Wayne Link and Matt Starr

Mount Vernon mayoral candidates Wayne Link (left) and Matt Starr participated in a pre-election debate on Thursday night, hosted by Mount Vernon Nazarene University. The debate was moderated by Knox Pages, the Mount Vernon News and WNZR.

MOUNT VERNON – For the last 24 years, Richard Mavis has been the mayor of Mount Vernon. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, a new era will begin – and voters had an opportunity to hear from both candidates running for the position on Thursday night.

Matt Starr (R) and Wayne Link (I) squared off in the first half of a pre-election debate hosted by Knox Pages, the Mount Vernon News and WNZR. Spectators of all ages filled Room 133 of Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s Jetter Hall to watch the candidates for Mount Vernon’s two contested races – mayor and 3rd-ward council representative – face off.

Candidates were asked a series of questions by the three participating media organizations, and each candidate had time for opening and closing statements.

Starr and Link discussed a variety of topics, including anticipated population growth, economic development, city traffic concerns, the creation of a stormwater utility, and how to combat drug abuse and addiction.

The candidates seemed to differ most on two topics: population growth and tourism.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission predicts Knox County will see an increase of 17,000 residents by the year 2050. While Starr seemed to embrace a proactive approach in dealing with this anticipated growth from the Columbus region, Link seemed to take a reactive stance.

“My best answer to you is to look forward to allowing necessity being the mother of invention. When there’s a need, we’ll fill the need,” Link said. “I don’t think we should be proactive in aggressively pursuing economic development for an area by trying to attract businesses here and creating a rapid amount of growth, or even some growth.”

Link said he is in favor of bringing business back to the old Siemens site, but he claimed the city could not promote growth while also preserving its traditions.

Starr took a different approach.

“We’re not ready for that yet,” Starr said of the county’s anticipated growth. “So I would disagree with my opponent in saying we better be proactive, so that we can have our infrastructure in place. We better be able to accommodate this.”

The goal, Starr said, will be to attract businesses that will raise the city’s median income level. This will attract “the families who are going to want to put down roots here, the families whose students we want in our schools,” he said.

“[We want] to prevent the brain drain – people growing up here, getting all their training and then leaving. We don’t want that,” Starr said. “We want to keep talent here as best as possible.”

Starr added that Mount Vernon isn’t “starting from scratch,” as the Knox County Comprehensive Plan was created in 1992 and has been updated frequently since. If elected mayor, Starr said he plans to use the comprehensive plan as a guide for how the city will grow at its own pace.

Careful planning will allow Mount Vernon to maintain its character and traditions, Starr said, while also reaping the benefits of population growth.

“It’s all about preserving a healthy, rural community,” Starr said. “We don’t want to be like Delaware. We don’t want to be like Gahanna. Columbus gobbled them up. We want to keep our strong, rural character. That takes planning and proactivity, not just reaction.”

Link called planning for population growth “a waste of time,” and said it “doesn’t serve any purpose.” He believes Mount Vernon should “advance incrementally as things change.”

“I think it is wise that we do have a plan,” Starr said in rebuttal. “People are coming, that’s what’s happening. We just have to be ready for them. We’re growing and I think it’s time that we embrace that. And I think that most everybody is embracing that. So let’s decide how we are going to grow, where we’re going to grow, and what we’re going to do with all this new wealth that comes into town.”

Several questions later, this difference between the candidates showed itself again when the topic of tourism was brought up. When asked how they would promote opportunities to increase tourism if elected mayor, Link seemed to reject the idea.

“If I’m a tourist in the United States, I’m not going to think about coming to Mount Vernon,” Link said. “There’s not much here to really attract tourists.”

Link said he would hope to attract businesses to Mount Vernon, but that tourism would likely not be a focus of his administrative efforts. Starr went the other direction.

