republican currently serving out the final months of retired Alderwoman-At-Large Nancy Donovan’s term, and Beverly Loxterman, a Democrat who is involved with volunteer initiatives for a variety of non-profits in the city.
Like many of her Democratic counterparts, the theme of public safety was foremost among her concerns, seeing it as a key to the city’s ailing sections, including Oliver Street.
Clark, a North Tonawanda native who spent years overseas and around the country as a member of the military before return to the city, said he would use his experience in leadership positions and observing different cultures and cities as an incubus for change.
“When I left it was a blue collar town,” Clark said, adding that the city’s future is now centered on its waterfront.
Loxterman, who worked for 37 years as an administrative assistant for the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office and is a YWCA of the Tonawandas board member, said increased public safety would bring people and business back to the city.
Both debated the issue of police dispatch, with Clark stating that the move to merge the city’s fire and police dispatchers with the county did not have an effect on response times, while Loxterman said she’s met with police officer who said it had.
She also railed against absentee landlords and their effect on the community, a point that Clark did not dispute. She said she would like to serve as opposition to the Republican control in the city.
“I want to put an end to partisan politics,” she said.