LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Public safety, the impact of a high-profile school levy and zoning regulations were the “talk of the townships” Wednesday evening at an open forum for trustee candidates in Liberty and West Chester townships.
It was a rare opportunity for dozens of area residents to get face-time with and pose questions to eight people vying for trustee positions in two of the most rapidly growing townships in the Tri-State—at a time when their potential to influence the greater region is at an all-time high.
“West Chester and Liberty are the two most progressive communities of development on the Interstate 75 growth corridor between Cincinnati and Dayton. You have a downtown that continues to emerge to grow with West Chester and one that is starting to develop and grow in Liberty,” said Joe Hinson, president of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance. ”Those two townships together form the epicenter of activity that’s bringing the two major markets of Cincinnati and Dayton together.”
Four trustee candidates in each township are fighting for one of their community’s three open spots. Current West Chester Township trustee Lee Wong and long-time incumbent Catherine Stoker are both gunning for another four-year term. They’re competing against two new faces for the coveted spots: Matthew King and Mark Welch.
Liberty Township trustee candidates include incumbents Tom Farrell and Christine Matacic, in addition to first-time candidates Robert Coogan and Jeff Newman.
Each candidate delivered a two-minute opening statement at the chamber-sponsored event, before responding to a series of questions submitted on notecards from the audience. Candidates were asked to identify the greatest needs in their respective townships, to discuss the current condition of police and fire services in their area and to share their positions about current zoning regulations in their communities.
Several trustee candidates expressed a need for better transparency within their local governments, specifically allowing a fiscal officer to sit in on executive session.
"That's something that needs to be remedied right away," said King, who added that West Chester is one of the only townships that prohibits the fiscal officer's presence.
Others discussed the need for infrastructure development and greater staffing as the communities continue to grow.
"We have been fortunate to keep our staffing level to a minimal size, but as we grow, as we receive more and more businesses....that's the first and foremost thing that I see that we're going to have to be taking a look at," said Matacic, running for another term as a Liberty Township trustee.
The current Liberty Township trustee cited the new Steiner development off Interstate 75 as an example of the growing needs that will occur as the businesses take off.
The eight candidates had varying positions on zoning issues in their respective townships.
"While [zoning regulations] should be sensitive to the business environment and the economy, [they] must also support the needs of the residents who have the need for a safe wholesome environment in which to raise our families. They should be enforced in a far and equitable manner across the door," said Stokes, who has spent 20 years as a West Chester Township trustee.
Some argued that current zoning regulations are a hindrance to small businesses in the area.
“Zoning restrictions need to lighten up,” said Newman, who's running for a Liberty Township position. “I’ve spoken with so many businesses over the last few months and I feel terribly bad for these people.”
"We need to get out there and make sure that businesses can do businesses in a friendly manner in West Chester," said Welch, running for a West Chester Township trustee position. "Zoning needs to be kinder and friendlier in the business department. It needs to be streamlined....There's a ton of room in zoning ordinances for interpretation"
But others say keeping those township zoning regulations as they are is key.
“We can’t open it up. We have to have high-end businesses that will pay us to come here, not businesses that we pay to come here,” said Farrell. “That’s the reason why zoning has to stay. It’s the only way we can balance our budget in the long-term.”
It's a hot and divisive issue that even attracted some people, like West Chester Township resident Barry Riddell, to the forum Wednesday night.
"I think it's time for a change," he said. "We have a zoning development that's been overburdening people like myself."
When trustee candidates were asked about the condition of public safety services in the two townships, the conversation turned to the impact that using the resources available from the Butler County Sheriff Office has had on Liberty Township.
Some candidates referenced the success of emergency response during the Butler County Greyhound bus crash in September.
The most popular question submitted was about the Lakota Local School District’s upcoming tax levy , a 5.5 mill combination levy that’s up before voters again this November, after failing three times before.
Trustees were asked to share their position on the levy and also discuss the type of relationship that the second-largest school district in the Tri-State should have with the two townships.
Some candidates gave firm answers about their stance on the school tax issue.
"I think that putting [a combination levy] on the ballot sort of restricts those of us who are voting. This is an all or nothing sort of thing and I think it's going to end up being a problem," said King, running for a West Chester Township trustee position.
"I saw the safety concerns in our schools," said Newman, who used to be a school resource officer. "If we don't vote for this levy to increase safety in our schools, I don't want to hear anybody complain about it when we have an incident in our schools."
Other candidates spoke generally about the trustees’ responsibility to the district and did not discuss how they would personally vote.
“As a trustee, our responsibility to the school district is to create an environment where business can flourish and then contribute more revenue for our schools so it doesn’t always have to come off the back of our residents,” said Stoker. "We do not tell the board of education how to run their schools and the board of education does not tell the trustees how to run their township."
The candidates were divided on many issues brought up by voters Wednesday, but all candidates agreed on one thing—they did not support the incorporation of their townships.
Wednesday's forum was the second of its kind in a week. The first one introduced Lakota school board candidates to the public last Wednesday.
West Chester and Liberty Township residents have just about three more weeks to make their decisions before election day, which is Nov. 5.