ELKHART — While three City Council members can already rest assured they will keep their jobs after the Nov. 5 election, the remaining six, all Republicans, face challengers.
Tuesday evening, those challengers had a chance to show voters how they would represent the constituents differently, as the League of Women Voters and the American Democracy Project hosted a City Council candidate debate at the Lerner Theatre's Crystal Ballroom.
The competitive district seat elections are District 1, where Republican Councilman Richard Shively is being challenged by Gerry Roberts, a Democrat; District 2, where Republican Councilman Brian Thomas is being challenged by Andrew Strycker, a Democrat; and District 6, where Republican Councilwoman Pam Kurpgeweit is being challenged by former Councilwoman Tonda Hines, a Democrat.
Six people are running for the three at-large seats that are currently occupied by Mary Olson, Brian Dickerson and Kevin Bullard, all Republicans. They are being challenged by Arvis Dawson, Alex Holtz and Tom Butler, all Democrats.
All candidates were asked what they would do for residents who depend on public transportation.
Dawson said the city should continue looking at adding a central bus hub at Franklin and 3rd streets.
He said he would like to sit on the Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG), which is responsible for the Interurban Trolley, to ensure that those efforts are carried through.
"We have a great transportation system now with the Trolley, and this would be a hub for that on Franklin Street, where you could actually come, wait for the Trolleys at the central station, where everybody could transfer to where they need to go," he said.
Holtz did not see the Trolley in the same way.
"I don't know that I agree that we have a great transportation system. We do have a transportation system. I would like to see it improved," he said, adding that he would like more stops around the city, especially on the south side.
That would create more balance in the city, Holtz believes.
"The city is large and it's like a big family, and I think part of the family might feel like they're being left out," he said.
Bullard said it is necessary to improve the public transportation system.
"When I first came on the council, I talked to (Mayor) Tim Neese about changing some of the routes, extending some of the routes. We've had some forced annexations throughout the city that have not been served," he said.
He agreed with the idea of having a central station but said it should be south of downtown, possibly on Benham Avenue. All candidates agreed there should either be a central station or better routes, or both.
The candidates, of whom nine out of 12 are white men, were asked what they and the city could do to improve the lives of minorities and Latinos in particular.
Dickerson said the City Council is expected to approve, in next year's budget, a neighborhood coordinator.
"And as part of that, the Common Council asked that the job description mandate it be a bilingual person," he said. "Our community is changing, and if we want to build strong neighborhoods in Elkhart and a strong connection between government and community, we need to bridge that communication gap."
Though there is a large Hispanic population in Elkhart, Roberts said, the audience at the debate showed that the community is not being engaged.
"We're not doing a good enough job," he said. "We live in a time where it's easier than ever to communicate with other people that don't speak the same language as us."
So the city and its representatives should make better use of tools such as Google Translate, Roberts said.
Shively agreed that Latinos in Elkhart tend to stay in the background, despite making up more than a fifth of the population.
"It's either because they're afraid of authorities, perhaps, or a language barrier," he said. "Perhaps they would feel more comfortable if they had their own association just like the other neighborhood associations."
That way, Shively argued, Latinos would be able to address the council and the mayor about the things they care about.
A hot topic in recent years has been the River District revitalization. The city is spending about $30 million on the project to drive in hundreds of millions in private investment. While some residents are excited about the development, others claim other parts of the city have not received the focus they deserve.
"This new urbanization movement is something that is happening nationally in all cities, and Elkhart has finally gotten on board with this, and it's good," Butler said.
Still, he believes it is time to pause that development.
"There's been some overinvestment in the River District, apparently. The subsidies that we give to external developers (...) I haven't seen good economic development studies that justify that particular project," he said.
Olson said she is proud of what is happening in the River District.
"No decisions were made quickly," she said.
And the council is making investments elsewhere, too, Olson said.
"I want you to drive down Cass, I want you to watch Benham be reborn with a brand new road, which we desperately need. I want you to keep in mind that through the 2040 plan, we have plans to finger out, if you will, from the River District as you know it, to make considerable impact on our community," she said.
Kurpgeweit said that, in her district, there is already a focus on redevelopment along Lusher Avenue and south/central Elkhart.
"We have consistently, as a team, looked at the entire community and what is the best project put forward first to increase our tax base, so we can go to the next project and the next project," she said.
Kurpgeweit said the city has also created new under- and overpasses and paved roads and put in sidewalks around the city.
Thomas touted a Monday night City Council decision to buy 25 acres of the former Bayer campus, including an existing building that will become a new public safety complex, housing police, fire and communications.
"The old Bayer property has been an open sore, basically, in District 2," he said, arguing that the current council deserves praise for making that change. "You don't just wake up in the morning and a plan happens. It takes a lot of planning."
Thomas said that when the public safety complex is complete, it will attract other development to the area, which has been dormant for years.
Strycker said the most important thing for the city to develop is housing at all levels. And that, in turn, will help local businesses.
"Our businesses on Beardsley, on Bristol Street, they could really use the increased flow of traffic and people visiting those places," he said.
Strycker said the city could also benefit from having more sidewalks. He suggesting taking more efforts to prevent drivers from blowing through stop signs, especially in the area of Cassopolis and Johnson streets.
Hines was unable to participate in the debate, as she had been called out of town for her job.
Voters who want to learn more about their candidates can visit www.vote411.org, where most of the candidates have answered additional questions.
The municipal election is Nov. 5. Early voting is already available.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus