Four candidates vying for two seats on the Scottsbluff City Council faced off in a forum at Scottsbluff High School Wednesday night.
Incumbent Raymond Gonzales and challengers Jordan Colwell, Robert Franco and Angela Scanlan addressed questions from a media panel.
The forum was sponsored by the Scottsbluff-Gering United Chamber of Commerce and its Government Affairs Committee and was live-streamed. No outside guests were allowed in the Scottsbluff Public Schools boardroom during the forum due to COVID-19 precautions. The order candidates spoke was decided beforehand in a lottery.
Why are they running?
Each candidate was able to offer their qualifications and express why they desire to serve on the city council.
Franco outlined his history serving on community boards and on the East Overland Steering Committee.
“I feel that any board or anything I sit on, I try to better,” he said. “There’s always easier or different ways of looking at things. I try to bring in different perspectives to anything I sit on, and try to bring a positive voice.”
Gonzales referenced his 12 years on his current stint on the council, including the past two years as mayor. He cited service on multiple boards and committees as well as a history of working alongside fellow council members as strengths. Gonzales said he believes it is important for the city to have experience on the city council as it looks to hire a new city manager in the coming months.
“I think a new manager coming on board will be looking for someone with organizational knowledge to help in that process,” he said.
Colwell, who previously served on the council from 2014-18, said he has chosen to run because of the strong possibilities he sees in the community.
“I believe this city has limitless potential, and the citizens are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” he said, adding that he wants to be accessible to residents.
Scanlan said she has had a desire to serve the community since she was on U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith’s youth advisory board when she was 14.
“The things that this town has given me are immeasurable,” Scanlan said. “Of course, as a small business owner, I am in a unique climate where I have so much support from the community, but I know for sure that we survived and thrived throughout the beginning of the COVID outbreak because of this community.”
City finances and expansion of the city’s revenue base
Gonzales pointed out a double-digit increase in sales tax revenues for the last fiscal year, leaving the city in position to have additional revenues to earmark for special projects.
“We’re trying to diversify the community in business recruitment, expansion and retention,” he said. “Those are the three key things that affect economic development. We’re seeing a lot of success from our economic development director.”
Colwell said he agreed with Gonzales, but said he supported a different approach that included investing in infrastructure and solar and renewable energy.
“We also really need to try to be a place where retirement folks want to stay and want to come in to live,” he said. “Those folks have a lot to offer. Something I still remember from the 2016 comprehensive plan was a direct quote from the comp plan that said, ‘Don’t forget about us. We are still a part of the community and want to participate in the community’s life.’”
Scanlan cited a webinar she listened to that indicated 30-40% of Nebraska’s workforce was working from home during the coronavirus pandemic and at least 15% of those will stay that way.
“I think that’s exciting,” Scanlan said. “That means that there are a lot of work remotely opportunities that a rural place like ours can benefit from so we can create more of a community where families can come in and work jobs for their companies that are not located in Nebraska at all.”
Franco said the community has lost retailers and Scottsbluff needs to maximize its economic development dollars.
“We need to look at partnerships between private and public sectors,” he said. “We need to utilize the grant functions to where the educational people can use that for job training and stretch our economic dollars further.”
Negotiations with Gering on a joint landfill and the future of solid waste disposal
Colwell and Gonzales both said they would like to partner with the City of Gering and support an independent cooperative or board of some sort from the public to help direct those decisions.
“We need to come together and be a regional landfill,” Colwell said. “We don’t need multiple cities in the area going at it alone.”
Gonzales spoke about the process that has gone on so far in the project.
“There are a lot of good things that can happen in building a landfill together,” he said. “But we also have to look at making sure that we can afford it because our debt service will be impacted by it.”
Scanlan said unity is the key going forward, and the opportunity to partner with Gering would save money for both communities, but she said she needs further education on the landfill subject.
“Collaborating with the City of Gering is the best way to go,” she said. “I am interested in learning so much more about the potential project, however, so I will not say that I know everything about it yet.”
Franco said he needs to do more research on the project as well.
“There’s always complications when you get two cities trying to cooperate,” he said. “From a personal point of view, I look for what’s best for our community.”
Qualifications for a prospective new city manager
All the candidates said the hiring of a new manager is an important step as interim city manager Rick Kuckkahn has filled the role since Nathan Johnson’s departure in March.
Scanlan said she would look for an individual who would be open-minded and collaborative with creativity and flexibility. She said she hopes to see someone from the area step up for the position, but the council’s role would be to help bring the new manager along.
Franco said he would look for someone financially sound and committed long-term to the community. He said the successful candidate would have to have a mind for future growth and be able to think on their feet.
Gonzales said the current city staff is very strong with strong department heads, so he sees a city manager as someone who needs to be able to work together as a team to move things forward. He said on the other side, the council needs to be able to work with that manager and support them.
“I can bet you right now, there are candidates interested in this forum,” Gonzales said.
Colwell said the new city manager must be visionary and invested in the community. He agreed with Gonzales that the city has strong department heads, but the new manager will also likely be tasked with replacing some of those positions as individuals retire in the coming years.
Franco said he believes resources are in place that have not been used to develop the workforce.
“We need to look at mentoring our workforce,” Franco said. “We need to let them know that training pays off in the end. ... We have to look at the mechanisms we have in place, but we also have to grow our own. We have the talent here. We have the teachers, the staff, the technical professors to grow our own people.”
The city has started to use its resources for development, Gonzales said, pointing out that the forum was being held in a building that houses a career academy for Scottsbluff High School.
“It is a huge problem,” Gonzales said, “but we’re going to tackle it. We have a lot of talented people. We’re going to tap into that talent. We’re going to marshal all those resources, and we will get this done.”
Colwell said it’s unfortunate that the Panhandle isn’t growing, making it important to address the underserved population in the community.
“We need to make sure that they have a voice at the table,” Colwell said, “but we also need to make sure that they’re getting their educational needs met, whether it be at the public schools or whether it be at the community college level. We also need to focus on their children and the other children that are underserved and are in homes that do not have structure in their lives, let alone food on their table.”
The partnerships mentioned by Gonzales were echoed by Scanlan as she praised collaboration creating new opportunities.
“We want young people to know what’s available to them before they opt to leave the area,” she said. “Opportunity can be found here just as well as somewhere else. Again, with remote working, that’s another ripe opportunity to really shore that up.”
The election will be Nov. 3. Voters can also request early ballots to cast their votes in the race.