Organizing an election forum can be tough, especially when you have 13 candidates sharing a stage.
The Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly settled on a format that involved clumping candidates in groups of three or four and including one incumbent at each table. The idea was to keep things fresh.
For the sake of space and time, I’ve provided personal insight and a timestamp of every candidate’s best moment during our forum, An Evening with the Candidates, Oct. 10 at the Levine Senior Center. We uploaded the complete forum to Facebook, YouTube and our website. Just search for Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly.
I want to thank attorney Laura Budd, of Weaver & Budd Law, for moderating the forum. Her presence elevated the event.
Mayor Paul Bailey (1:59:57)
A question from a former mayor mentioned how the council adopted a resolution in 2016 opposing Raleigh’s overreach in local zoning, prompting discussion among candidates about leadership management style. This gave Bailey a chance to talk about how he prefers to resolve issues face to face with people rather than with a resolution, which he believes comes off as punitive. Bailey noted that he and other leaders have discussed the town’s legislative agenda with state lawmakers, how he’s working with other leaders in the Metrolina Mayors Coalition and mentioned how he’s had multiple conversations with former N.C. House Rep. Bill Brawley about the state’s overreach.
Commissioner John Higdon (11:54)
Higdon brought up enough distinctions between him and Mayor Paul Bailey to help undecided voters. Higdon talked about how he immediately opposed House Bill 514, which gave Matthews the ability to form or operate a charter school. Higdon doesn’t believe doing so is economically feasible. “An option you can’t exercise is not an option,” Higdon said. “We might as well have an option to purchase the Taj Mahal. We’re not going to do that either.” If elected, he’ll get feedback from citizens and make them aware of the ramifications of supporting the bill.
Ben Bash (2:01:17)
Bash demonstrated a key skill after hearing the answers given to a question about how the board should curtail overreach from state lawmakers on local decisions. “Sounds like there’s a fair amount of consensus reached here,” he said, before surmising that decision-making is best when it is done locally while also recognizing the town’s relationship with Raleigh. “It’s incumbent upon the sitting board to work collaboratively together to come up with the best solution,” Bash said. He agreed with Mayor Paul Bailey about allowing other citizens to get involved.
Dave Bland (1:00:03)
Bland expressed an interest in exploring creative ideas to address transportation issues, including making Matthews more walkable and bringing back a shuttle bus to get around Matthews without having to wait two hours for a Charlotte bus. “I’m a firm believer we need to discourage people from going through Matthews and encourage people to go around,” he said. This will require elected leaders to “put their heads together.”
Allen Crosby (2:13:04)
Crosby had the most compelling closing remarks among all the candidates. He recalled how he met a woman in her mid-80s a few weeks ago named Doris, who was finding it difficult to afford living in Matthews due to rising county property taxes. He believes it’s the duty of the board to make people’s lives easier, but he cautioned voters from getting into “wish list politics.” “There are a lot of great ideas on how to improve this town from a building or road standpoint,” he said. “But if we lose the people in this town, like Doris, who has been here since the 1950s, then we have lost the heart of this town.”
Commissioner Barbara Dement (1:01:41)
I am including Dement’s stance on the extent in which elected leaders should disclose campaign donations from developers because it’s a point not often expressed about developer influence on local projects. “Developers are just like any other business owners that want good people in our board,” Dement said. “Any business owner or resident is going to want good people and support good people.” She said it’s unfair to insinuate that campaign donations are unethical, noting there are campaign finance laws and that such information is public record.
Renee Garner (1:39:13)
Garner came off really relatable when challengers were asked about the importance of activism. “I jumped into Matthews politics when the superstreet was going to take over my front yard for a tractor-trailer turnaround,” Garner said. “There’s nothing that will get you into local politics faster than thinking a swatch of asphalt is going to take over your kid’s playset. “ Garner also noted how she has spent the last three years getting feedback from neighbors and taking that to the town hall podium. If elected, she intends to take the feedback to the dais.
Gina Hoover (1:12:13)
Responding to a question about steps needed to address dangerous driving and threats to pedestrians, Hoover expressed how she had been in a couple of accidents from people running red lights. “I do believe for a walkable community we need more sidewalks and not just downtown Matthews,” she said. “We need them across Independence in what people refer to as ‘the forgotten side of Matthews.’ They need to be all around for an actual walkable community.” Following through on building planned sidewalks and maintaining safe bike lanes are key.
Ken McCool (1:06:57)
McCool gave efficient answers throughout the forum, but his big moment came when he responded to remarks made by Mayor Paul Bailey. After Mark Tofano and Gina Hoover mentioned how a sitting (unnamed) commissioner didn’t file a campaign finance report for a specific time frame, Bailey asked why someone wouldn’t pick up the phone and point that out to the commissioner. McCool called the mayor’s take as “slightly hypocritical” after Bailey wrote a “not nice” op-ed following a story about candidates’ signs getting stolen. McCool drew applause from the audience.
Commissioner Jeff Miller (1:44:38)
Miller did well overall explaining why commissioners took certain stances, but his take on House Bill 514 was extremely clear. “CMS has not invested in Matthews in a heck of a long time,” Miller said, noting the district neglected to do something about the number of mobile units at Elizabeth Lane Elementary School for many years. “The fact is they haven’t been investing in our town in a darn long time and [HB514] was used, in this commissioner’s opinion, as a negotiating tool to get their attention.” While he supports charter schools, he doesn’t want to start a municipal system school.
Mark Tofano (1:36:47)
Tofano talks about activism as if it’s poetry. It’s one of the hallmarks of his campaign. During the forum, he noted how activism is essential for a vibrant and healthy democracy. He mentioned apathy and despair as two reasons people aren’t active in local government. “Despair comes from when you don’t have any hope that what you’re being active for isn’t going to result in any action being taken,” he said. “We need commissioners with active ears and hearts to people and become a citizen-centered democracy.”
Commissioner John Urban (40:13)
After hearing several of the challengers say they wouldn’t support building a charter school as allowed by House Bill 514, Urban definitively said, “We’re not going to be building a municipal charter school.” Urban mentioned how he tried to work with school board member Sean Strain on an alternative proposal to HB514. When challenged during the forum by Renee Garner over parts of the proposal not being legal, Urban said that doesn’t mean leaders couldn’t go to Raleigh and advocate for changes that would be beneficial to Matthews.
Larry Whitley (31:47)
Whitley didn’t have to scratch his head when it came to a question pertaining to engaging residents in areas such as Morningwood Drive and the Crestdale community. The former commissioner pastors at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on Crestdale Road. He also mentioned several upgrades coming to the community, including a heritage trail and road improvements along Crestdale. Being a retired highway patrolman of 30 years, he also believes in police having a presence in the community.