Black Diamond mayoral primary in home stretch

As a follow-up to the forum The Reporter sat down one-on-one with candidates to ask some follow-up questions related to candidates statements at the forum.

One thing all three of the Black Diamond mayoral candidates have in common is that they are running for the good of the city.

The position of mayor in Black Diamond is slated as a part-time position but often demands a full-time level of attention and time, but it’s love for the city and a desire to help the community that mayoral candidates Rebecca Olness, Keith Watson, and Dave Gordon have said inspires them to pursue city leadership.

This weekend marks the final days of campaigning before the primary election Aug. 6 where the top two vote-getters will advance to the November general election.

The candidates participated in a forum on July 16 where they had the chance to state their opinions on various issues, mostly concerning the Master Planned Developments of YarrowBay, which would call for the building of over 6,000 homes as well as commercial development, and community unity.

As a follow-up to the forum The Reporter sat down one-on-one with candidates to ask some follow-up questions related to candidates statements at the forum.

Incumbent committed to communication

Several questions at the forum revolved around Black Diamond’s financial situation and the budgetary process. Comments were made about Olness’ leadership of the budget process and whether or not state law was followed by passing a balanced budget in 2012.

At the forum it was stated that the city did have a balanced budget by the deadline at the end of December. Questions however remained about Olness’ involvement.

“Yes, it is my job to produce a balanced budget and this council in particular has been very critical,” Olness said in an interview.

According to Olness, the budget process begins in July for the following year. The first steps involve the mayor meeting with the finance director and city manager and sending out a budget call letter asking department heads for their proposed budget for the following year. Each department head then submits a first round department budget to the mayor who then directs where cuts need to be made.

On Oct. 12 of last year Olness sent a letter to council titled “2013 Preliminary Budget-General Fund” outlining the preliminary budget for 2013 including revenue, expenditures and cost cutting measures that had already been applied to the budget. The initial budget shortfall was $734,700 and through reductions that was reduced to $248,783.

“That was the very first time council was involved,” Olness said.

She went on to explain that council had said they wanted to have more input and defended the presentation to council of the preliminary budget as giving council members the chance to give input.

“I am seeking council input on how to proceed further,” Olness wrote in the Oct. 12 letter.

At the end of the letter Olness noted that balancing work was continuing and more details would be given to council at a work study that was to be held on Oct. 18 and also noted that council member’s input would be included in future drafts of the budget.

Olness said that the budget was balanced well in advance of the December deadline.

“The budget absolutely has to be balanced and I have never not had a balanced budget,” Olness said. “I’ve also never had a budget that we didn’t have some reserves. I never use reserves, which was done a lot before.”

Olness noted that she has been able to decrease expenditures and has actually increased reserves in both 2012 and 2013. Olness said that she believes it will be possible for the city to survive financially for two to three more years until revenue increases due to growth.

Responding to questions about her relationship with council, Olness said that she is committed to continuing to try to work with council members.

“Council and I have to work together,” Olness said. “Yes, there is a separation of power and that’s the basis of government, but this council has been very difficult to work with. I have reached out to them. Only one or two of them will ever answer an email, several of them don’t answer emails.”

Olness said that council members have refused to meet with her.

“I think that this council, the new council, had an agenda when they came in,” Olness said. “They really don’t know what I think a lot of the times, because they won’t discuss things with me, but they think they disagree so they don’t want to (discuss things).”

Olness said that understanding the separate roles of council and the mayor is important. She explained that Council is tasked with formulating and adopting policies and the mayor is then in charge of implementing those policies.

In relation to City Hall, Olness denied accusations that the environment at City Hall is hostile.

“That is absolutely not true,” Olness said. “City Hall is a great place and there is absolutely no problems whatsoever between me and staff.”

Candidate focuses on transparency, communication

At the forum, candidate Keith Watson spoke about doing a better job and making a difference. When asked to expand on those comments Watson spoke about his ideas for addressing the city’s funding problems and community involvement.

“Well, first of all we have a funding problem in the city, and we’ve had it for over 50 years,” Watson said. “We don’t have a lot of businesses here. We do have over 300 businesses in town, but a lot of them are home-based so there’s no tax revenue from those folks to speak of.”

Watson said that the two main ways of generating revenue are from building new homes and business growth.

“I would like to get outsiders involved, I mean outside of government, get citizens involved and basically have them come up with ideas for funding. We have a lot of talented people in the city that I think we should tap in to.”

Watson said he would be looking for ideas on how to attract businesses and people to the city.

In addition, Watson said he would focus on increasing communication between the city and residents.

“The communication between the city and the community is really lacking,” Watson said.

Watson cited the city newsletter, which has moved to online-only, as one way he feels the communication could be better.

“And there are other ways to communicate with the citizens, social networks — and there’s quite a bit that I could do in that respect. Citizens need to know what’s going on.”

Public meetings and the chance for the public to comment at meetings as well as having an open-door policy at City Hall can work, Watson said, but he would also like to see more town meetings.

“We’ve had town meetings and it’s mainly been slanted one direction, basically,” Watson said. “I think it needs to be — instead of name calling — it needs to be: let’s have an idea meeting. Not a meeting where you blame everybody. Enough of that. You can’t do anything about the past, but let’s talk about the future.”

Another goal Watson said he would focus on would be creating transparency in City Hall and rebuilding community trust.

“I don’t think they (the current government) are open and transparent,” Watson said. “Everybody has an agenda of some kind, but if you’re against growth, state you’re against growth. If you’re pro growth at least let people know, if you’re for regulated growth that’s completely different then those other two.”

Watson said that transparency and honesty lend themselves to open debate about issues.

“Right now it’s just not happening and it has really hurt our city,” Watson said.

Transparency and communication lends itself to trust, Watson said.

“I think that’s probably one of our biggest problems, trust in government,” Watson said. “They (individuals and those in government) are afraid to let out what they feel because they’ll get blasted by either this side or that side which is normal, I guess, but that’s where it starts.”

Watson said that he thinks the majority of Black Diamond residents fall somewhere in the middle of being for or against growth and that transparency, communication and objectivity can go a long way toward rebuilding community trust.

“People can get along even if they disagree,” Watson said.


Editor’s note: Dave Gordon was unavailable to answer follow-up questions to the forum.