Mayor candidates answer questions

Published 11:11 pm Saturday, April 18, 2009

Four candidates are seeking the office of Mayor of Picayune, Mark Thorman, Frank Egger, Ed Pinero and Ezell Lee.

Mark Thorman is a former city council member and current NJROTC instructor for the Picayune School District. Frank Egger is a member of the Jr. Chamber of Commerce, former airport manager and an accountant and tax aide. Ed Pinero was city manager for about 18 months, specializes in economic development and is the current Planning and Development Director for Pearl River County. Ezell Lee is a current state senator, representing the Picayune area and a former member of the state House of Representatives.

Each candidate was asked a list of questions and one question specific to them. At the end of the interview, each candidate was given the opportunity to address any issue they chose.

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The first question to each candidate was what open government meant to them.

Thorman said that open government means complete transparency with an open door policy to keep the people informed.

Egger said open government to him means any records requested by the public should be provided, with the exception of documents that pertain to purchasing property, pending litigation and city employees.

Pinero said without open government there is no government, it is then a good old boy system that works behind closed doors, therefore he supports having an open government.

Lee said open government to him means the people need to know what is going on and he has always been a supporter of open meetings.

Each candidate was asked how they felt about having a more open government.

Thorman said the city government should be more open and plans to do that by publishing the budget as it is out the gate and find out where the missing $1 million was from the Utility Fund in the fiscal year ending 2006 audit. He plans to inform the people of the happenings of the city no matter if they are good, bad or indifferent.

Egger said he’d like to see a more open government so the press would have the ability to ask questions and get those questions answered.

Pinero said a more open government would involve public forums and only topics covered by law would be discussed in closed sessions. Since the mayor is in charge of council meetings, only items covered by law would be discussed in executive session.

Lee said the media is important to the city and it is important for the people to know what is going on.

Each candidate was asked what he thought qualified as a topic for executive session.

Thorman said topics for executive session include contractual matters, personnel matters and future projects. After such issues have been discussed in executive session, he said he plans to bring that information out to the public, with the exception of pending litigation.

Egger said executive session to him involves matters of personnel, litigation and possible sale of property. Any other topic should be discussed in open session.

Pinero said only personnel issues on the disciplinary level, litigation and contractual matters and legally covered economic development matters.

Lee said things for executive session include personnel and discussions about industry that is moving in at the industry’s request.

With streets in poor condition and various other problems the city faces, each candidate was asked what efforts he would make to improve infrastructure and the economy.

Thorman said infrastructure would take more than one term to fix due to it’s lack of maintenance in previous years. He would work to focus on the worst areas first, no matter which council member’s district the area lie in. Streets should get regular maintenance, and not only just before an election.

Thorman said his discussions around town suggests a need for the local government to support local businesses. He commends the city for trying to curb spending by implementing a four-day work week, but believes the city should have administrative and bill paying offices open on Friday.

Egger said the city’s infrastructure is poor, including streets, water, sewage and gas lines. Those things need fixing while also reducing the amount of storm water going into the water treatment plant.

Egger said the city should encourage small businesses to locate here by providing them with tax breaks for a set number of years and ease charges on permits and utility hookups for those businesses.

“I think the charges are excessive,” Egger said.

Pinero said the most successful avenues for economic development for a city the size of Picayune are to focus on small manufacturing opportunities and to promote tourism. Attracting those businesses would involve seeking out businesses instead of spending millions to develop land for build-ready sites. He said once the business has indicated an interest in locating here, it does not take long to get a site ready.

“Proactive economic development attracts people more so than build-ready sites,” Pinero said.

Pinero said everyone knows the infrastructure is in a deplorable state. The city should use a tiered or phased plan to correct it, which would involve fixing the pipes from oldest to newest. Part of that process may involve talking with the Pearl River County Utility Authority to see what the advantages and disadvantages are in having them assume responsibility of the city’s water system.

Lee said the economy needs to have places for industry to locate, such as the industrial park.

Lee said the infrastructure of the city needs an effort from the population and the city to put the finances in a positive manner, which will take time in today’s economy. The city is in the process of improving utilities by putting in new meters, but the water and gas needs to be stabilized. Utilities need to be paid with user fees, not out of the general fund.

Each candidate was also asked what he thought the most important job for the mayor was.