“We do have an amazing product here in Knox County. People don’t come here for theme parks, but people do come here for Hiawatha Water Park; they come here for Ariel-Foundation Park; they come here for Honey Run Falls; they come here for the bike paths,” said Starr, citing figures from the Convention and Visitors Bureau that suggest Knox County’s tourism industry yielded $94 million in 2018.

Starr said working with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Main Street Mount Vernon and the Chamber of Commerce will help Mount Vernon increase its tourism prospects.

TRAFFIC CONCERNS: While Starr and Link both expressed concerns over the city’s current traffic patterns, only Starr went into detail as to how he would improve the situation.

If elected mayor, Starr said one of his top priorities would be developing a traffic plan that would increase driver efficiency and keep semi-trucks out of the Central Business District.

“We have to continue to develop that Route 13 corridor. 50 percent of the truck traffic that goes in through Mount Vernon goes on 13,” said Starr, who rode along with a truck driver last year to discover what issues they face. “If we can take half of the trucks that are going downtown and route them so that it’s more intuitive and it’s much easier to conduct commerce, that is golden.”

It all goes back to business, Starr said. If Mount Vernon can figure out its traffic problem, it can improve economically as well.

“It’s a spaghetti network of state routes in the downtown area. We’ve gotta streamline that,” Starr said. “We’ve got to find ways to get them out of the Central Business District so that it’s easy to conduct commerce. Commerce is our lifeblood. That’s what pays our bills and that’s what generates the tax revenues.”

The Mount Vernon News reported two weeks ago that the next city administration will be tasked with looking at a potential roadway project on the east side of the city, which would connect Route 36 and Route 229. While Link said he is “not certain that is a viable option,” he did say he would look into it if elected mayor. Starr seemed slightly more enthusiastic about the idea.

“I’m not opposed to looking at the roundabout thing out there, but you’ve gotta look at the whole chess board,” he said. “There are a lot of other factors than just connecting 36 to 229.”

STORMWATER UTILITY: While Link said he would defer judgement on stormwater issues to the city engineer if elected mayor, Starr said he would support the idea of a stormwater utility.

This month, city council made headway on the issue by eliminating three proposed components – education credits, maintenance credits, and tier pricing – and stripping the idea down to its roots. A stormwater utility, if passed by city council, would require city residents to pay a fee that would go toward stormwater repair projects.

“I think we should have had this decades ago,” Starr said. “We should’ve started squirreling away money to be able to pay for all of the things that are happening under the surface of the roads. Because up until now, we’re pulling money out of the general fund to be able to pay for these things.

"And if we don’t start rerouting the water that is building up on impervious surfaces – not only to capture it and slow it down – we’re going to continue to have delay after delay.”

Starr classified the stormwater utility discussion as “extremely important” for the community, and encouraged residents to see the upside.

“Yes, it is a fee, but it’s a fee that fixes your roads,” Starr said. “It doesn’t go to Washington, it stays right here and takes care of you.”

When asked whether they would support the city doing stormwater improvement projects on private property – the issue at the core of the recent Knox Cattle Dam debate – both Starr and Link said 'No.' 

“We have to be careful about funding water issues that cover people’s private property,” Link said. “Private property rights are rights that are maintained by property owners, and I don’t agree that the community should support, through taxes, the rerouting of water on other peoples’ private property.”

"When it comes to private property, private property is private property," Starr added. "There are property rights, and along with rights go responsibilities.”

Starr said the impetus should be on private property owners, or homeowner associations, to issue stormwater utility fees if they feel it will be necessary to maintain the property.

“We’re not just talking about the Cattleman’s Dam. That’s the flavor of the week right now, but there are other developments that have private stormwater utilities. And I think the lesson learned from what we’ve recently had with this Cattleman’s Dam is that our developments better start taking a look at their stormwater utilities,” Starr said.

“If they do have homeowner associations, they better start planning for that. Because the Attorney General’s office is seeing a lot of these from around Ohio. It’s not just Mount Vernon. And they’re going back to the property owners.”

