Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion and challenger Melanie Wells expressed similar views on many issues brought up during a two-hour forum Wednesday at the Keokuk Public Library.
However, they expressed divergent opinions on whether Keokuk should hire a city administrator.
“We don’t need one if we have a good mayor and city council,” Wells said. “Government has gotten too big.”
On the other hand, Marion said he wouldn’t oppose having one after he finishes his next term if he’s re-elected Tuesday.
“It would be a great idea to start considering that,” he added.
When he took office five years ago, he believed a city administrator was not necessary. However, he, Finance Director John Russell and City Clerk Barb Barnes plan to retire in two years, making the hiring of a city administrator more practical, he explained.
“You still would need a mayor, even if it’s part time,” Marion added. “The city administrator would report to the mayor.”
The candidates also differed on saving old properties that some people believe have historical value, such as the former Unitarian Church on Fourth Street.
“I’d love to save the old church, but the problem is you have to look at the realities of the situation,” the mayor said.
It would take $3 million to $5 million to rehabilitate the building, according to Marion.
The city has been in favor of saving such old buildings as the Keokuk Union Depot along the riverfront, he pointed out.
Wells said the city should leave historical properties alone and instead focus on derelict houses that have no real value and negatively impact the value of surrounding properties.
Marion responded that the city has demolished about 14 houses in the past two years.
When the candidates were asked about the role the city council should play in economic development, Wells said “everybody needs to work together.”
“It’s important we all work together,” Marion agreed. “We need to talk more about regionalism.”
When asked to identify the city’s recent positive initiatives, Wells cited the city’s financial contribution to Keokuk Area Hospital.
“But we need to work on a permanent fix,” she said. “We only have two years with the management group.”
Marion agreed that it’s important to retain the hospital. He also said the city has taken a proactive approach with streets, acquired the Keokuk Union Depot and is working with four entities that could bring more jobs to Keokuk.
When asked to identify the city’s primary weaknesses in recent years, Wells named “our infrastructure and our shaky hospital.”
“We don’t have the funds to do all these things at once,” she added. “By investing in people we have here, it will create jobs. We keep trying, but there are things that will be problems for years to come.”
“A lack of money is the big problem,” Marion said.“We have to find unique ways of getting money.”
The change in how commercial property is assessed could have a negative impact on cities’ coffers, according to the mayor.
When asked what steps they would take to create jobs, Marion said, “We have to live with what we are. I’m very excited about Iomega and Amjet.”
He also mentioned another possible development that could lead to more jobs in Keokuk.
Marion said training is needed as well as jobs and new business and industry.
“We’re trying to put professors and teachers into factories so they know what skill sets are needed here,” he added.
“I want to take the 40-year-old group and teach them skills so we can redo Oakland Cemetery,” Wells responded. “Then we can bring more tourism in with rides through the cemetery. We should advertise Keokuk worldwide.
“We need outside money,” she added. “We need to promote the river more, which would bring in outside money.”
Citing a declining population since 1970, Wells said a plan for more recreation for youth is needed.
“We need to work to keep what we already have,” she added. “We have to give people a reason to come here.”
Besides creating jobs, Marion said his priorities for improving the city include making the community more attractive, working on increasing community pride and enforcing city codes.
“I want to start sustainable gardening with all the vacant lots,” said Wells. “I want to develop the riverfront more.”
The forum was conducted by the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce, American Association of University Women and Daily Gate City.
Next: What the mayor can do to encourage more citizens to run for elected office and volunteer to serve on boards and commissions, and more.