MATTHEWS – The 2021 election features fewer candidates and less animosity than the 2019 race. Two years ago, we watched an escalating war between two factions. This year, we're treated to a friendly game of musical chairs.
Seven people are running for six commissioner seats. Mayor John Higdon is running unopposed.
All of them attended our election forum, An Evening with the Candidates, Oct. 6 at the Levine Senior Center.
The eight candidates were broken up into two groups of four. Members of a group were given 60 seconds each by moderator Laura Budd to answer the same question. Thirty-second rebuttals were available to candidates, but no one took advantage of this rule.
Here is my take on each candidate’s strongest moment during our forum.
Mayor John Higdon (Watch)
Running unopposed, Higdon had nothing to lose from the forum, but his words at the start of the event set the tone for a respectful dialogue.
Higdon said he's known everyone on the stage personally for at least a few years and all of them are uniquely qualified to serve as commissioner.
“Our last election was one of the most divisive and contentious ever in the history of Matthews,” Higdon said. “So I made a decision not to endorse anybody because I didn't want to set up Camp A vs. Camp B and have a real ugly election again.”
Higdon also offered hope to the one commissioner candidate on stage that will fall short of a seat at the dais. He recalled how he came in seventh in a seven-person race 10 years ago. Now he is serving as mayor, which he described as the greatest privilege of his life.
Gina Hoover (Watch)
Hoover related some questions to her personal experience. Others, she demonstrated preparedness by holding up pieces of paper when explaining her research. One answer gave us an glimpse at how she would approach a rezoning decision.
When asked about a potential project that could affect the Crestdale area, Hoover said she would need to see the plans to weigh in. But she explained her thought process when it comes to development in general.
“I do have problems with developers that have connections with the town to make profit,” Hoover said. “I believe it's important to speak to our Crestdale families and see what their needs are – their concerns.”
Hoover said she will also consider how the project affects area traffic and school enrollment.
Commissioner Renee Garner (Watch)
Garner shared how she and Mayor John Higdon put forth names of people to be included for a citizen task force to research the LYNX Silver Line. The task force included people most affected by the project.
She said listening to those discussions gave leaders a small sample size of what the community wants from the project.
“What we need to do from here on is look at transit-oriented development because clearly putting South Boulevard into Matthews does not make sense,” she said. “We need to keep our charm.”
After evaluating building heights, density and housing, she believes leaders have to step outside of their comfort zone to let CATS know what is and what isn't appropriate for Matthews.
Commissioner Larry Whitley (Watch)
When addressing a question about diversity, Whitley explained how he was the first African American to serve on the Matthews Board of Commissioners in 136 years.
Whitley has been vocal about the need to increase diversity in town hall as well as the police department.
The former N.C. Highway Patrol officer noticed when he joined the commission that there weren't any ranking people of color in the police department. Now there are two Black sergeants and a female corporal.
He said town government has to be proactive and intentional in ensuring the workforce reflects the citizenship of Matthews and Mecklenburg County.
Danielle (Dani) Burnham (Watch)
In answering a question about how she would advocate potential small businesses to open in Matthews, Burnham said she would like to use some of the American Rescue Plan Act funding the town has received to help struggling businesses during the pandemic.
“Just because they're open now doesn't mean they are healthy,” she said. “A lot of our businesses that were shut down over COVID, I'm worried about their sustainability.”
She expressed the need to be more creative about the types of businesses that come into town.
“I personally would like something spectacular to bring people out to Matthews,” she said. “I kind of want to dream big. It's such a gem and the businesses that we have, I am so proud of them. I don't just want to put in retail.”
Commissioner Ken McCool (Watch)
McCool explained how he spearheaded a discussion to set aside $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for affordable housing, which he described as the largest investment in affordable housing in town history.
He'd like to secure more to ensure emergency personnel, teachers or single moms who grew up in Matthews can afford to live here. McCool talked about this in response to a question about what he can do to ensure affordable housing.
“Matthews is a great place, but it shouldn't be great for some,” he said. “It should be great for all.”
Moments later, Mayor John Higdon cosigned McCool's eagerness for the board to have the affordable housing discussion.
Mark Tofano (Watch)
One of the most frequently submitted questions from the forum's audience was how the candidates felt about mask and vaccine mandates.
Tofano said he wasn't against masks or vaccines, but he expressed concern over Commissioner Dave Bland saying during the September board meeting that unvaccinated people don't give a hoot about anybody.
“How dare you pass a moral judgment over hundreds of millions of people,” Tofano said. “Having said that, we have to discuss whether this is about health and safety or mandating something to compensate for that.”
Tofano said bringing vaccinated and unvaccinated people together should not include divisive rhetoric or different forms of treatment when it comes to testing.
Commissioner John Urban (Watch)
Urban provided a fitting end to the forum.
He asked the crowd if they liked the town's greenways, events and festivals as well as police and fire departments. He then mentioned how someone on stage said the town and its downtown were great.
He wants to spend the next two years putting the train back on track so to speak.
“Everything we talked about tonight – race, diversity, affordable housing, roads, transportation, (transit-oriented development), the whole nine yards – it's all intrinsically woven together. You can't talk about one thing without talking about something else. It's all about how great Matthews is.”
He said this didn't happen overnight. And during his tenure on the board, commissioners have worked to make Matthews the best town in North Carolina.