Election forum held Saturday
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — The second and final candidates forum for Wake Forest’s mayor and commissioner was held Saturday in the town-run Alston-Massenburg Center on North Taylor Street. Attendance was smaller than the Oct. 24 chamber of commerce forum, but the questions from both the forum organizer Delta Sigma Theta and from the audience were more personal and free-wheeling.
All seven candidates were present — incumbent Mayor Vivian Jones and her challenger, town Commissioner Jim Thompson, and the five candidates for two open commissioner seats: Bridget Wall-Lennon, John Van Ness, Liz Simpers, Ned Jones and Thad Juszczak.
Highlighted below are some of their responses to five of the questions, as well as closing comments by the mayoral candidates.
Q – What in your record demonstrates effectiveness?
Mayor Jones pointed out that when she first ran for office she promised to bring an end to the rancor that existed during and between town board meetings by rebuilding relationships among the commissioners, town staff and community organizations.
“I said when I ran the first time … we needed a positive leader who would build relationships, and I have worked very hard to do that,” she said. “I have relationships throughout the region and throughout the state that bring a benefit to the town of Wake Forest through contacts, through funding, through opportunities. I also bring a spirit of collaboration … I have worked really hard with the different organizations in the community.”
Thompson drew on his own 17 years of experience as a director for nonprofit associations, noting that in one position where he was director, they grew the association from 450 to 800 members in about four years, and upped a 68 percent retention rate to a 98 percent retention rate.
As a commissioner, Thompson cited the two years he was appointed as mayor pro tem, and he described one place he said was willing to look past the easy way out on a thorny issue — how to rebuild the town pool after it was irrevocably damaged.
“There are some on the board who wanted to move forward and just redo the pool the same way it was,” he said. “But several of us stood up and said no, that we need a modern pool. And we actually did accept a very modern pool that is helpful for generations to come. Instead of rebuilding the same pool that existed in the ’30s we have a pool that is going to carry us into the 21st century.”
Juszczak and Ned Jones both touted their work backgrounds in government service as having the knowhow to get things done, adding in some of what they’ve done since then to bulk up their answers.
“I’ve been treasurer and president of many nonprofits … and I’ve been attending the town’s board meetings in person for the last 35 months to understand what’s going on,” Juszczak said. “I’ve also been on the town’s planning board for the last two and a half years and have to actually go out and look at sites and vote. It’s given me a lot of understanding of what my responsibilities are.”
Jones cited his church work, his military service in Vietnam — “I know what service is, I know what sacrifice is” — and government work as a statistician and economist that included working toward agricultural development. He is also president of a state fly fishing organization.
“I’ve actually spoken before the legislature committees on conservation issues,” he said.
John Van Ness said that 25 years working with business clients and as an employee leader is valuable, because it requires collaboration.
“In politics so often you hear, ‘My side won and your side lost.’” he said. “I think the best solutions are solutions where everybody wins, where everybody comes away with something.”
Q – What are the most important issues facing Wake Forest?
“If anybody commutes to Raleigh, they would say traffic,” Simpers said. “You try to go down 540 or Capital in the morning you probably hate your life. And you schedule your day around ‘Gosh when can I escape the traffic?’”
She also identified growth affecting other areas, the need to support business growth and local businesses and building up the town center to make it more of a destination.
“My biggest goal is going to be connecting people to each other and to the town so they don’t feel like they’re being left out of big town decisions,” she added.
Suggesting that the town should devote more funds to roads, Juszczak also hammered home how important it is for the town’s ordinances to have teeth during development review.
“We need to approve only those developments which improve Wake Forest — leaving it better after it’s over than it was before it came,” he said. “We’ve had some developments which I don’t think did that.”
Ned Jones called the town’s traffic plan, last updated in 2010, “desperately” out of date, pointing to inconsistencies.
“When it was done there were no counts done on Heritage Lake Road,” he pointed out. “Have you driven on Heritage Lake Road lately? … I live right next to it, there are a lot of cars there. Getting out of Heritage Lake Road onto Heritage Club is a nightmare.”
Jones also warned against blanket calls for stopping growth: “If we refuse some development request we better be darn sure we have the teeth to stand behind it, otherwise the developer will take us to court and we’ll lose.”
Q – How can the candidates affect the voter fatigue felt by Northeast neighborhood residents who feel the town isn’t addressing their needs?
Thompson questioned how often the board of commissioners has revisited the Northeast Neighborhood Plan since its creation in 2007 and criticized the town’s leadership for creating a situation where instead of going to the residents to see what they need, the board waits until they come to them.
“We have a lot of plans but we have very few actions to speak of,” he said. “You look at the Northeast Community Coalition meeting. This is a great group of folks … We have more liaisons on the fire department board, the Historic Preservation Commission, in all these different groups, yet why is there not a board liaison to the Northeast Community Coalition?”
