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Council members question candidates for open seat

SALEM — City council members questioned candidates for the At Large opening on a number of topics, including what they consider Salem’s biggest problem, what they like about the city and how they would handle a budget shortfall.

The question and answer session Wednesday night via Zoom was limited to one hour, with candidates giving opening and closing remarks and each council member given a chance to ask a couple questions.

At 6 p.m. today, city council members will deliberate in executive session, then make their choice in open session.

The candidates who submitted their resumes for consideration include: businessman and Salem Music Centre owner Raymond Cox, former At Large councilman Brian Whitehill and city Planning Commission member Robert Merry.

The candidate selected will serve out the remainder of former councilman Sal Salvino’s term, which expires Dec. 31. Salvino resigned last month to become the full-time Salem housing director/housing inspector. All three were asked if they’ll file to run for the new term in the November election, with Merry saying he would, Whitehill saying it depends on if he’s chosen and Cox saying he would think about it.

Council gets to choose Salvino’s successor because he filed as an Independent when he first ran. The filing deadline for Independents to file for the November election is May 3, just a little over two weeks away.

All three candidates said what they love about Salem is the community and the people, and all three spoke passionately about the fact that Salem is their home and they want to see it succeed and help contribute where they can.

Here are some snippets of what each candidate had to say:

— Robert Merry sees the drug problem as the biggest issue facing the city and said he truly believes the more that issue can be reduced, that will be good for the city and make the community grow. When asked what he would like to tackle if chosen, he didn’t have a target issue, but would like to talk with the other council members about what they’ve been working on and see how he can contribute. When asked who he’ll serve, he said the people of Salem.

As a member of the Planning Commission and former Board of Zoning Appeals member, he’s familiar with some of the rules and was asked what rules could be changed to keep residents in the city. He mentioned not keeping up with people keeping their properties cleaned up has been a problem that needs resolved.

Merry said he would have needed more information before supporting the Regional Income Tax Agency taking over income tax collections, saying he heard both good and bad about it.

If the city experienced a shortfall and he had to choose between cutting some services or raising taxes, he said if the city’s funds are short, so are the funds of the citizens. He said he would favor looking at cutting back where feasible and not tax the people more. He also said he had no problem subletting stuff out to private contractors where possible. In the area of utilities, he talked about the recent issue with the natural gas aggregation, saying the raise in the fixed price was an injustice to the city.

— Brian Whitehill said he can’t answer the RITA question since he wasn’t part of the discussion and is anxious to see if there’s a savings. He did say he filed online with RITA and it did not take long. For a budget shortfall, he said he favored finding where expenses could be cut first. When he served on council, he spent eight years on the Finance Committee and they looked at the budget line by line. He voted against the additional .25 percent tax which was sold as temporary because he said it would not be temporary.

To promote economic growth, he said the city needs to create a welcoming environment for business and incentives for them to want to be here.

Whitehill said the city continues to live with a lot of crime issues. He said the police department does a great job with the resources they have, but it’s still a major issue, along with the condition of housing. One of his regrets from his time on council was not getting the Better Landlord program in place due to some legal barriers. He said the city needs to find better ways to hold people accountable for their properties.

He was also asked what he would have done differently if he had still been on council the past three years, saying he probably would not have supported buying an additional parks building. He suggested finding a creative solution to the trash hauler situation, not necessarily a single hauler since he’s all for competition, but there could be ways to improve the situation.

Whitehill said he considers himself an Independent who’s conservative with Libertarian sprinkled in. He said it’s his job to work with both Democrats and Republicans.

— Raymond Cox said he sees a lot of potential in Salem and noted the loss of some businesses and a need to achieve more growth and redevelopment of the downtown. He would like to be part of the solution. When asked what he noticed the city doesn’t have and should have, he said Salem has a very unique downtown, but in the sections where buildings have been torn down, he suggested building small parks there where people can assemble. He talked about helping the downtown come back to life and how that would be very beneficial to Salem.

When asked if his work, which sometimes takes him out of town, would create a problem, he said he works remotely a lot and that would not be a problem. He’s never been involved in government, but has served on some boards related to business, for chambers in other cities where he’s lived.

He didn’t know a lot about RITA, but when asked if he favored subletting some services out or keeping it all local, Cox said if the service can be done efficiently and at a discounted price, the city should look at it. He said the question to ask is are we going to get the same level and quality of service and save money.

When it comes to dealing with a shortfall, he said what he’s done in companies is evaluate the situation, what cost is involved and what impact would cutting services have and what can be done more efficiently. He talked about exploring grants. He said nobody wants to raise taxes, but if that’s what’s on the table, he said the voters have to be told what their support will mean.

Cox said he considers himself an Independent who looks at both sides and does what’s best for the community, not what’s best for him.

mgreier@salemnews.net

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