“Our primary purpose is to help our members understand the issues our local and state governments are confronting, and help us be more effective citizens,” says Bill Mainwaring, the Salem City Club Program Committee member who has lead the group’s subcommittee on political forums and debates for many years.

In preparation for the May 17 election, Mainwaring and his committee have arranged for two forums; the first, a mayoral one for candidates Ward 1 councilor Chuck Bennett and downtown businesswoman Carole Smith that was held on April 8, and the second, for ward city council candidates, to be held April 28 at the Salem Public Library.

The well-attended mayoral event saw both candidates discussing their priorities and taking questions from the audience. Topics were wide-ranging, and the two agreed on many: the fact that Salem has tremendous potential, their love of the Salem Public Library and their belief in the importance of citizen participation. Both discussed the importance of bike lanes and mentioned their individual work to make biking and walking safer.

They differed on several issues. One was downtown Salem; Bennett said it was “as vibrant as I’ve ever seen it” and “a gem of historic downtown reuse,” while Smith was dubious about the viability of the city core. “It has the lowest rental rates in Salem,” she said, and “the second highest vacancy rates in all of Salem.” ‘Streetscape,’ a locally-driven reimagining of downtown, she said, would attract more businesses and more people to settle in the city.  Candidates also differed on Salem’s trees and Tree City USA designation, with Bennett saying “We have developed a tree ordinance [passed last year] that  actually works.” Smith demurred with the comment, “It seems like trees are just a nuisance to [City of Salem’s Department of] Public Works,” which now determines the fate of city trees.

Smith said she wanted the Salem Public Library’s parking meters to be removed to allow for greater “free” public access; Bennett said removing the meters wasn’t economically feasible because it would take funds from police and fire services, a point Smith disputed. Smith wanted the city to broaden outreach to citizens and to ultimately pay much more attention to their ideas to solve city problems, thereby cutting the amount spent on consultants. In contrast Bennett encouraged debate attendees, to participate through established channels, by attending city council and other city meetings.

In general, Bennett, who has served as Ward 1 city councilor for 9 years and considers himself a friend of current mayor Anna Peterson, argued that the city already basically worked well, and “the difference between some of the interest groups in this community is so minimal it’s almost embarrassing.” His emphasis was on economic development and the need to leverage existing tax dollars to make improvements to infrastructure. Smith’s platform had much more to do with the changes needed to help the city run more inclusively. “More and more, citizens are cut out of city business,” she said, referencing the large investment the city makes in outside consultants.

The mayoral debate was one of many previous City Club presentations, says Mainwairing . “We have held debates for most, if not all, mayoral elections as far back as any of us can remember. If we missed one, it probably was because one or more candidates wasn’t willing.”

For the next forum, Salem City Club is co-presenting a meeting with the League of Women Voters of Marion and Polk Counties at the Anderson Room at the Salem Public library on the evening of April 28.

WARD 1 candidate Cara Kaser plans to be there. “City Club is striving to be an organization that welcomes conversation and respectful debate,” she says, “and their leadership appears to represent a mix of political beliefs.” Kaser attended the 2010 mayoral candidate debate between Bennett and Anna Peterson, and did note that the audience was predominantly people over the age of 50 and nearly all white. “My husband and I were one of the few people there who were under 30 years old,” she adds, “and I remember thinking our community leaders really need to work to reach out to younger people and historically underrepresented communities, such as the Spanish-speaking and black communities.”

Still, Kaser is among many who respect City Club’s efforts, saying, “they try to create a neutral forum for potentially contentious issues to be discussed and debated. I appreciate their mission statement and the emphasis on civic affairs and responsible citizenship.”


City Council Candidate Forum

Co-Sponsored by Salem City Club and League of Women Voters of Marion and Polk Counties

Thursday, April 28

Salem Public Library

585 Liberty St. SE

Anderson Room

7 – 9 p.m.