(Part 1 of 2) Alderman candidates deliver clear responses in Arlington forum

[Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article, covering a lengthy forum.]

Arlington-seal-small-200pxCandidates for four aldermen seats and three school board seats shared their differing visions for Arlington in a forum hosted Aug. 15 at Arlington High School.

The aldermen talked about their pride in their town’s direction and what they hope to contribute. Following are highlights from their introductory statements and their responses to some of the questions from moderator Richard Ransom. The forum lasted for more than two hours, so this is only the first half of their comments; see bartlett-express.com for their answers to questions such as if they envision themselves approving a tax increase. Also see next week’s issue for information from the school board candidates.

Candidate introductions

Cheryl Pardue, who has lived in Arlington for 14 years, is running unopposed for Alderman Position 2.

“I have a desire to bring diversity to the board and a new perspective to the board while maintaining a low-tax, small government with slow city long-term growth that fits the character of Arlington,” she said. She said she also wants to be a listening ear to all residents and to do research and due diligence that each resident deserves.

An Arlington resident since 1979, Oscar Brooks Sr. seeks reelection for Position 4. He first took office in 2003. “I’ve worked pretty hard over the last few years to steer the ship down the right road. And I think we’ve done pretty much what people have asked for. I’d like to have the opportunity to continue to do so.”

Thomas D. “Tommy” Reyes, said he has lived in Arlington for nine years, and he is vying with Brooks for Position 4. He has a degree in civil engineering and has worked in that field for 25 years. “The reason I’m here tonight is I want to ensure the citizens of Arlington have a voice for the future growth of our town. I want to assure our safety and infrastructure are adequately equipped and funded to handle this growth. I will work hard as your alderman and be a voice for you.”

Harry McKee is also running for reelection to Position 5 and said he would appreciate everyone’s vote. “You know we have a small business in town. It’s in the Depot Square area, and of course I think everyone in here knows what the Depot Square area means to me. The whole town is moving in the right direction. We continue to move in the right direction.”

Mark Strausser is competing with McKee for citizens’ votes to fill Position 5. He is a Bartlett native who works in radiation oncology sales and owns two businesses, and he said he has done volunteer work in the past.

“I believe this is the right time for me to get involved publicly with the town of Arlington by running for alderman,” he said. “I’m here to actively listen and represent the residents of Arlington, so I’m asking you to get out and cast your vote for Mark Strausser.”

Jeremy Biggs, who moved his family to Arlington in 2005, is one of the candidates for Position 6. First, he thanked Lee Mills, the Arlington Education Foundation, The View and Arlington Chamber of Commerce for hosting the forum. Then he talked about why he’s running for office.

“I want to work for the citizens of Arlington to ensure that our great town remains a high-quality place to live and to raise your family. I want to put Arlington residents first, and not the developers, home builders or other special-interest groups,” he said. “… I’m running for alderman because I want to put the citizens first in every decision that comes before the board. That’s why I committed to never accept any campaign contributions from special-interest groups. I support smart and controlled growth that will enhance our town and maintain our property values. I will work hard to ensure future developments, either commercial or residential, meet the needs of Arlington. I believe I have the vision for Arlington that will benefit our town, and I have the integrity to see the vision through.”

Brian Thompson, the incumbent for Position 6, has lived in Arlington for 17 years. He works as an enterprise account executive, and he and his wife also own a business in Germantown. He said he’s been heavily involved in Arlington for the past 14 years, and he listed involvement as chair of the Design Review Committee and the Finance Committee, as well as service on the Planning and Development Committee, Board of Zoning Appeals, Planning Commission and various community events. He added, “People who know me know I’m more of a doer, not a talker.”

First question: Arlington seems to be at a crossroads — proud of its roots, its low taxes, and its tremendous growth potential — but it’s also concerned about how to manage that growth and what comes next. What distinguishes you and how you can serve your community? What distinguishes your candidacy?

Pardue said she’s seen the town grow from around 4,000 to around 13,000 residents and has attended many town board meetings. She’s seen how Arlington has controlled the growth that’s come its way.

