By Chase Rheam
STILLWATER, Okla. — The following are responses from Stillwater City Council candidates to questions posed at the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce City Council forum Friday. The introduction speeches have been omitted. Incumbent Joe Weaver's opponent Micah LeFebvre didn't attend the forum. Incumbent Philip Pina is facing challenger Gina Noble.
"What ideas or approach would you have for financing infrastructure or quality of life needs in our community?"
Weaver: "OK, as a council member, I get asked a lot, 'What's your agenda? What's you approach? How will you do X, Y and Z?' I would work as a member of a team of five council members with the city staff, with the community and develop a plan together in a way that is consensus building and getting everyone's opinion and take. That's not something one council member can do or should go into it with the idea that I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that. You're going to work together as part of a team, listening to the community, assessing what the community's needs are because you're listening to them and they're going to tell you what the needs are. Maybe there's not any needs. Maybe we don't need to do what you're alluding to. But, whatever that is, it will be from a team-building effort and consensus building effort and heavily engaging the community and listening to what they have to say."
Pina: "I want to say what Joe has said is basically the same opinion that I have; that we don't go in with an agenda. We look at the issues and hopefully we do the research. We make each other accessible to the people who need to come to us and talk to us. And based upon all the research, the accessibility and all the things that we found out, we can make a sound, judgmental decision. We can begin to say we think, and I keep on using the word we because it's part of the whole Council thing we're talking about, we think this is the best decision for the city based upon all those parameters out there that we've looked at. I will not go into any kind of decision making as a solo individual. I will listen to my fellow counselors. I will listen to the mayor. And I will based those decisions, again, upon research and accessibility and at that point, I'll make my decision."
Noble: "Quality of life is important to all of us. And there are many ways to attract quality of life. Sometimes, it's economic development that brings quality of life. Sometimes, it's private businesses, private donors, private foundations that help us establish quality of life. So, the City Council does work as a team. No one can set a policy, because it is a team building team decision. We need to find out what the community wants, what the community needs. We need to engage the community and we need to see if there are other ways to finance rather than raising taxes or anything like that."
"What are your beliefs on incentivizing companies to join our community on the retail and industry side?"
Pina: "My viewpoint has drastically changed. As I came into the Council, I heard of incentives i.e. tax incentives. I personally, at this stage, do not believe in tax incentives. But, what I do believe in is partnerships. When I say partnership, a company wants to come to us and let's say Lisa (Navrkal) has found this company and we've decided that the company should come. In the negotiation phase, we should ask them what can they do for us and what can we do for them as opposed to you're coming - what can you do for me in terms of a tax break? I think Stillwater has been burnt by tax breaks. I believe that a partnership doesn't give you tax breaks. It gives you incentives that says you do for me, I'll do for you and therefore we can work it out as a mutual concern. We can bring companies here that says, 'OK, I'm located in X area and you may need road improvements. We'll do road improvements.' Any maybe later on down the road, as the tax bases come in, we can pay them a certain percentage over a period of time for the work that they did up front. That's a collaborative effort. That's a joint effort. But just to bring a company in here and to tell the community we brought this company in and we gave them, for lack of other terms, ten percent of their tax base will be free for X amount of years; I don't believe in that at all."
Weaver: "Stillwater is really in a unique position right now. We are seeing growth. Things are going well. We've made a number of decisions recently. I just hope this year that we have some exciting announcements to make as a city like we had last year. And you bet we worked hard. Sen. Halligan, Cory (Williams), everyone at City Hall and the public schools; everybody was all over trying to get ASCO to come to Stillwater and we were successful. What a huge hit that was. Bringing jobs to town and improving our economic base and that's really what it's about for me. If we get the community to grow in a measured way, in a thoughtful way, that adds things to the community, then we're going to be in a better position. So, I'm certainly open to listening to what kind of package we might put together to attract an ASCO or any other business, whether it be retail or industry or whatever. But, the criteria I think we need to consider is what does it bring to us? Is it filling a niche that we don't have? Is it going to provide quality jobs? Is it going to help the community grow? Is it something that the citizens are telling us they want? If you can check those boxes, then I think it is incumbent upon us to try to work with companies that come to us. Now, I said Stillwater is my favorite place to be, but sometimes we have to convince corporate execs that don't live in Stillwater or even Oklahoma that this is a great place to be and they can be successful here, too. So, sometimes, we are seeing a trend nationally that cities do have to provide some incentive to attract some things to come to their town. We're in a competition; we are. We don't want to blindly throw things out there just to see...throw things out there to see what sticks. We want to be thoughtful about it. We want to listen to the community. And if it brings quality jobs and it fills a niche, then we should at least consider it and be open to the discussion."