Thorman said the mayor should be on the streets with the people to determine their needs instead of behind a desk. Communicating with council members, no matter political alignment, is also important to Thorman.

“If I get elected, there isn’t going to be party lines drawn,” Thorman said. “We’re going to work together.”

Thorman said if elected he is not going to make decisions that will get him reelected, the right decisions sometimes make people mad.

Egger said the mayor should project the city as a safe place to raise a family by providing good emergency services and projecting a good first impression of the city while addressing the problems of the city. The mayor should dress accordingly and ensure city council members do the same at council meetings.

Pinero said the job of mayor should be to provide leadership and information to the council and the city’s citizens. The mayor should be willing to stand up during good times and bad. To properly make the necessary decisions to deal with the city’s finances requires a high level of energy, he said.

Lee said the most important job for the mayor is to deal with state and legislative agencies, with which he has experience.

Each candidate was asked what would he most like to see change.

Thorman said he would like to reduce the amount of litter in the city, possibly by hiring a dedicated clean up team.

Egger would like to see the city become a better retirement community by having more businesses that cater to that demographic and by reducing utility bills for the elderly.

Pinero would like to see the city run as a business to reduce the debt and to position the finance department to make decisions free from political interference.

Lee said he would like to see better communication between the city and county agencies to get help from the county.

Each candidate was asked why he thought working with county government is important.

Thorman said working with county government will help establish uniform ordinances in the county and the city to accomplish the same goals, and to help the city grow.

Egger said working with county is important to reduce the long-standing rivalry between the north and south ends of the county, making the county and city a better place to live and work.

Pinero said his position in the county would help the city and county get grants by developing strong relationships with the U.S. Senate and Congress, providing better roads and infrastructure.

Lee said working with the county is essential to get tax money paid to the county used in the city.

With rumors and reports of possible financial trouble in the city, each candidate was asked for his opinion of the financial condition of the city.

Thorman believes the financial situation of the city needs improvement, based on the state of the city’s infrastructure and the 2006 audit. He does not believe the city is broke, but believes it is going through a hard time.

Egger said he estimates the city is in deeper debt than has been reported. He said after Hurricane Katrina there was money to conduct repairs to infrastructure but wonders where it went.

Pinero said the city has too much debt. That, compounded with a recent high turnover rate in the city manager and city clerk positions, needs to be corrected with a positive work atmosphere and a lack of negative administrative influence.

Lee said the financial situation of the city is not the fault of the city, but rather was caused by reduced sales tax collections. He said he does not want to make it sound as though the city is not on an sound financial basis, but the economy is a factor.

Thorman was asked if he intended to keep his position as NJROTC Chief, to which he said yes. If elected he said he will conduct both mayoral and school district duties using time off if needed. Thorman said the Hatch Act states his employment with the school district would not create a conflict of interest with being mayor.

Pinero was asked if he intended to maintain his county position if elected, to which he also said yes. He said the position will help him create a cooperative relationship between the county and city. He said an Attorney General’s opinion stated that if elected, his position as mayor and Planning and Development Director would not be illegal and is not a unique circumstance.

Lee was asked why he would leave the senate to become the mayor. Lee said he is running for mayor because after the current mayor decided not to run he was approached by people in the community asking him to run. He would not specify who asked him to run. He said his experience in the senate would contribute to the city.

Egger was asked how he would encourage businesses and industries to locate in Picayune. He said he would invite them to council meetings so their questions could be addressed and provide them with information about what the council could offer.

As a last question, each candidate was asked to address any one topic they wished.

Thorman said if elected he will work to eliminate the past practices of Picayune being run by those who make decisions for their own personal economic gain.

“I am an independent thinker,” Thorman said. “I am a proactive problem solving leader.”

Egger chose the recent liquor bill, House Bill 1441. While he said he does not have a problem with package sales of liquor, he thinks the implementation of by-the-drink sales will not bring in any new businesses such as chain restaurants in the current economy.

Pinero said his experience as a former city manager gives him a unique insight to the trials and tribulations of city employees. He said he has a high energy level and grew up in an era of diversity, which he said will be required effectively to take on the time-consuming job of mayor.

Lee said bringing in more industry to increase the tax base is important and to do that, positive attitudes at council meetings are needed, especially with Picayune being adjacent to areas that actively compete for business.