“I understand the zoning regulations, I understand the heart of the town, the residents and the desire to keep that small-town atmosphere while we’re growing to meet the needs that we have in town,” she said. “I do not have a desire to grow just for the sake of growing, but I think that we need to grow wisely and just stay in front of the growth so that we’re not caught behind the ball and we’re not having to make changes that are not going to be in the best interests of our town.”

Brooks talked about the past 14 years of working with the town through a major growth spurt that happened when he first got into office, and he praised the town’s zoning ordinances and regulations that he and others fashioned and used to manage the growth. He also said he’d like to see South I-40 be the focus with larger lot sizes and larger estate-style homes in order to maintain the property values on the north side of 40.

Reyes said he’s attended practically all the town board’s meetings for the past five years, and he’s seen developers come in and ask for variances. “I feel that these variances sometimes are justified, sometimes not. I would like to hold to this master development plan a little tighter, to where it will help the town grow in a smart way.”

McKee said the people of Arlington like living in a town where they know the Planning Commission and Design Review have regulations in place for zoning, land use, building code and signage. “Over the last 10 years, we have made sure of that.”

Strausser said his fresh perspective is what distinguishes him from other candidates, who may share common perspectives. “I think what I bring to the table is a fresh perspective on the issues facing the Arlington of today and in the future – not just five years but 15 and 20 years out. The growth is coming. It’s coming because our schools are doing such a phenomenal job. And how you manage that growth is going to be the responsibility of everyone on this stage, whether you’re elected to office or still just an active member of the community.”

Biggs said, “I truly believe that you control growth through high standards, both in residential developments and in commercial developments.”

He said he’s a big believer in green spaces with trees and walking trails for any residential development. “If you drive through The Preserve, you’re going to see the type of green space that’s going to be my expectation.”

He believes in adhering to equally high standards for commercial development and wants to stick closely to the Design Review Committee’s manual. “It’s okay to be patient and tell a business, ‘You’re not building a building that is conducive to Arlington, and you need to go back and work on it until it’s appealing to our town and flows with our community.”

Thompson said what distinguishes him is that he holds developers to certain standards, including standards that he helped to develop, and he’s proud to enforce that. “I don’t really have much to gain from this other than the fact that I love it. And I like living here, and I like making it a better place to live.”

He praised the school system that helps to draw new residents to Arlington and said, “We have low property taxes, we have low crime – this is just the place to be.”

Second question: Talk about any contributions you receive from builders and developers and what you think is expected of you for those contributions.

Brooks said he’s accepted zero contributions this year. “Do I think that, if you accept funds from a builder or developer, that something is expected in return? Not by the gentleman up here. Now it may be by the builder and developer, and I can promise you none of the people up here hold their selves to a standard where they feel like they owe them favor.”

Reyes said he fully funded his own campaign except for a $20 contribution by one resident. “I don’t want to be in a position where I take money and it even appears that I feel that I owe this developer or builder, whoever, anything.”

McKee said he’s never taken or been offered any funds from a builder or developer. “I would not expect anyone to think that I would take money for a vote or anything like that. If somebody thought I did that, I would have to step back to look at myself and say, ‘What do they see in me?’ I don’t think that anybody on this stage would let a contribution change their mind about any vote in this town.”

He also noted that he doesn’t take large campaign contributions from residents, preferring donations of $20-$25.

Strausser said he is funding his own campaign, except for $100 from his sister and $50 from a couple of friends who want to see him succeed. He doesn’t expect to receive more.

Biggs said he is fully funding his own campaign. “The thing about it is, when a developer or a builder donates money, that’s an investment. They are not just giving away money just because they just want to give out money. So in my opinion, when a developer/builder does donate sometimes large contributions, there are things that are expected in return. Now I’m not saying that the aldermen up here have ever attempted to change their vote because they accepted the money, but for me personally, I think it’s a conflict of interest when a builder, a developer, comes and donates money and then they’re going to come back in front of the board and ask for approval of their development.”

Thompson said it’s legal to accept such contributions, but he added that it’s perfectly valid for people to question how such donations might be influential. He accepted some contributions four years ago when he ran for office, but he said this year he isn’t accepting contributions other than from residents of Arlington who support the vision and the experience he brings to the table.