Noble: "If we're going to do incentives, it needs to be planned and there needs to be a level playing field. I think we need to make sure that we're looking to protect those who have already established a business here; who haven't been incentivized when you're looking to bring someone in. Now, economic development is extremely important and there will be some times when we need to consider that. It needs careful consideration and it does need...We need to be able to bring a commitment to everybody. I know we have an incentive district right now and I know that the city is able to bring more businesses here because of that incentive district. Most of all, I think we need to have a level playing field and we need to support everybody in Stillwater."
Recently, the city approved plans for development on the west side. As a councilor, what is your vision for growth in that area?"
Noble: "I think the West side has some unique opportunities. I also think we have to consider water issues. We have to consider infrastructure when we're planning for probably any side of the city, but especially the west side. There's plenty of opportunity for retail, shopping, entertainment and there's lot of opportunities for more single home families, for multifamilies and I believe when you're looking in the city of Stillwater, you have to look at all the infrastructure when you're planning and you have to combine planned growth, economic development and infrastructure. They all have to be a consideration; all of them."
Pina: "The west side, we're doing a lot of planning and hopefully there's going to be development there. It's a great opportunity. It's a great area to develop and yes, water is an issue over there, but I think we have a handle on it. I think we're into Phase 2 and I think by 2014 we'll have most of the water issues squared away. In terms of single family homes, a great area. If you want to talk about multistory development, that's a great area. But I think we have to look at the West side like we needed to look at everything else. We need to look at a plan. Just not saying, 'Let's develop the West side. Let's develop the East side, North or South.' I think we need to begin to seriously look at planning. I think we need to look at how we're going to do this planning. For example, we have some problems in Stillwater in terms of existing neighborhoods and what we want to put around the existing neighborhoods and sometimes we run into that and we haven't really looked at it completely. I read the comp plan the other day and I came up with something I hadn't thought about and was approached to me last night. We haven't really taken advantage of buffer zones. So, if we're going to go into the West side, now is a perfect chance to begin to really plan how we're going to do this. When I say buffer zones, let's say we have a single family here and we want to do multifamily over here. What should be put in between them to make sure one doesn't bleed into the other and one does not believe the other has an advantage in terms of security or privacy. So, if we start looking at buffer zones and now is a great time to do it because we're talking about developing an area, that's the direction I think we should go in."
Weaver: "Whether it's my vision or anyones, I think we're going to see growth on (State Highway) 51 as you approach I-35. Whether we like it or not, it's going to come. The important thing for the Council to consider is to be on top of it and make sure it happens in an organized way. The comprehensive plan is part of that. The mayor suggested we focus in that area because we knew that we were hearing from a lot of people on the outside wanting to look at real estate opportunities out there. It's going to develop. But we want to be mindful of the traffic. We want to be mindful of the intersections and access to the existing businesses that are out there. We want to make sure that as that develops out there, we can still maintain the accessibility and the traffic flow and all those sorts of things as it does develop out. The comprehensive plan addresses that in part, but we'll have to be mindful of that as we go forward. And I think of it sort of like what happened in the BID District downtown. We're all taking that for granted now. Just think back about six years ago what downtown looked like and look at it now. Every evening, the cars are everywhere. There's no parking. The businesses are lit up. They're not closed down at 5 o'clock. It's energized downtown. That's been a wonderful success story for the BID District, the city of Stillwater and our whole community. I'd like to see something like that happen out on 51 where with thoughtful planning and careful organization we can have some additional activity out there that complements what we already have and is something that we can be proud of and not something that just happens to us."
"On controversial issues, do you feel you have the ability to make decisions based on the best interests of the community versus the best interests of a few?
