Mayoral hopefuls field questions about young people, Latinos

Elkhart mayoral candidates Rod Roberson, Democrat, left, and Dave Miller, Republican, spoke about how to attract and retain young people, among other issues, at a debate hosted by the Greater Elkhart Young Professionals on Thursday at the Elkhart Health & Aquatics Center. 

ELKHART — Mayoral candidates Rod Roberson and Dave Miller, at a debate Thursday hosted by the Greater Elkhart Young Professionals, spoke to how the city can become better for young professionals. 

Miller, who argues the most important part of local governance is public safety, said that is also a top issue for young people, but that there is more to it than that.

"There has to be freedom for innovation and creative ideas, there has to be good infrastructure," he said. "One of the things I hope to do is build another bridge so you can get around the railroad tracks."

The Republican said he would improve sidewalks to make the city more walkable, but also just take care of the things that everybody needs but may not think about, such as utilities or snow plowing.

"A city that's run the best is a city that you don't even notice," he said.

Roberson said residents, young people, in particular, want to live in a city with lots of activities.

"I spent time at the Jazz Fest, I spent time at EnviroFest, I spent time at the go-kart race," Roberson said. "I spent time at all of these different events that actually drive what we know is what makes you feel good about Elkhart."

So to attract and retain more young people, the city needs to offer even more events and take advantage of the development in and around the River District, the Democrat said.

"When more millennials move into the area, it will change. They want to do different things," he said. "We have to make sure that we're open as a city in order to receive them."

A member of the audience asked how the candidates would improve living in the city for another demographic, Latinos.

Miller, who was on the City Council from 1996 to 1999 and was mayor from 2000 to 2007, said one of the joys of running for office again is getting to meet people and learn what life is like for them.

"You've got to tell me what needs to happen in order for it to work right. And at the same time, I need to tell you how the rules work and that, yes, there are certain rules that are maybe different from the countries that people came from, that they have to accommodate and adjust to," he said. "From how to keep your house to how to drive your car."

He said the city has an obligation to educate everybody on issues they might not understand. Miller recently stepped down from being a school bus driver for Concord Community Schools, where he said about half his students were Hispanic, helping him to relate to and learn from Latinos.

Roberson, who served on the City Council from 2000 to 2015, answered the question after Miller, saying he already knows the Latino community.

"I am not interested in making sure that we have a Latino here or a Latino there, or an African-American here or an African-American there," said Roberson, who would be Elkhart's first African-American mayor, if elected. "I'm interested in making the city a place where everybody can enjoy their talents."

He said he has relationships with Latinos who are some of the most talented people in the community.

"You don't have to tell them the rules. They know what the rules are," he said.

Roberson argued that the city should be better at helping Latinos, but also everyone else, utilize their talents and take part in the civic process.

Steve Gruber, who unsuccessfully challenged a member of City Council in the May Republican primary, asked the candidates how they would handle crisis differently than sitting Mayor Tim Neese, whom Gruber said has mishandled scandals in the city's police and parks departments in the past year.

"Crisis doesn't become crisis if you get in front of, first of all, how we select our department heads and our people that are working inside of our city," Roberson said.

He said crisis can also be avoided if there are clear guidelines that are followed and if the city is transparent in a timely way.

"Without that, then you have some of the issues that have occurred, and they will continue to occur if you don't set the parameter from the start," Roberson said. "I've had that experience working on City Council. I've had that experience on Church Community Services."

Miller said handling crisis is a question of leadership.

"Leaders are only as strong as the people they hire. You have to carefully choose who it is that leads at every level. The mayor is responsible for hiring department heads, and they have to be carefully chosen, and I look at character first," he said.

Over the course of his career, Miller has done hundreds of job interviews, he said. He pointed to an example of a person interviewing spectacularly well but whom Miller denied the job when he learned of the person's "dark side" on social media.

"There are clues to people's character that we have better ability to investigate and know if there's scandal waiting or not," he said.

He would hold people accountable at all levels and be transparent if a crisis were to occur, he said. 

The next scheduled mayoral debate will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Lerner Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom. This debate will be hosted by the American Democracy Project of IU South Bend and the League of Women Voters of Elkhart County.

Candidates for Elkhart City Council will debate at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the same location.

The municipal election is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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