He also examined the reason behind the question: Whether a candidate has integrity. “Anybody that knows me, knows that I approach every single decision with logic, with reason. I look at everything, I do my homework. I’m one of the people sitting up there that speaks my mind and tells people why I’m voting the way I’m voting. And every development, everything that comes through, goes through a process.”

He also said half of the board’s votes on development and planning topics are unanimous because of the rigorous process they follow.

Pardue said simply, “I have not and will not receive any campaign donations from builders, developers, Realtors or what have you.”

She said she’s been blessed by some donations from friends and residents of Arlington who are excited about her campaign.

Third question: What kind of job do you think the current administration is doing? Name one thing they’re doing right and one thing they might be able to improve upon.

Reyes praised the current town board for keeping taxes low. On the downside, one of his comments was that he would like to see some of the town’s amenities “tweaked down a bit.”

Brooks said he thinks the administration is doing a pretty good job, as evidenced by the high rankings the town enjoys. He didn’t have a criticism, saying he thinks the town is being steered in the right direction, with good stewardship of Arlington’s money, property values rising, taxes staying low and amenities being provided.

Strausser believes the current administration is doing a great job, especially with the tax base. He didn’t have a specific criticism but said there are some issues in town that are at a stalemate. One thing that concerns him is the second fire company that’s needed, in case there are ever simultaneous emergencies on opposite sides of Arlington. “I went on the record saying that Arlington is one dire emergency away from having a major issue on their hands.”

He was quick to add that he doesn’t believe that is the administration’s fault and that it’s looking at the budget and planning.

McKee estimated the forum’s audience was about 75 people out of the town’s approximately 13,000 residents. “So we’ve got to be doing something right,” he said. “I think the people of Arlington, they’re smart. We have very young citizens here. The average age is 32. Ninety-five percent of the people here are high school graduates. Average income is at least $90,000. So they know they’re smart, they know what’s going on, they like what they see. I think they know the boards are working together to make the school system as good as it could be, and it’s even better. We have, I think, 80 acres of parks. We have over 80 miles of roads that we maintain. We do a very large amount of work in the town of Arlington with a small budget of $8 million. So I think we’re in the right direction. Sure, we can improve on anything.”

On the down side, he said the administration could be more visible in the community more often and communidate with the people more.

Thompson said, “I think we’re doing a lot of things right. Our taxes are low, the lowest property tax in Shelby County. We run a balanced budget every year. We have millions in savings. We have an excellent school system thanks to our school board and school administration. Our home values are up. Really, I just, quite honestly, can’t think of or find a lot of reasons to complain about being in Arlington. Everybody wants to be here. It’s just kind of the place to be.”

He named a few things he’d like to see manifested in Arlington and said there’s effort underway for some of those things: A library, more amenities, and improved facilities.

“The problem with that is, how are we going to pay for it,” Thompson said. “And you have to lump things like second fire companies and all those things into that equation. You can talk a lot about what you want to do, but how are you going to pay for it and what’s your plan to execute it.”

Biggs said, “I have supreme confidence in our current staff. My concern is not about the people in place at town hall but are they fully staffed. I would like to sit down with each person, or each department head, and make sure that they are fully staffed.”

He questions current staffing when he sees things like the Parks and Recreation director being the one outside, trimming weeds.

He also said he agreed with other candidates that a second fire company is needed. “Two months ago there were four incidents that happened in Arlington where our fire department was not able to respond. Last month there were three incidents. Now, we have other areas that will come and respond in those situations, but the increased time that it takes for that, sometimes it can be the difference between life or death. If your husband is having a cardiac arrest, we know how every second matters. And so I want to make sure that if we’re assisting Lakeland or we’re assisting Bolton, we still have some people here in Arlington and can respond to those emergencies.”

Pardue said she has been listening to residents and town employees for several months, and she would like to see more communication between town board members, between the board and town employees, and between the board and Arlington residents. “I think that we could step it up and really just improve what we’re communicating to the town so that they’re more knowledgeable about what’s going on.”

She also would like for town activities to be more visible on the municipal website and said that Facebook hasn’t been the best method.