Weaver: Yes. And I think I've demonstrated that with a few of the votes I've made over my first three years.
Pina: Yes, I do. The reason why I believe that is when a controversial issue comes up, if you've done your homework, if you've done the research, if you talk to people and get a feel for what the system wants, what the citizens want, what the community wants, you go into the meeting and you'll make that decision. But you should never be afraid to say, 'Did I do the right thing?' And if you feel that you've done the wrong thing and new information comes forward, you should always be able to re-look that decision. And that's part of the Council that I really like, that I can re-look an issue. There's nothing wrong with that. It never says that you want to change anyone's mind. In most instances, you want to bring more information to the table. I think I have handled controversial issues very well and I also think I've made a few mistakes. I don't say that I'm perfect. I know that one time I pressed the button wrong and oh my God, the world collapsed on me. I said no when I should have said yes. So, small mistakes like that, but the idea is if there's controversy out there, you have to look at the controversy. You have to look at the opinions of others. You have to look at your own self. You have to look at how you think it best meets the needs of the community and then make your decision."
Noble: "Yes, I can make a fair decision. I can make a fair decision and I can make it based on public opinion. I'm going to be accessible. If you email me, I'm going to email you back and probably within the same day. Probably within a few hours because that's how I run my life. I'm going to listen to you. I'm going to listen to everybody. There's always two sides to an issue; always. You can't be fair minded if you don't look at both sides of the issue. I'm balanced, but I have always lived my life and the way I conduct myself and my job. I value fairness above all else, always. I put it in my syllabus. I value fairness. I can make the important decisions. I can make them with independent thought after I've researched and I can also stand by my decisions."
"It appears as though the community is seeing strong growth in the retail and energy sectors. What other type of growth would you like to see in the industry segments?"
Noble: "Any industry that brings lots of jobs that are living wage jobs with benefits. Those are good industries. I don't think I have to pick and choose. Yes, we're growing in retail. We're growing in shopping, unique shopping that complements what we already have. If we want to be a destination, we have to have those things. I would love to see more entertainment. I want to see recreation. Those are quality of life but they're also important. They bring tax dollars. I would like to see a variety of housing. I would like to see...shopping, dining, housing, recreation, cultural events...anything that adds purpose and quality of life and anything that brings tax dollars."
Pina: "Jobs, retail or industry, industrial or economic development jobs, I want the kind of jobs to come that will be able to allow a family to say we've got enough money now; let's look for a piece of property. When they look for a piece of property, I want them to look at Stillwater. I want them to grow roots here .I want them to buy homes and have a tax base. I want jobs to be able to give a good living wage. I'm passionate about the idea that the better the job that we bring to this community, the lower our poverty rates will go. If you look at our comprehensive plan, I think we're somewhere around 1/3rd of this community is under the poverty guidelines. Well, if we bring the right jobs, then we can begin to say we'll eliminate or at least downplay some of that poverty in the sense that we've got people out there that are not on the dole and are beginning to pay their fair share, buy homes, look around say this is a great community to raise children in. I don't want Stillwater to be a transient society where a job is here for a moment and I think the pipeline does a lot of this to us. The pipeline comes in, people get hired, the pipeline goes away and people are out of work. I want substantial jobs where the people can stay and grow."
Weaver: "I think, again, I have to be careful about me pre-determining what industry do we need. We need to be open and listening to whatever might come our way, but there are some natural things that you might think of. Think about FES, Frontier Electronics, Nomadics, SST; those high tech businesses that bring quality jobs to town that have that natural connection to the community that makes sense. ASCO, actually, was impressed the education community that we are. Stan (Clark), who would have thought 40 years ago you would have a plant out by the airport throwing out T-shirts by the truckload. We shouldn't just try to predetermine what things are going to be here. We need to be open. We need to listen. And we need to work to make sure that we can be accessible and that we're attractive to businesses and industries that want to come here."
"We've recently had a number of studies: parking, fitness center, roads. Are we spending too much on studies and consultants?"
