May 15—The race to determine who will be mayor of Meadville for the next four years features two candidates in the Democratic primary and none on the ballot for the Republican primary.
The mayoral contest offers two contrasting candidates: one, LeRoy Stearns, has served on council for nearly 25 years, the last five of them as mayor; Jaime Kinder, the other, is running in her first campaign and seeks to shake up the status quo.
Business owner Jaime Kinder didn't mention her opponent by name, but it was clear that she had him — and their contrasting political resumes — in mind during her candidate interview with the Tribune.
Asked about the budgetary challenges that have dominated Meadville City Council's attention since late last year, Kinder said it's time for a change.
"This isn't a problem that just happened today. This is a problem that is an ongoing issue," Kinder said. "The first thing I would do to help with the budget is getting new people on City Council.
"The things that we have been doing are not working," she added.
But while Kinder called for new leadership, she did not claim to have solutions to all of the problems confronting the city.
"The people of Meadville should have a say in how they want to spend their money and what they can do without," she said. "I'm not going to be able to sit here and tell you exactly what we can do. I don't have an answer — that's why you get multiple people to come in and give you their views."
Kinder consistently emphasized the importance of a more participatory approach to governing that would draw in a more diverse chorus of voices and give them better access to leaders. It was one of several points of emphasis she said she shared with City Council candidates Jack Harkless and Gretchen Myers. The trio of candidates are running a collaborative campaign similar to the one waged by council members Larry McKnight and Autumn Vogel in 2019 — even right down to the similarly themed campaign signs.
Regarding specific issues, Kinder said she would be opposed to cuts to city personnel and of council's health insurance benefits and would support efforts to explore county-wide reassessment and a move to home rule for the city. Kinder recalled making use of the city's police dispatch and applauded the department's services. While cutting dispatch should be considered, she said, if the department is recommending not cutting dispatch, it's likely the city needs those services.
Kinder ended by offering a harsh criticism of her opponent and council members Sean Donahue and Jim Roha, both of whom are running for re-election, for their unwillingness to form a pandemic task force last year to address the needs and concerns of city business owners and residents. The task force was supported by Vogel and McKnight.
"What bothers me is we had a chance to talk to people," Kinder said of the defeated proposal. "It's very hurtful to know that our officials — they don't care what's going on."
Unsurprisingly, Mayor LeRoy Stearns stressed the value of his long history on City Council in a candidate interview with the Tribune. In doing so, he implied a sharp contrast with his opponent Kinder.
"Whoever gets the position, there's experience that has to come along with it," Stearns said.
Using a line he has frequently voiced during annual budget discussions, Stearns said the challenges facing City Council can be boiled down to one essential question: "What services do you want for the taxes you pay?"
Lower taxes mean a lower level of services, Stearns continued. "Maybe the streets don't get plowed as often as they do," he said, "or maybe the response of the police is slower."
Stearns also anticipated Kinder's emphasis on increasing resident participation in city government. When it comes to balancing taxes and services, he said, the community needs to make its preferences known, and there are easy ways for them to reach council members to do so.
"And they have that opportunity. We meet twice a month. Our meetings are open," Stearns said. "There's a public (comment) session. People can come in and voice their concern or ask questions, as long as it's — you know, we're doing business."
Regarding specific proposals, Stearns was skeptical of cutting police dispatch — he voted against the move when savings of nearly $120,000 per year were touted in 2016. Personnel cuts are always an option, he said, but they are necessarily accompanied by cuts in services.
Home rule should also be explored, according to Stearns. He was more forceful about reassessment, saying that it "needs done" but also cautioning that even if it is accomplished, the process will not balance the city's budget.
Stearns is also willing to consider cutting health insurance benefits for council members and their spouses, one of the few "nice perks" that come with the position.
"Everything's on the table," he said. "When your budget's out, you have to look at everything."
One possible answer to the challenges facing not just Meadville but municipalities across the state, Stearns said, would be a permanent source of state funding. "That's where the key funding is," he said.
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.