All seven candidates running for city council next week were on hand for a forum Thursday night where topics ranged from the Williams Foods grocery store contract, repairing roads and some strong talk against the use of negative advertising during the election.
The forum was hosted by the Piedmont Chamber of Commerce at the Piedmont United Methodist Church and moderated by Craig Smith, a field representative for Sen. Tom Coburn. Close to 70 residents were in attendance and a handful of candidate responses resulted in applause from the audience, including remarks made by Ward 4 candidate Charles Coffman who spoke out against his opponent’s campaign.
“One thing we could do to make Piedmont better is to not to have this,” Coffman said while holding up a flyer sent out by a Councilman Hoss Cooley that projected Coffman in a negative light. The comments were made by Coffman in his closing remarks and brought the largest applause of the evening.
Cooley did not address the flyer but told the audience he believed the city was headed in the right direction, especially with all of the changes that have been made with city administration.
“Our town is actually run like a business,” Cooley said. “For the first time I think our town is headed in the right direction.”
Neither Ward 4 candidate made direct mention of each other but Coffman did highlight problems he felt were created by the current council, including the continued delay on the Williams Foods contract.
“When you look at Piedmont right now you see risk,” Coffman said in direct reference to the city’s unfriendly business climate that he said was a result of not paying the grocery store its owed tax incentives. Coffman was joined by Albert Gleichmann and Vic Sanders in criticizing the current council for it’s handling of the Williams Foods contract.
Gleichmann and Sanders are running against Councilman Jeff Davis for the Ward 3 seat and said they would vote to pay the grocery store its money.
“We need to resolve the issue with Mr. Williams,” Sanders said when asked how the council could project a positive image of Piedmont. Gleichmann had a similar answer and said the arguments on the council had to come to an end if the city was ever going to move forward.
Davis never specifically addressed the grocery store contract but did say he believed the city needs “growth in businesses that are tax revenue businesses and we need, as a city council, to not give away all the money we have coming in here.” The statement could have been interpreted in reference to Williams Foods as Davis has previously voted against the deal after saying incentives for the store – with interest – is a bad deal for the city.
Cooley, who has voted against the grocery store incentives, said he felt the council had upheld its end of the bargain when it came to the Williams Foods incentives.
“I don’t think we have done anything wrong,” Cooley said. “I think we have upheld our end of the bargain with every business we have brought to this town.”
Ward 2 candidates Leon Meyer and Councilman Vernon Woods never addressed each other. Woods said several times during the forum that he felt the city had developed a bad reputation due to its handling of the Williams Foods grocery store, and while Meyer never specifically addressed the topic of the store, he said it was time for the city to move past some of its challenging issues.
“I just think that we have to get five people on that council that will put things aside and do what’s best for Piedmont and the people of Piedmont,” Meyer said. Meyer also said the city needed to find ways to grow in both residents and businesses in order to increase revenue for services and infrastructure.
While the grocery store contract was a common topic during the forum, so were roads as each candidate acknowledged the city’s streets were in need of work. Meyer, who said he would be willing to look at a bond to fix the roads, maintained that the city must also figure out a way to maintain any streets it replaces. Woods said a bond issue was the only way the city could make major progress on its streets and even said a recently proposed $4.5 million bond might not be enough.
“It’s going to have to be a bond issue,” Woods said. “In my mind the proposed bond issue is not nearly enough; it’s just a first step.”
Coffman said the city should also look at creating inter-local agreements with Canadian County and Cooley said as a councilman he had been working to build a relationship with Oklahoma City to partner on road repair projects.
Davis suggested looking into a way to tax commercial trucks that drive on Piedmont streets with the revenue going to road repair. Gleichmann said taxing trucks wouldn’t work and Sanders said the only real solution was a bond that “the people of this town can live with.”
The candidates were also asked if they felt the city charter should be revised or rewritten and all seven candidates said they were in favor of making changes to the charter.
Cooley said there are “too many holes” in the charter and complained that it was too easy to recall a councilman. A recall campaign against Cooley last year successfully set a recall election date but the councilman was able to defeat the election in court.
“People can recall you because they just don’t like you,” Cooley said.
Whether or not the forum will impact voter decisions is up for debate and when Woods asked if any in the audience had not yet made up their mind there were virtually no hands raised. However, the forum did give voters another chance to hear the candidates address some of the biggest issues with just five days left before the April 3 election.
Those currently on the council said they felt the city was moving in the right direction, although Woods, who has found himself in a political minority on the council, seemed to side with those challenging for office that said the council struggled with a lack of trust from the public.
“There is no trust between the people of this town and the city council,” Sanders said. There is no trust in anything in this town right now.”
How much this town trusts its current council will determine the shape of city leadership next week.