Five to face off for Chester mayor seat
CHESTER- It is a five-person race to see who will be mayor of Chester as part of Tuesday’s municipal election.
Mayor for 14 consecutive years and a total of 18 years, incumbent Ken Morris is a known commodity in West Virginia’s northernmost city, and he’s relying on that familiarity to win him another four years in office on Tuesday.
Standing in his way are four challengers who say he’s had his turn and now it’s time for a change: Larry Forsythe, Ed Schmidt, Cindy Smith and Cody Williams.
The five-way race, although unusual, has failed to generate many sparks in the run-up to Tuesday’s municipal elections. Plans for a meet-the-candidates night following the June 2 city council meeting fell through.
Morris, 57, said he probably would not have attended such an event anyway. The last one, held in 2010 when Williams first ran for mayor, felt like an ambush, Morris said.
“It was all the things I didn’t do, or all the things that should’ve been done. I just walked out. I left,” he said.
Sometimes criticized for his laconic style, Morris points to Carolina Avenue – known to locals as “Main Street” – as proof of his effectiveness as mayor.
“Pretty much the whole downtown is cleaned up and brightened up. I guess it’s like an old house – you’ve got to keep working on it,” he said.
Admittedly not a self-promoter when it comes to campaigning, Morris said he is motivated by a do-it-yourself ethic as mayor. His preference for doing things behind the scenes may sometimes work against him, he said.
“I take offense when people criticize the things we do because they don’t know what kind of work went into it. There’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes that nobody knows about,” he said.
As for his decision to run for re-election, Morris said, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I just want to see it get taken care of. … It’s one of those things where, if you want it done, do it yourself. … I’ve still got some things I need to do.”
Morris said he takes criticism personally because he feels personally responsible for the things that happen in town.
Among his current priority projects are repairing and repainting Carolina Avenue’s light poles, repaving several city streets and finding a concrete contractor for street and sidewalk repairs. Morris said Indiana, Louisiana and Pennsylvania avenues, several alleys, 11th Street and other Upper End streets all need to be resurfaced.
“If we had the money to do it, I would have done it already,” he said. “We just can’t pave them all. Some of the alleys are really in deplorable shape. I’m looking for a company somewhere that might do a tar-and-chip program. It’d be a lot cheaper. I know a lot of people don’t like that stuff, but after it wears down, you can’t even tell.”
Forsythe, 66, said the city streets should be put on a paving schedule. The state of Chester’s streets, he said, are a sign that somebody’s not minding the store.
“You need somebody here that’s going to be a full-time mayor that can be dedicated to the job,” he said. “I’m retired. I’ll be fully dedicated to the job. If (residents) need to get ahold of me, I will return all their calls. I’ll meet with them. … It’s not like I’ll be able to fix everything overnight, but at least we’ll make a good effort.”
A manager at Weirton Steel for 38 years, Forsythe believes the mayor should be someone who manages the city. That involves providing fiscal oversight and ensuring departmental accountability, he said.
Forsythe said the first thing he will do as mayor is figure out the city’s budget, which he believes lacks transparency.
“How much money does the city have? … That’s going to dictate everything. We’ve got to find out where our money’s at,” he said.
With a proper understanding of revenues, the city will be able to allocate its funds more effectively, he said.
Forsythe said a recurring complaint from residents is that they don’t feel city hall is approachable. He said he wants to change that.
“The biggest thing is they can’t get ahold of anybody when they have an issue. They can’t get ahold of the mayor. If they have an issue, they can’t get results,” he said. “The bottom line is: You need somebody here full time to try to answer the questions people have.”
Schmidt, 64, a Vietnam veteran and businessman with a 30-year background in real estate development, said that, if elected, he will focus on economic development and expanding Chester’s tax base.
“How do we bring more money into the community? … We have to increase that tax base. That’s the greatest challenge facing the city,” he said.
One priority is to develop the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor property in a way that will “complement the city and bring taxes in,” he said.
The TS&T pottery was demolished and cleaned up in 2012 after sitting vacant for 30 years.
Schmidt said Chester also has to deal with the reality of declining video lottery revenue. Despite a proliferation of video lottery cafes – 21 establishments with 116 machines – the city’s portion of video lottery proceeds continues to go down.
Chester gets 2 percent of the revenue produced by the limited video lottery (LVL) machines within its boundaries. Chester’s portion of casino slot machine revenue, which is distributed annually by Hancock County commissioners, is $140,000.
Pursuing economic development is about making Chester more of a destination for businesses, tourists and residents, Schmidt said.
“A lot of people drive through this community and never stop,” he said.
Schmidt said his background in the U.S. Marine Corps gave him the discipline and leadership necessary to make a good mayor. His years in real estate gave him business acumen that also would serve him well in office.
“Most people’s feeling is that the city needs to be run more like a business,” he said.
Smith, 52, said her campaign is about change and pride in the community.
“Change is good,” she said, “but a lot of people don’t accept it very well.”
A Chester native, Smith said that, if elected, she would focus on improving city streets, getting rid of condemned, vacant homes and bringing more business to town.
She also promises to be accessible to residents.
“I would like them to be more informed about what’s going on with the mayor,” she said. “A small-town mayor should be more in touch with the public.”
A graduate of Oak Glen High School, Smith works for East Liverpool City Hospital/AVI Foodsystems and is active in the Service Employees International Union, Local 1199, as a steward and executive board member.
Williams, 36, said his job as a postal carrier gives him a unique perspective on the city and the requirements of the mayor’s office. His job as a substitute means he covers all three postal routes in Chester, plus the one in Newell.
“There’s a total of 32 miles of pavement in the city of Chester, and I’m walking at least 11 of them every day,” he said. “I walk down every sidewalk. I see every pothole. I see the neighbor’s grass that hasn’t been cut. I’m there.”
Williams said he would bring to the mayor’s office a sense of duty and service that he learned from 14 years in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves, and a sense of fiscal responsibility that comes from being debt-free.
“I promise to put myself second and the city first,” he said.
Williams said he would work for free and give away his $300-a-month mayor’s salary – $100 for a scholarship fund, $100 for the Chester Arts Club and $100 for another cause. By doing so, he hopes to lead by example.
“I feel that kind of financial responsibility is what the city needs in the tough fiscal times we’re about to face,” he said. “With the declining LVL money, it’s really time to buckle down. I feel like I’m the guy to hold the reins and steer Chester into a better place.”
Like Forsythe, Williams said Chester’s finances are in trouble partly because of poor record keeping. At city council’s budget meetings in March, Williams said officials could not give Police Chief Ken Thorn accurate information about his department’s budget.
“They don’t have a clue where they’re spending their money. If you look at the city budget, it’s not itemized where it needs to be,” he said. “Basically, it’s a lot of reckless spending. I think if we can get that under control, we’ll realize that we actually have a lot more money than what we do.”
Likewise, Williams said the city’s charter and codified ordinances needed to be overhauled.
“There’s still an ordinance on the books that you can’t spit on the sidewalk. It’s an old ordinance,” he said. “There’s actually one about tying up your horses in front of city hall.”
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)