Weaver: "I don't think we are and I do look at that every time that the city staff want to bring a consultant in. But frankly, I would rather have the private sector give some advice; hire some experts to give us a report than to hire up a bunch of staff. We couldn't duplicate the kind of talent we've been bringing in to give us advice on parking. Walker and Associates are awesome. They are a great company. The university has used them a number of times. We didn't have that expertise on staff. So, I think it's incumbent on us that when we have a problem that's complicated, that's multi-faceted, bring in an expert to help you sort things out and give you a report. In the long run, that could save you from making mistakes that cost could you even more money."
Pina: "Again, like Joe said, if we look at experts versus staff, I don't think our staff is qualified to do some of the research that's necessary. I don't mind bringing in a consulting firm to do the research that we need. If we allow the staff to do it, we're going to get a good product. I'm not saying that, but if they're doing that, what are they doing at City Hall? We've got them doing two functions, multi-functions. And that's unfair. When you bring in a consultant, his prime job is to give us the answers that we asked him to look at. And because he or she is doing those kinds of things, it relieves the staff and the staff and City Council can take those recommendations. It doesn't mean we have to go through all the recommendations and approve everything they say, but at least they've given an outside point of view, they've looked at all the questions we've asked them to look at and I think they give us a fair assessment instead of asking internal staff to do it."
Noble: "Research is always a good thing when you're looking at problems. And when you find problems that you need answers to that are going to save you money in the long run, I think it's important that we hire consultants when we need to. We need a plan to move forward. If a consultant can help us do that and save money in the long run, that's important. Stillwater is growing and we need to make plans for the long term; not just for the next couple of years. Anytime we can use something that's going to save us money, save us planning and save us from making mistakes the first time, it's a good thing."
"What specific experience makes you attune to the needs of the business community?
Pina: "For, I think, about 11 months, I've been in the hot seat, so to speak. I've had that strong and hard learning curve and because of it, in the prior experience I had through the Agra town board, I come with a different kind of flavor. I come with the idea that I'm not going to make rash and irrational decisions. I'm going to study what the issue is. I'm going to look at what the business community needs and I'm going to turn around and say to myself, 'Am I in a position to help that? Am I in a position to help the Chamber of Commerce? Am I in a position to make sure the Chamber of Commerce has the tools and research to help them do their jobs?' And if the answer is yes, I'll be the first one to say yes. If I'm not in that position, then I'm going to back off and find a way to be more attuned. I've had several opportunities to talk to business people and to get their perspective on things. I've had a lot of opportunities to see what the staff believes. So, putting that all together, what I think I'm saying is I'm going to go out there and support those entities that will bring business into our community. I'm going to make sure that I know as much as I can know, what you all want, what the City of Stillwater needs and operate off of that."
Weaver: "As being part of the administrative team at Oklahoma State, we run a pretty big business here in town. It is a business whether we want to admit that or not; it is. And we have a lot of complicated things we have to work out and I, like other people in the community that have to make decisions to run a business, so I think I'm like minded. I am an incumbent council member. I have learned how to work at City Hall and I understand the issues that people when they come to town, what they have to work through, what do they have to work with and I'm tuned in to what the problems are when they're trying to start up a business. I was on the CVB for six years, so I was able to get an idea of the things that are available in Stillwater and learn about how one makes your community a destination as opposed to just another place. The talents and experiences that I have and the fact that I've lived in Stillwater since I was 18 years old...I think I'm tuned in to what the community wants. I've been on the chamber board representing OSU for a number of years until I got elected to council. I think I've been able to work with enough members of the community and I've learned through my work experience and just living here in Stillwater that I think I'm tuned in to what the business community wants, but I'm always there to listen and I'm certainly willing to entertain any kind of ideas for how we can make Stillwater better.
Noble: "I have been a leader. I've been a vice president of a health care foundation. I had to do budgeting. I had to make decisions. I took care of staff. I hired people. I had to let people go. And I've worked with the media. I do understand, but here's the important thing. I'm going to listen to you. I'm a communications professional and I think one of the most important things I can do is to listen to you. I'm going to make it my job to listen to you. I can make decisions. I will listen to you, but you know what else? I'm a mom and I've made decisions for someone else for a long time. I've been the head of my household and I'm doing a pretty good job. I know how to make decisions. I know how to listen. I'm accessible. You can get ahold of me or I will get ahold of you.