DRUG ABUSE AND ADDICTION: Starr and Link seemed to take different approaches when asked about how they would lead efforts to combat drug abuse and addiction problems in the city.

Starr began by including mental illness in the conversation, alongside drug abuse and addiction. He said the first step in combating these issues is breaking down the stigma associated with them.

“The biggest hurdle that we have on this issue is stigma,” Starr said. “People are embarrassed because they have a mental illness or they have a family member who is an addict. It’s so rampant, I bet everyone in this room knows somebody personally who has either a mental health issue or an addiction, or both. We can’t be afraid to talk about this stuff, and that’s how you start breaking down those barriers.”

Starr said city government should not be responsible for providing resources for those battling addiction or mental illnesses, “because there are other agencies that are far better at providing those services than we can.” As mayor, he said he would remain active with the Knox Substance Abuse Action Team (KSAAT) and would aim to strengthen local organizations who are working every day to solve these problems.

Link said he would rely on the local court system and law enforcement to handle the issues of drug addiction and mental illness. He said he hopes to bring employment to the area, which would decrease poverty through well-paying jobs. He believes this would, in turn, decrease drug abuse.

“We have a police force and they enforce the laws, and that’s as far as the mayor can go,” Link said.

Starr countered by saying “the police can only do so much.”

“It’s going to have to be us talking about it and reducing stigma, so we can actually come up with a solid plan,” he said.

MEET THE CANDIDATES: Starr, 53, is a current city council member and a 23-year city resident. He has served in various local organizations over the years, including The Foundation at Knox Community Hospital, Foundation Park Conservancy, Main Street Mount Vernon and the Mount Vernon Parks & Recreation Board.

Starr ran for mayor in 2015, but lost to Mavis by 160 votes. Mavis captured 51 percent of the vote to secure his sixth term in office (he has decided to retire after this term, leaving the mayoral position up for grabs). Starr, a Kent State graduate and the current director of Kokosing River Productions, said he first thought about running for mayor in 2004, when a friend suggested that he do so. He has been increasingly involved in the local nonprofit and governmental scenes ever since.

Starr concluded Thursday’s debate by reciting Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If,” which he feels encapsulates “the type of mentality it’s going to take in order to do this job.”

Link, 63, is a Knox County native, having graduated from Centerburg High School in 1974. He graduated from Otterbein College in 1978, then Capital Law School in 1983. Link practiced law for 10 years and has been living in the Mount Vernon area for the last two decades, he said.

Link decided to run for mayor in June because he opposed the city charter issue that appeared on last year’s ballot. He supports the statutory form of government Mount Vernon currently has in place, and he disagrees with some of the other forms of government that could have been presented as possibilities under charter rule.

“I have a feeling that the city manager form of government will be proposed again at some time in the future, and I’d like the voters to vote against it,” Link said.

Link said in his closing statement that Starr “is making proposals to you that I’m not sure can be funded.” He cited his background in law as the main reason he is qualified to be Mount Vernon’s next mayor.

“I believe that I’m more qualified because I can make decisions, I have experience making decisions,” Link said. “As you know, much of government involves the law, and I practiced law for 10 years. I know how to take concepts and use them, and analyze them and criticize them.

“The problems the City of Mount Vernon has faced in the past, many of them are addressed by the law, so we’ll look to the law to solve them. But there are issues that are not solved by the law, and those I can handle as well, with the support and advice of the people who work for the City of Mount Vernon.”

While Link's listed address with the Board of Elections is not inside city limits, he said Thursday that if elected, he would plan to move back in. He said he was living inside city limits when he submitted his petition to run, but he was "wrongfully terminated" from his Mount Vernon residence shortly thereafter, which is why his current residence is listed just outside the city.

According to Board of Elections deputy director Scott Howard, Link would still be eligible to serve as mayor if elected, as long as he moved back into the city by the time he took office.

The 2019 general election will be held on Nov. 5.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.