ELKHART — Republican Dave Miller and Democrat Rod Roberson staked out positions on law enforcement, investment in the River District, education and other issues during a wide-ranging debate between the two mayoral candidates.
Professor Elizabeth Bennion of Indiana University was moderator for the Monday night event, which was hosted by Brian Conybeare of ABC57 at the Lerner Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom. Miller and Roberson agreed on many topics, but varied in their ideas for resolving certain community issues.
The Elkhart Police Department was a topic many city residents expressed concerns about, as evident by a number of questions submitted to the moderator, which were combined into one segment for the televised debates.
“One of the things we will do in order to re-establish their credibility, to the extent that it has been compromised, is to accredited the police department,” Miller said. He added that during his previous terms as mayor the department had been accredited, but accreditation had lapsed during the term of Mayor *Dick Moore.
“We need to make sure that we not only are fully staffed but equipped appropriately,” Roberson said. “I am in favor of making sure there is a citizen’s review board. I am in favor of ensuring we have the appropriate amount of accountability.”
The River District revitalization was also a topic of discussion, to which both candidates responded favorably.
“That is an excellent example of a model to use in other neighborhoods as well,” Roberson said. “We have to start somewhere and downtown is obviously the pinnacle of where we revolve.”
He added that the Tolson Center would serve as an excellent anchor on the south side to ensure the rest of the area is revitalized.
“We’re creating a neighborhood with the aquatic center. We can revitalize all around Elkhart by using certain anchors.”
Miller concurred. He said energized citizens willing to put time and money into the project, a cooperative city government and valuable private investments contributed to the success of the River District.
“Those parties have to be brought together in a cooperative spirit with a great vision that they have and share so that together we are able to do amazing things like that," Miller said. "It had to start somewhere and it’s appropriate that it starts downtown and it will happen in rings moving out from there, to the near south side and to every neighborhood on the perimeter and all the way to the ends of the city.”
In regards to whether the River District investment funds were well spent, Roberson admitted that they don’t know yet, but he said he believes it will and he hopes it will bring new families to the downtown area.
Miller, too, said he believes the district will be money well spent, by adding to the tax revenue for the city. Nearly $10 million was invested into the Jackson Boulevard road remodel and other facets of the River District revitalization.
Another question referencing the Tolson Center directly questioned a vision for the future of the building.
“What we need to do is build out Tolson as a part of a reimagined south side, which could revitalize not just the south side but create the kind of hub that brings people to that area as well,” Roberson said. “If Tolson becomes a state-of-the-art facility, it will provide the best benefit to all of Elkhart, not just the south side.”
“Tolson will serve a vital role, as long as I have anything to say about it,” Miller said. “Vibrant cities need these things and people are attracted to those types of amenities.”
Miller spoke on violence in video games and added, “I would rather they enjoy their evening at the Tolson Center doing something wholesome, helpful, encouraging, character-building and enlightening than sitting in front of a video game and we have an obligation as a community to provide those options and draw families and children into those things.”
Supporting at-risk groups became a topic of discussion as questions focused on seniors, veterans, handicapped, the LGBTQ community, underserved populations and even bullying.
“As long as there is anybody in want then there probably is a market for services,” Miller said. “One of the amazing things about Elkhart is there is no shortage of compassion. (...) One of the things that seems to be a bit lacking is knowledge to know what you can get to and where those things are and how to access opportunities for fellowship and enjoy each other's company.”
Roberson’s responded differently to the questions.
“There is a shortage of services for veterans,” he said. “We have been short on services for veterans as far as for mental health and housing. There is only one organization, the Council on Aging, that serves our aging population. There is a need.”
More ADA-compliant spaces need to be created for the handicapped, Robertson said. Both candidates agreed that religious convictions should not impact LBGTQ hiring practices within city government.
Roberson said neighborhood management and the creation of neighborhood councils would help to address bullying citywide. Miller said mayors can lead by example in the fight against bullying.
In addition to bullying concerns, the strengthening of public schools was also a topic. Both candidates come from education backgrounds.
“I support education,” Roberson said. “I also support a plan. We need to make sure we’re involving our entire community, our city. If our school system is held to the kind of standard that I believe they want to hold themselves to, then we as a community need to support it, whether it’s a referendum or whether it’s funding or it’s mentoring or any of those things, we need to expect a plan of excellence.”
Miller spoke on partnerships as well, expounding on his experiences partnering with former Elkhart Community Schools superintendent Mark Mow to create the Roosevelt STEAM Academy.
There has been a little bit of confusion,” Miller rebutted. “The mayor doesn’t run the schools. We are separate corporations governed that way. A mayor works with the schools in a cooperative fashion to ensure that everything the city has that can be a benefit to the schools are made available, and we did that. We will work with the schools in every way possible to give them a chance to succeed here in Elkhart.”
During the end of the debate, comments took a turn when moderator Bennion asked, via submitted question, about personal financial matters.
“I understand the resiliency of the people of Elkhart," Roberson said. "In 2007-2008 my family went through some tough times financially. We were able to pull ourselves through without filing bankruptcy. It was a time in which the Great Recession was affecting everyone.”
He added that during his time on the city council, city government built its funds back up from the recession to having $30 million in savings.
Miller, who retired but worked part-time as a school bus driver until spring, said he has experience managing finances.
“I’m working entirely at my own expense to run for mayor,” he said.
But he appeared to take a swipe at his opponent, saying, "If somebody’s crashed a car a few times, I’m not sure I’d want them to be behind the wheel.”
Roberson responded by saying low cash balances accrued during Miller’s administration in 2006 were increased during Roberson's time as council president.
Miller and Roberson found topics to agree upon later in the debate, as a question was posed about restricting alcoholic beverages at city events — an idea neither party seemed to like. Both candidates also stated that they do not support term limits for the mayoral position.
*This story was updated to show police accreditation lapsed during the term of former mayor Dick Moore.