"What efforts could the city take to cut costs on utilities and fees for new and existing residents or businesses?
Noble: "I don't have all of the answers and I know that anytime, and you're talking about new residents and new businesses, so energy efficiency is always an absolute way to go. But, there's also other ways that you can get residents and businesses involved to make sure savings is important. I'm going to have to say that I don't have an exact answer for that. That is something that I would have to study but you know what? I'm willing to admit when I don't know something and I'm also willing to tell you that I'll go out and research it and I'll find the answers."
Pina: "I don't believe at this point and time that cutting costs for new businesses coming in and/or new residents is an answer. I think if a new business comes in and they're environmentally friendly, if they're green, that will help cut their costs. And I think that's the way we have to approach it. We have to begin to say, 'If you come to Stillwater, we are a green friendly city and one of the things that we'd like to do is keep it that way. We'd like to see you go more green than, say, people who built here or came here 20 or 30 years ago. The idea of the rates that we have now is so that we can project for the future if there's any major disasters. If you start cutting costs, we lose that revenue stream and then when a disaster strikes, where do we get the money? So I don't think we automatically look at the idea of new residences come in and let's cut their costs here and cut their costs there. Keep it the same and explain and let those companies, those individuals that will come, this is why the cost of what they are. This is what we're doing with the money that we're generating. This is what we hope to do in the future. So, cutting costs, I don't see that as an alternative."
Weaver: "Just a couple thoughts on that. The city has been working very hard to try to isolate the costs of each utility and have the rates reflect what the costs are for each enterprise so that they can stand on their own and that's fine. We always have to be mindful of the rates, but one thing we can do to control the rates and the impact it has on businesses and residential customers is expand the base. If we can broaden our base and expand the fixed costs over more customers, the rates will come down. That's part of economic development. We really need to be paying attention. Our water rates, they're a little high when you compare them to Oklahoma City, but their infrastructure is spread over a much broader base. I'm not saying we want to be Oklahoma City, but some measured planned growth will help us maintain the costs and maybe even lower the costs as we bring more development to the community and more residents to the community."
"If elected, what do you think are the three greatest challenges you will face during your term?"
Weaver: "Well, I need to be open to not knowing what the biggest challenge might be because you never do know for sure, but I would imagine that we'll be talking a lot about infrastructure. We're all aware that the roads in Stillwater need some work. There's some places that need some serious attention, so I think those type of infrastructure issues like water, like roads, like stormwater, we will need to spend some time working on those. Personally, I would like to see, as Gina alluded to, the quality of life issue. That, to me, is as big an economic development issue as anything else. Doctors, faculty, professionals like high quality of life. They want to live in a place that's comfortable where there are things to do, so I'm hoping that over the next few years the community can start identifying some quality of life initiatives that might help that economic development. Those are the two biggest, I think. We could talk about a well thought out comprehensive plan. We're going to hear about that on Monday night at the next Council meeting. We appreciate guys like Mr. Thomas who has spent a lot of time in a lot of meetings like a lot of citizens helping us develop and update our comprehensive plan, but that will always be an issue in the community as you're developing and growing, is how can you maintain growth and yet protect neighborhoods and protect the development that's already in place. I would expect a comprehensive plan and discussions around that to be a big priority as well.
Pina: "I don't want to....ditto. That's my answer. A lot of what Joe has said is my answer, so I say ditto."
Noble: "Economic development, infrastructure, quality of life; they're always going to be issues. The C3 Plan that is the master plan that has not been approved yet, but it has some great goals in it. It also calls for making sure that it discourages dispersed development and I read that as dispersed development means keep us like this, but also we're going to have those land use issues. We need a plan in place that makes everybody on a level playing field. I think that's just always going to be an issue until we get a plan in place. Of course, always, respect of the character of our neighborhoods and quality neighborhoods for everybody, a variety of homes and quality of life issues. Economic development creates those and those create economic development. We always have to be mindful."
