Candidates for two Marion City Council Positions answered questions about local issues during a forum Sunday sponsored by Marion PRIDE and the Marion County Record. Howard Collett moderated the discussion.
Dieter said he was likely the oldest candidate for city council. He graduated from Marion High School in 1956 and has been a lifelong resident. He was formerly an industrial chemist. His political experience includes serving on the St. Luke Hospital Board.
Heitschmidt is originally from Ellsworth but has lived in Marion the last six years. He is the president of Central National Bank. He said he has spent time on other councils. Other political experience included working in Senator Bob Dole’s office as a youth and serving as president of Kansas State University Student Association.
Smith is the only candidate who is a current council member; he has served on the council for four years. Smith works as the Emergency Medical Services Director for Marion County.
Varenhorst is a lifelong resident of Marion. He ran a men’s clothing store in Marion for 10 years. He was president of Kiwanis, president of the library board, and chairman of the sesquicentennial celebration. “I want to keep council focused,” he said.
Vogel graduated from Marion High School in 2010. He currently works as a correctional officer with the Marion County Sheriff’s office. “I’ve dealt with some hard people over that time.” Vogel said a goal when elected would be to get young people in Marion more involved.
Candidates were asked what the city government’s first priority should be.
Dieter said that being a steward of tax dollars should be the priority of city government.
Heitschmidt said public safety should be the No. 1 priority for the city.
“We’ve had a good police chief,” Heitschmidt said. “Public safety we have down.”
Smith said the priority of city government should be to run smoothly to take better care of community members. He also said the government should keep track of finances, “To know we’re headed in the right direction.”
“The main thing I want to see is we make best use of tax dollars we receive,” Varenhorst said.
Vogel said the priority of city government should be law enforcement and safety. “Make sure we’re all on the same page and better support local law enforcement,” Vogel said.
Candidates were asked what role, if any, the city should have in economic development.
Dieter said the city should help encourage businesses by offering tax subsidies and supply street and utility access.
“The city can provide electrical, water, sewer hookups for no charge,” Dieter said. “It’s a matter of sales,” he added. “We also need to involve private groups — chamber, MAC, Pride. It has to be a collaborative effort.”
“I don’t believe government should be involved with economic development, but our city has chosen to be involved.”
Heitschmidt said he disapproved of the way the city has handled economic development represented by the absence of a full-time economic development director, a position that was not replaced when former director Doug Kjellin took the city administrator position.
“It’s something we’ve struggled with,” Smith said of economic development. “We had to make a decision with where money is best spent. We had to put it on back burner. It needs to brought back to forward of City Council.”
Smith agreed with Heitschmidt that he would prefer the city government stay out of economic development, but with an established interest, he also said that attracting smaller businesses was the right tactic. Smith added that economic development has been a topic where council members have disagreed.
Varenhorst said the city should act to encourage all business activity but especially foster smaller business development. He added businesses that employ two or three people would be more likely additions to the community than a manufacturer that employs 150 people.
“We need to support businesses when they come in,” Vogel said. “We need to provide some help for everybody.”
The responsibilities and interactions of the mayor, council, and city administrator were another topic of discussion.
“It has to be a smoother working operation,” Dieter said. “In the past there’s been some conflict. Everyone needs to work toward the good of the city.”
Dieter added that Mayor Mary Olson needs to determine priorities for the council.
“The mayor needs to be an integral part of the council.”
Heitschmidt said branches of the city government need to work within a defined chain of command. The mayor leads meetings and the council votes in ordinances, some of which are brought forward by department heads.
“Doug’s (Kjellin) job is to make sure, when we pass funding for streets, that it gets done,” Heitschmidt said. “We’ve created a culture where we bypass chain of command.”
Heitschmidt specifically brought up the issue of a bucket truck from the last council meeting where he thought the chain of command broke down.
“I’m embarrassed. It’s been on the agenda for years,” Heitschmidt said. “You’ve elected us. If you don’t like it vote us out.”
As a member of the council, Smith said, specifically in Heitschmidt’s statement about the bucket truck situation, that the council is elected to make decisions in the best interest of the general public.
“We have a city council that reacts to the general public,” Smith said.
“My vision of the city council: it’s like a three-legged stool,” Varenhorst said. “They all have to cooperate. You’ve got to have communication all the way around.”
“The mayor and city administrator need to get together to discuss things,” Vogel said.
Audience member Jim Davis asked Smith about street repairs and maintenance.
Smith said the reason the council has not acted on improving infrastructure was a limit of funding.
“The loss of revenue was from grants,” Smith said. He also said that streets have further deteriorated because of construction projects — St. Luke Hospital and the Marion County Jail. “We’re replacing now with concrete, instead of black top,” Smith said. “We’re making a more permanent solution on these roads.”
Olson asked what candidates thought about having work sessions between regular council meetings.
“You’ve already discussed it,” Dieter said. “It leaves (the public) more in the dark.”
“Since you’ve been mayor we’ve had more work sessions,” Heitschmidt said. “If you don’t trust (Kjellin) to present information at meetings that seems like a problem with him.”
“A lot of them discus one topic and they fall apart quickly,” Smith said.