Perhaps Mark Twain said it best in “Puddin’head Wilson” when he wrote, “It were not best that we should all think alike: it is a difference of opinion that makes a horse race.”
However, while there were some questions in which the four candidates running for the at-large Seat 4 on the Bartow City Commission differed, quite often their answers rang similar, marked only by minor variations.
That is what an estimated 80 people heard at the candidates forum held Tuesday, March 11 at the Bartow Civic Center. Conducted in the same fashion as that of the Tiger Bay of Polk County organization, the four candidates running for the Bartow City Commission at-large Seat 4 gave opening statements, answered questions submitted from the audience and gave closing statements.
Emceed by S.L. Frisbie, Gerald J. Cochran, Joe DeLegge, Trish Pfeiffer and James L. Slaughter responded to approximately 15 questions, starting with why each candidate was running. To a person, each was running because they care about Bartow. For Cochran this is his 22nd attempt he told the audience. He added that if he does not win he still plans on running. Light laughter marked that comment.
Joe DeLegge, Bartow’s former city manager, spoke of his three decades experience in government, but added that was not the sole reason he was running.
“I want to serve this city again,” DeLegge said.
For Trish Pfeiffer, who was born and raised in Bartow and then left for 20 years before returning to raise her family in what she termed a “small, quaint community,” her decision to run was her desire to do even further what she has already contributed.
“I just like to put my heart and soul in whatever I do,” said Pfeiffer. She cited examples of projects and activities with which she has been involved, as well as the fact she is the owner of a business in the downtown Bartow district.
While a newcomer to running for political office, James L. Slaughter, is not a novice to the political process. Nor is he someone without leadership experience. In the past year, as commander of the AmVets, he had met with the politicos and city staff in the organization’s effort to relocate to a new building. His desire to be elected stemmed from his appreciation having been born American and the obligations that come with being a citizen.
All had “hot button” items in which they grew passionate about. When asked about the former Thompson Cigar Factory, Pfeiffer declared from the start that the time in which she and all candidates were allowed to address issues would be insufficient, and she turned out to be correct. For Cochran, he rallied against the money the city spends, which was part of a greater issue.
“Seems like our commission is not listening to the people,” said Cochran. He would add commissioners were not willing to “live within its own budget,” plus they pass ordinances against the wishes of the citizens.
An issue that was recently raised before commissioners at a public meeting last month was that of term limits. Cochran, Pfeiffer and Slaughter were unequivocal in limiting the amount of time a commissioner may hold office. DeLegge, though, gave a qualified reply.
“I’m not particularly in favor of term limits,” he said, “but I think the people should decide.”
Other questions centered around the Community Redevelopment Agency, how to revitalize downtown, whether the city should become an Internet provider, and whether employee surveys are an effective way to gauge employee morale.
The latter was perceived by many as being targeted specifically toward DeLegge, as it was such a survey that eventually contributed to DeLegge’s working out a structured resignation that ended his tenure as Bartow City Manager.
DeLegge said that employee surveys are good provided they are done properly. Otherwise, he said, surveys can be disruptive. While Pfeiffer said surveys are very effective, Slaughter disagreed.
“I don’t think so,” said Slaughter. “Surveys cost money.”
Cochran did not directly answer the question. Instead he said that current morale among city employees should be high, and for a reason. Morale should be high, he said, because contractors are doing the work that city employees should be doing, for which they are being paid. He faulted supervisors and department heads for not making sure employees are putting in a full day’s effort.
Certain “third rail” questions were adroitly handled by the candidates, among them whether Bartow should eliminate its police department and instead contract with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Another third rail question centered around the city pension programs. Included in that category was whether garbage pickup should return to twice-per-week rather than the current once-per-week collection.
In their closing statements, Slaughter said he wanted to cut costs, but in the next breath he raised how it did not seem right that Americans who want to go into business cannot get the help they need, but those who aren’t citizens are able to get funding.
Pfeiffer said that if she is elected that one of the things she would press for is for greater interaction with the county government. She also paid tribute to her three opponents, citing them for their care and concern for Bartow, which prompted them to enter into the campaign. DeLegge said his 32 years in government made him the best choice, while Cochran said he was not and would not be one who goes along with the other commissioners if it was not beneficial.
“If it’s not good for the citizens, I will vote no,” he said.
At its conclusion, several who attended said it had been time well spent.
“It has given me a better idea who to possibly vote for,” said Sam Glisson.
“They brought up a lot of important issues,” Dave Brown said.
Their impressions were perhaps a direct contradiction to a particular stanza in the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Mrs. Robinson.”
“Going to the candidates’ debate/
Laugh about it, shout about it/
When you’ve got to choose/
Every way you look at this you lose.”