Pina: "When I sit on the dais and look out at the audience before me, I have to make a decision and in the process of making a decision, a lot of you, or most of you in this room know that I'm a Rotarian. You see my pin right here. And most Rotarians know that there's a four way test and I'm just going to tell you two of the four way tests that I use to help make my decisions. The first is, is it the truth? When you come before me and you start talking about housing or talking about water issues or whatever it is, are you talking the truth and if it is the truth, then it's easy for me to make a decision. The second tenant of the four way test is will it be beneficial to all people concerned? If I make a decision, I have to look at that and say will it be beneficial to all concerned? It's not just this neighborhood or that commercial district or this or that. Is it beneficial to Stillwater? Will it give Stillwater what it needs? Will it be planned and programmed so that everybody can take advantage of it? If we look at, for example, the dog park that we put in very recently. It answers those two questions. Truth - everyone loves dogs, everyone needs a place to walk the dog; who doesn't have a place to walk the dog? Is it beneficial to all concerned? Go to the dog park and look around and you'll see that it's very beneficial. When you look at how we're going to address the water issues on the West side, there's some issues out there, but when it's over with and we're finished with what we're supposed to do, will it be beneficial to all those people concerned? I think the answer is yes. So it's very easy to make those decisions if I use the four way test. If I look at the issue and ask the question, 'Is it the truth? Yes. Will it benefit everybody? Yes. So, as huge as an issue that we have in Stillwater in terms of infrastructure, quality of life, economic development and all the other myriad of problems that we may have or things that we're going to do, I can take solace in the fact that at least I have something I can bank on to make those decisions. And I'm very grateful for the idea that I'm a Rotarian because it not only helps me out internationally, it helps me out locally and I hope it helps me out statewide. I can begin to feel good about myself using this plan of the four way test. I can raise my children using that four way test. Is it truthful? Are you being truthful to me, son? Is it beneficial to my household? So, when I look at those kinds of things and I see the things that are coming at me, I just don't want to answer it because I think it's the best answer. I have to use this litanies test and this litanies test works. And I'm very proud of the fact that I'm a Rotarian and I use that as my yardstick."
Weaver: "As I said earlier, It's been an honor and a privilege to serve as your Councilor for Seat One for these three years. And it's just a universal truth and we all know it because you all serve in other capacities, when you're serving, you get more out of it than you put into it. That's always the case and it just amazes me that people say, 'You give so much time." Yeah, but I get so much back. This community is a wonderful place to be. As I said earlier, I'm willing to commit the time and the energy. I'll show up to the meeting. I'll engage. I'll make the best decisions that I can. I know you don't agree with all the decisions that I've made. I hope you haven't. I'm not going to say I made some mistakes but I'm sure that there are some that you would say that I did. But on the whole, I would hope you would believe that I've tried to do what's best for this community, for Stillwater and it would be an honor and a privilege if you'd vote for me on April 2nd. I'm happy to serve again as your city councilman."
Noble: "Decisions in city government affect us all. The citizens, neighborhoods and businesses. As Stillwater grows, there are many important decisions City Council must make. Who will you choose to make your decisions for the next three years? I've talked about economic development and infrastructure and quality of life and how they're all interconnected. Is one more important than the other? No. People want to live in a city with good roads, water, sewer, power; they want a city with good infrastructure. We deserve that. Businesses want the same thing and to attract economic development, we must have infrastructure in place. But, businesses and people also want more quality of life opportunities. Quality of life, to me, is all of the things we enjoy doing when we're not at work. It's shopping and dining and entertainment and recreation. It's opportunities for young and old. It's opportunities that create tax dollars. That's what's important to our city. But quality of life goes beyond what we do when we're playing. It's about the availability of a variety of established and new neighborhoods where homeowners and residents, the citizens of Stillwater, can live and thrive and know their interests and investments are respected and important to city leaders and City Council when those types of decisions are being made. Established businesses need to know that they are equally important in Stillwater's growth plan. We are obligated to equally consider the wishes of those who have made Stillwater what it is today. Those who have already invested in Stillwater. When we grow Stillwater, new development is extremely important and I support it. But I also support the voices of established residents and businesses who represent existing development. There's a way to support both. There's a way to be fair. When you go to the voting both on April 2nd, vote for someone who values fairness above all else. Vote for someone who will represent all interests equally. Vote for someone who can make an independent decision when decisions must be made and then someone who can stand by that decision and be proud of it. Vote for me, Gina Noble, Seat number 2. Thank you."