Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sellers is runaway winner in Warrensville mayoral debate

The mayor’s name appears on the sign identifying the premises as the Warrensville Heights Civic & Senior Center but the site for last night’s mayoral debate belonged to Brad Sellers in every other way last night, as the former hometown high school basketball star showed that he has game that transcends hardwood hoops.

When I arrived on the premises a full sixty minutes before the program started, Sellers was roaming the parking lot greeting debate goers as if they were being welcomed to his house. When I got to the entrance, there were five or six members of Team Brad in matching tee shirts and smiles, handing out professionally done campaign literature. Neither of the other candidates had either literature to distribute or a team of supporters in sight. During the course of the evening, with about 115 in attendance, I spotted one button for councilwoman Deborah A. Hill, who along with the incumbent Clinton Hall, seem to face an uphill battle against the seven foot tall Sellers. The mayor arrived only a few minutes before the debate kicked off. There was no evidence that he was running other than his presence.

The debate began on time with each candidate allotted time for an opening introduction. Hall spoke first and spent a good deal of his time talking about his family. He did say that in just under three years as mayor he had eliminated a $2.5 million projected deficit for 2010, absorbed $450 thousand in state budget cuts without laying off any employees, and that he had pushed through a new income tax and delivered on his promise of a new YMCA facility.

Deborah Hill, a member of city council and its past president, used her introduction to talk about the resilience of the city’s citizens. Somewhat defensively, she asserted, correctly, council’s role in the deficit elimination of which the mayor had spoken.

Sellers was the last to speak. He shared moving to the city in 1971, graduating from high school in 1981, and then going away and learning some skills. He said that he had walked every street and knocked on every door in the city since July. Speaking extemporaneously and with ease, he noted the city’s declining service level and failing school system and vowed improvements under his watch, suggesting that the brand new county library and YMCA were a precursor of better days ahead under his watch. He seemed to take credit for the new library and Y without doing so explicitly, undoubtedly because he had served as the city’s economic development director before resigning this summer to run against his former boss and Hill.

The debate, sponsored by the Warrensville Heights Area Chamber of Commerce, focused primarily on issues that most affect business, such as economic development, tax issues including tax abatement, the feasibility of merger with Highland Hills and North Randall, the city’s budget. Other questions referenced the school system, the challenge of the city’s vacant and foreclosed homes, and several stalled residential developments.

Many of these questions seemed to throw the incumbent for a loss, even though several have been longstanding issues during his administration. He clearly lost his train of thought several times, once so grievously that he admitted it after a substantial pause. More than once he cited the city’s inability to apply for certain funding, blaming Sellers for a failure to submit certain reports. Unfortunately for the mayor, since Sellers was employed by the Hall administration, the accusation aspersion cut two ways.

For her part, Hill seemed acerbic for much of the evening. She regularly allowed herself to be flummoxed by the inexperienced moderator, and far too often offered only bromides and platitudes in place of real answers. She spoke repeatedly of her passion for and dedication to the city, but seldom had a specific answer to any question.

By contrast, Sellers had done his homework and spoke forthrightly at every turn. He named problems — too few workers in the service department, the need to find a solution to the drag of Randall Park Mall, vacancies at the former Bass Chevrolet, Ellacott VW, and Corlett Lumber properties, the lack of infrastructure planning for several years. He proposed solutions— finding a real home for the Chamber of Commerce, having a real conversation about the type of school system the community wanted and needed, turning Randall Park into a job center, regional cooperation, being proactive, foreclosing on and then replacing residential developers.

Sellers’ rivals had memorable if somewhat awkward closing moments. Councilwoman Hill tried to claim the mantle of former mayor-turned-Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. Unfortunately for Hill, the Congresswoman has endorsed Sellers. The mayor acknowledged public speaking was his weakness and asserted a current surplus of $1.5 million in city coffers. Unfortunately, he followed that claim by unclear references to municipal debt retirement obligations, making it unclear how large any actual surplus might be.

Warrensville has about 350 businesses, including at least ten of substantial size. At the end of the evening, it was hard to envision very many of those business owners preferring another candidate to in the face of Sellers’ combination of candor, realism, decisiveness, and optimism.

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