“We put programs that we want as a town instead of coming in and asking ‘What do you want?’” he continued. “You have this feeling that if you want to talk with the town you have to come to downtown and talk with us. We need to be out in the community, creating (mobile) town halls, creating ways for us to listen to citizens and listen to what they talk about.”
Vivian Jones bristled at the suggestion the town has ignored that plan, countering that it is on the town’s schedule to revisit the plan next year. She then rattled off a list of improvements to the community since the plan was enacted, including a pricey revamp of the Alston-Massenburg Center itself, which was formerly just one concrete room and a storage closet.
“I was very involved in producing the Northeast Community Plan and we had great input from the community at that time,” she said. “We listened to what you had to say and we put those things in it and it is scheduled to be looked at again next year.
“We have done some things out of that plan. We did look at the street lighting and did everything everybody told us needed to be done at the time,” she added. “We resurfaced and put new sidewalks on Juniper all the way out to Ailey Young Park. We did the park next door. We refurbished this building. We redid Perry Street. We redid Caddell Street. The Northeast Neighborhood coalition is the result of the Northeast Neighborhood group that was established because of the Northeast Plan. …We are listening and I have worked really hard all the years I’ve been the mayor with this community trying to do things for you that you wanted done.”
Q – Audience member Tenice Caudle caught several commissioner candidates unaware with a question about where longtime residents could find affordable housing in town and what the candidates could do about it.
Several commissioner candidates appeared to be caught unaware, referring to it as solely an issue for the county housing authority, or referencing “subsidized housing,” until Caudle and other audience members stood up to correct them — she meant housing ordinary people can afford. In the East End/Northeast Neighborhood itself, resident Tim Sexton said, there is low homeownership and a large number of renters, many of whom are single mothers.
It’s a regional issue, Van Ness insisted, noting that Wake County has an affordable living task force — (the county task force cites 56,000 working families who make less than $39,000 a year that are currently unable to find affordable housing.) Van Ness said that group is something Wake Forest ought to be involved in to help find housing for teachers, police officers, firefighters, young families and the elderly.
“We need to be really involved with … that group to make sure Wake Forest is getting the resources that we need,” he said. “If you spend over 30 percent of your take home pay on housing you’re at risk for not being able to afford food, healthcare, transportation, so we really need to make sure that we’re supporting the community in these efforts.
“During my campaign I haven’t accepted any contributions from developers or builders or special interests,” he noted, adding, “I think if we roll up our sleeves, we can figure out some solutions to these problems.”
Wall-Lennon pointed out that the town’s median income of $77,000 allows a family to qualify for a $230,000 house.
“You won’t find that many homes in that price range,” she said. “It is important for us to be able to say to our developers … we need to have stipulations that we’ll promote affordable housing.”
Drawing on her work in state government, Wall-Lennon also pointed to a Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America program which helps first-time homebuyers and helps them make the transition from renter to homeowner: “When you look at public sector employees, which we have a lot in our area, their income range is around $45,000. There’s no way they can move to the housing in Wake Forest. … We need to have our own study to determine where we need affordable housing.”
Q – A question asked by Lily Thompson, Jim’s daughter, asked of candidates what’s next for them if they don’t win the election.
Simpers called her campaign a kind of boot camp for future involvement in town affairs.
“I have met so many wonderful people that I actually have a passion for our town and it made me so excited to live here in a way that I never had before,” she said. “So, if I don’t win I’m going to keep doing what I already do with the YMCA, with the town.”
“Your elected officials should be servants and that’s what this is all about,” she added. “I think we all feel this is a way we can continue to serve the town.”
And Wall-Lennon indicated that, in addition to seeing her daughter through her recently acquired status as a Daisy Scout, she intends to keep helping people as she has done for years.
“I like to consider myself sometimes as a committee of one. That means I get in where I can fit in. I try to provide public service to organizations that I can,” she said. “I will continue to work with the Northeast Community Coalition. I’m an advocate and I’m an organizer … I don’t like to consider myself an outside agitator, but sometimes you need agitation to get things moving. I don’t mind being that person.”
In their closing statements, the mayoral candidates also summed up their own campaign slogans, doing so publicly for the last time until a winner is declared.
Mayor Jones talked about her goals of restoring the town center tying into the community plan and other plans.
“I have time to work with many organizations and I have a reputation among my peers and my colleagues a someone who works well with others and strives to make everything work for the best of everyone involved,” she said. “I was taught by my parents to do a job, to be there, show up and be present and be prepared. I believe Wake Forest needs that kind of mayor and I am that kind of mayor.”
Thompson reiterated that he feels that regardless of what has been done, it’s time for new leadership to take over.
“Wake Forest is at a crossroads. While we’ve made some good progress, Wake Forest deserves more than good. We deserve great,” he said. “We have the opportunity to be more proactive with our growth than of reactive. We have the chance to be more transparent with our citizens and engage with them everywhere they are, in person and online.”
“While I may not be able to give the quantity of time the current mayor does I will make up for it in the quality of time that I give,” he added. “It is truly different between being present and being a presence.”
The election for all candidates is Nov. 7.