Beech Mountain Town Council candidates take questions
by Kellen Short
About 75 people attended the forum moderated by Calder Smoot at the Buckeye Recreation Center, where candidates Cindy Keller, Rick Miller, Paul Piquet, Eddie Plante and Barry Schorr were peppered with questions.
After opening statements describing their involvement in the community, the candidates jumped into telling why they were interested in serving on the Town Council.
Keller said she "went looking for a learning curve" when she first ran for council, saying she was bored with real estate and rentals and wanted to learn more about how the town worked.
"I thought that having a woman on the council might offer a different perspective," she said. "I would still like to think that, although I'm not sure that I've been successful at that."
Schorr said he was looking for ways to contribute to his town and felt he had a unique set of skills and methodologies for dealing with its issues.
"I feel that the council is like the executive board of a corporation," Schorr said. "It sets a direction for the town and establishes priorities and solves conflicts and assumes the ultimate responsibility."
Plante, owner of Famous Fast Eddie's restaurant, said he wanted to improve the business climate on Beech Mountain, saying he had been a "large man pushed through very small hoops" when he started his business.
"I think being on this board will help the development of more businesses here, that we can work together," he said.
Miller said he was attending council meetings as a private citizen about five years ago when he became upset at the council's decision to raise taxes.
"For the last four years, we haven't raised taxes, and that's my intention, of not raising taxes, although there's other rumors going around that I'm on the opposite side of that," Miller said.
Piquet said he wanted to continue having a positive influence on the town's direction, as he has during his last four years on the board.
"I'm proud of my record as a member of the council and proud of this council's record," he said. "I believe we've been fiscally responsible. I believe we've put us in a position to move forward in the next four years on projects we have planned."
The lineup also answered questions about Beech Mountain's water and sewer system needs, although their answers revealed little obvious differentiation between their perspectives.
All five candidates said repairs and upgrades were desperately needed for the aging system, and some mentioned the steps that are underway to move toward solutions.
The candidates did diverge somewhat in sharing their positions on town funding of the fire department, police department and recreation.
Piquet said the town has planned carefully for those departments in recent years.
"We've just passed a budget this past June, and this is the funding that was required for these departments," he said. " ... For the time being, these are adequate funding levels."
Keller offered a different take, saying she had walked into Town Hall before and seen police officers standing and talking, or dispatchers with their feet up playing computer games. She said she didn't want to cut the fire department's personnel budget or volunteer stipend and hoped additional cross-training could occur to allow officers to work in both sectors.
"I'm am still not convinced that we could not and should not look and scrutinize our police budget a little further," she said.
Schorr said he was not interested in police or fire layoffs but wanted to look closely at those budgets with an eye to the future.
"I think we need to look at these things and allow our manager, our town manager, to determine where cuts -- not layoffs -- need to be made, when they need to be made and how we're going to continue from there," Schorr said.
Plante said the town "can't give enough money" to the fire department and said he didn't want Barney Fife running around with a gun trying to protect the residents. "Do I think that there could be some fat cut off here? ... We can trim in areas," he said.
Miller urged people to stop and think about what the police and firefighters provide year-round.
"My position on the funding of the police, fire and recreation services is total commitment to funding all three departments -- with no qualms," he said.
A resident in the audience asked the candidates to describe, based on personal observations, something the town council had done in the last six months that they would do differently.
Miller and Piquet, current council members, said there was nothing they would have done differently.
Keller, the third incumbent, said she would have preferred a different asphalt type than the one recently used as part of a streetscape plan, saying it was ugly and she didn't think it would last.
Schorr said he thought improvements were needed in transparency and communications, saying he had spoken to the town council numerous times before and never received any feedback on his ideas.
Plante said he had not attended any council meetings in the last six months, but that he had read the minutes and would not have done anything differently.
Another audience member asked about the candidates' records of volunteering.
Schorr said: "Right now, I'll be perfectly honest, I volunteer when asked but have not been perhaps as engaged as many of the other folks around here."
Plante said: "I've never been asked to be a volunteer. ... Feel free to come to my office and my restaurant and if you need a volunteer, I will either do it or I'll find someone to do it for me."
Miller said: "I have been volunteering through the last three decades on Beech Mountain."
Piquet said: "I've volunteered for just about everything that's come down the pike for the last 20 years. I'm happy to do it."
Keller said: "I'm not much of a volunteer. I work 60 to 70 hours a week in my travel and tourism business. I'm trying to keep people coming to Beech Mountain. My biggest charity for the last 20 years has, of course, been the Autumn at Oz event."
One resident who attended mentioned concerning email threads she had seen circle the community in the last few years, asking whether the candidates used email and how they would communicate with residents.
Keller said she did use email and was saddened by the misinformation she often saw in those emails. "There's still lots we can do to better communicate," she said. "Unfortunately, I do see some stonewalling where our current council is concerned."
Schorr said contrary to what some people think, he was not a part of the email chain. He said he does use email and would be happy to communicate that way. "I do believe that everybody has a right to be heard, everybody has a right to information," he said.
Plante said he was very computer literate, using home and office computers and a Smartphone. "I try to answer all the emails that I get," Plante said.
Miller said he used email but rarely received any. He said residents could look to the community newsletter and channel 2 to get more information. "I do not get that many emails, so I do not answer them," he said.
Piquet was the lone email holdout, saying he was old-fashioned and didn't use a computer. He recommended that concerned residents call him or set up a face-to-face meeting. "I'm always happy to have people call me and talk about anything with the town," he said.
The candidates also shared their views on ways to attract new residents and businesses to the town, and tackled a similar question on how to help businesses during the "hard times" of the year.
Keller praised the efforts of Craig Distl, the town's public relations representative, in bringing travel writers to the area to share more about Beech Mountain.
Schorr said he favored a strategic plan specifically aimed at attracting residents and businesses.
Plante said the town needed to be reaching outside the immediate area to draw tourists that might one day buy homes there. He suggested a co-op setup with other High Country towns to reach those mutual goals.
Miller said that the Beech Mountain Tourism Development Authority was doing a wonderful job but said recent negative publicity had hurt the town. He suggested a public relations blitz to tell people what the mountain offers.
Piquet said the council's responsibility was to ensure sound infrastructure and good public services so people who visit want to stay, build and invest there.