By KEVIN LIMITI • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA — Mayoral candidates and Common Council members Len Carson, R-Fifth Ward, and Mark Drank, D-Eighth Ward, discussed a range of topics at a virtual debate hosted by the League of Women Voters via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 20.
Among the topics discussed were economic development, town-gown relations and housing.
Neither candidate had major disagreements on fundamental issues, although their approach to developing Market Street differed.
In his opening statement, Drnek touted how he set up the “Survive and Thrive” campaign in response to COVID, as well as a town-gown task force in order to improve relations between the city and the colleges.
“We are poised to do great things, but the window to act won’t be long,” Drnek said. He said he “lay awake at night” thinking about improvements to attract new residents of Oneonta.
“I’m running for mayor because I have a vision to make all those things happen,” Drnek said.
Carson said he was approaching the debate as a “job interview” and spoke of being a long-time Otsego County resident, an Air Force veteran and a former Oneonta firefighter. He said he has a broader understanding of how Oneonta fits within county government because he served on the county board previously
On the issue of the Community Advisory Board for the Oneonta Police Department, both candidates served on the review committee with Drnek as the chair.
Drnek said he took “a lot of satisfaction” from serving as chair and said the process was “really detailed” with in-depth conversations. He praised the committee for all resolutions being unanimous, and said he was most excited about the potential creation of a Community Police Review Board which would make “certain that we have a system in place in which the community and police will benefit.”
The review board will address complaints about OPD.
Carson praised the new police chief, Chris Witzenberg, for his role during the process.
“Any other people might have been abrasive to change,” Carson said, who remarked how he thought Witzenberg worked really well with the process and was articulate in his explanations and concerns.
Carson said he was most excited about introducing mental health professionals into OPD and hoped the CAB document would be dynamic.
On the issue of government transparency, Carson said it was extremely important to him.
“As mayor of the city of Oneonta, I would have a coffee hour,” Carson said, as an opportunity to speak with constituents about concerns.
Carson also remarked how Zoom has become a platform to increase transparency, forming out of a necessity during the height of the pandemic, saying they were “finally on a platform that’s convenient for government.”
Drnek stressed the need for communication.
“We need to ratchet up communication as we never had before,” Drnek said. “It’s as important as anything we can do.”
On the issue of housing, both Drnek and Carson acknowledged the importance of housing in the City of Oneonta, particularly middle-income housing.
Drnek said he was open to “every idea” for a solution to the housing problem.
“My goal is to bring 1,000 people into our community,” Drnek said. “You need to have affordable housing to succeed in a goal like that.”
The future artist lofts on Dietz Street, Drnek said, was a great example of the type of housing the city needs.
Carson said he wanted to look at zoning in order to tackle the housing issues and likewise said the lofts were a “great example of how we need middle income housing.”
Carson was adamant about the purchasing of a Chestnut street school, something he called a “win-win” for Oneonta. He said he wants to encourage developers and work with new ones in order to revitalize housing in the city.
On the issue of the Railyard, Drnek said it was an “amazing opportunity for the community” and called it the “heart of Oneonta.”
Carson agreed, again stressing the need for economic development.
“We need it dramatically to turn our community around,” Carson said. “The city of Oneonta is poised for great economic development.”
Carson said it would be helpful for development if Otsego County could give more money to Otsego Now.
The transportation hub was something both candidates are excited for.
Drnek said he wanted to turn Market Street into an entertainment hub using money from the Downtown Revitalization Initative, floating the idea of turning the Stella Luna into a children’s museum with the railroad as a theme. He also was hoping for “green energy driven conveyances” to bring people from Market Street to Main Street.
Carson called the DRI “very important” but there was a misconception that it was “free money.”
“The DRI is giving us an opportunity to be transformative but we need to be smart about it,” Carson said, who hoped to work with private developers.
Carson mentioned how he wanted to promote baseball more including “the Outlaws” baseball team.
A question on how to keep homeowners taxes down was answered first by Carson, who stressed the importance of stabilizing the tax base and increasing revenues.
Drnek hoped to attract more downstate people to Oneonta because, according to him, this would bring the tax rate down.
A question came in about how Oneonta can be more inclusive and diverse with Carson admitting, “I think we need to do a better job.”
Carson said he was approached by someone on the street who said Oneonta didn’t have an open community.
“It shouldn’t matter what your skin color is, your race, your ethnicity or beliefs,” Carson said, who said Oneonta needed to do a better job opening the community up.
Drnek also stressed making every voice heard and bringing people to the table who wouldn’t ordinarily be at the table.
“That is how we solve problems,” Drnek said. “We are all community members and all our voices matter.”
In his closing remarks, Carson thanked Drnek for having a “gentleman’s campaign,” which they agreed to. He touted his goal of having tax incentives for businesses and increased public-private partnership.
Drnek ended by encouraging people to go to his website and how he would make Oneonta a “jewel that shines so bright it becomes a beacon.”