With Election Day approaching, Oxford Borough candidates vie for votes at forum
● By Steven Hoffman
Municipal taxes, the importance of public safety, and the proposed parking garage project and its potential impact on the borough's budget emerged as the main topics during an Oct. 10 forum for candidates seeking a seat on Oxford Borough Council and for the three mayoral candidates. The forum took place at the Pavilion Auditorium on the Ware Presbyterian Village campus, and attracted a large crowd of more than 100 people.
The Oxford Borough Council candidates who are vying for four seats on borough council are Amanda Birdwell, Randy Grace, Geoff Henry, Ron Hershey, Phillip Hurtt, and Robert Ketcham. Pam Benjamin, Lorraine Durnan Bell, and Grace are the mayoral candidates. Benjamin is the Republican nominee, Bell is the Democratic nominee, and Grace has launched a write-in campaign.
The forum began with an opening statement by each candidate and concluded with a closing statement from each candidate. In between those statements, the candidates answered questions from residents that were submitted in writing to the forum's moderator, Ward Keever.
The field of candidates for Oxford Borough Council includes a mix of experienced public servants and newcomers who are looking to hold elected office for the first time.
Ron Hershey, the current borough council president, is in his twelfth year on council. He talked about some of the progress that the borough has made in recent years.
Referring to his 12 years in office, Hershey said, “I think we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve had three streetscape projects in that time. We built a new police station. We hired Brian Hoover as borough manager. I take pride in the council that we have currently. We’ve moved things forward.”
Hershey is excited about the proposed parking garage project that could break ground in 2018 and would finally offer a solution to one of the town’s long-standing issues.
Hershey, who grew up in neighboring Lower Oxford Township and is a graduate of Oxford Area High School, said that parking has been a topic of discussion in town for as long as he can remember.
“When I was a kid, there were people talking about the parking problems in town,” he said.
A trio of candidates who earned the Democratic nominations in the Primary Election―Amanda Birdwell, Phillip Hurt, and Robert Ketcham―talked about the importance of fiscal responsibility, public safety issues, and transparency. They also want to ensure that the local government is fair to all residents, and that the borough's rules and regulations are applied fairly and that all the regulations are coherent.
According to Hurtt, he, Birdwell, and Ketcham hold similar beliefs on many issues currently facing the borough.
Birdwell, a registered nurse and mother of two, said that if she were elected to council, she would make sure that all the decisions reflected the voices of all residents―she explained that listening to residents’ concerns would be important to her.
“As a nurse, the first thing you do is listen to the patient,” she said.
She added that financial responsibility and transparency would be priorities for her.
Hurtt, a father of three, who works at West Chester University, said, “I’d like to see us balance our fiscal responsibilities with our social responsibilities. We all want good schools and safe streets.”
Ketcham, who works in the Biology Department at the University of Delaware, has been active in the community for several years. He said that he has heard a lot of different ideas from residents as he has been out campaigning, and if elected he will work on behalf of the residents to improve their quality of life. Ketcham added that there are a lot of concerns about high taxes, and also about the impact that the Oxford Area Sewer Authority’s woes might have on borough residents.
Grace, an incumbent council member was in a unique position at the forum since he is seeking both a seat on council and is also making a bid to become mayor. He will only hold one of those offices if he were to emerge victorious in both on Election Day.
Grace talked about the experience he gained serving on borough council for the last four years.
“I have experience with local government. I am aware of the issues. I want to continue the work we started four years ago―no tax increases, or minimal tax increases,” he said, pointing out that in three of the last four years there has been no tax increase for borough residents.
Grace moved to Oxford from Jacksonville, Florida in 2000, and he explained that it was the borough's small-town charm that made it clear to him that this was where he wanted to call home.
“I knew that this was a the small town for me,” he said, adding, “I want to maintain Oxford's small-town charm.”
The format of the forum allowed the candidates to share their ideas with those in attendance while avoiding head-to-head debates with each other, and the candidates were professional and respectful to each other throughout. The first question posed by the audience pertained to the borough’s sidewalk ordinance, which might once again be revamped as borough officials work on determining how it can be fairly enforced throughout the borough.
Hershey, as one of the incumbents, talked about borough council’s most recent efforts to tackle the sidewalks issue, noting that a committee has been formed to take a comprehensive look at the sidewalk ordinance to see if the regulations are as fair to residents as they can be.
Everyone agrees that sidewalks need to be safe and well-maintained, but what happens in cases where repairing or installing sidewalks would be a significant burden to a homeowner?
Birdwell said, “I know how important it is to have safe sidewalks, but we have to balance that with not placing a burden on homeowners.”
The second question was about the borough’s already-high tax rate, and what impact the proposed parking garage project and the Oxford Area Sewer Authority’s existing financial woes might have on the borough’s finances in the future.
Ketcham expressed his concerns about the Oxford Area Sewer Authority's financial situation, and how the borough might have to pay for a portion of the debt-service payments that the sewer authority can't make.
Hershey said that the borough has been transparent about the financial numbers pertaining to the parking garage project, and said that it will be a good investment for Oxford.
“This is our chance to create some new opportunities for the downtown,” Hershey said, explaining that the parking garage represents the best way for Oxford to attract economic development to the downtown.
The third question was about how to increase the borough's revenues without raising taxes.
Grace said that they must increase property values, and one way to do that is to make Oxford such a good small town that more people want to move to town.
Benjamin talked about how it would be beneficial for Oxford to attract a company with maybe 50 to 100 employees where those people would be shopping in the town's shops and eating in their restaurants.
“People spend where they work,” Benjamin explained. “We need people here during the day, eating lunch or getting their laundry done.”
The fourth question pertained to improving conditions for the elderly in the borough, including issues involving their personal safety. Several candidates responded by talking the importance of having a strong and visible police department.
Bell advocated increasing police foot patrols as a way of continuing to improve the safety in the community.
Benjamin said that Oxford needed to make it clear to criminals that they don't want to do business in this town. “We need to arrest those people that need to be arrested,” Benjamin said. “We need to be diligent and relentless.”
The fifth question was a difficult one: What happens if no private entity is willing to purchase the Oxford Area Sewer Authority and its holdings, leaving the four member municipalities to deal with the sewer authority's financial situation?
Hershey, as the president of Oxford Borough Council, had more information about that than anyone at the candidates’ forum.
“I personally don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” Hershey said. “I think it will be sold.”
In response to the sixth question about what role borough council will play on the opioid crisis, Grace said that the mayor, who oversees the operations of the police department, must serve as a conduit to borough council to make sure that the borough is providing what is needed to effectively deal with the opioid crisis.
The final part of the forum was reserved for closing remarks by each candidate. Not surprisingly, each person talked about their pride in Oxford, and how their love for the community was a motivation to run for public office. There was a lot of optimism, as illustrated by comments by Hershey.
“I enjoy being part of the community,” he said. “I think we have seen a lot of changes. We’ve accomplished a lot, and we have a lot more to accomplish.”
Geoff Henry, the borough’s mayor, was not able to attend the candidates’ forum because of a long-standing prior commitment, but he is on the ballot as a candidate for borough council in the Nov. 7 election. He was written in by enough residents in the Primary Election to secure a position on the ballot. Though he wasn’t at the forum, Henry’s service to the borough and qualifications and experience are well-known to residents after three terms and twelve years as mayor, and another eight years on borough council.
After the exchange of ideas at the forum, Keever concluded the event by commenting, “I think this is the best demonstration of our American democracy.”