Monday’s mayoral forum at Goshen College drew some sharp distinctions between incumbent Allan Kauffman and Republican challenger Don Riegsecker.
Kauffman, a Democrat who’s been in office for 14 years, relied heavily on his record while Riegsecker often questioned the results and direction the city is headed.
The two sparred in polite fashion over job recruitment, the reputation of the city and the lingering opinions of the 2009 anti-discrimination ordinance over sexual orientation.
Kauffman pointed to the strong fiscal state of the city, noting that the city’s reserves leave the city in possibly the best position possible to weather any economic storms on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Riegsecker repeatedly expressed the need to bring more jobs to Goshen and create a more conducive environment for employers.
Possibly the most defining moment of the debate came when the candidates were asked what was more important in recruiting businesses — the quality of life or the economy.
Riegsecker pointed to the issue of bike paths and said he likes the idea, but thinks the city needs to shelve expansion of the paths for the time being.
“The economy is the first priority in my administration,” Riegsecker said. “We need to get everybody back to work so we can continue this quality of life.
“Companies aren’t coming here right now for the bike paths. The manufacturers are looking around Goshen, they’re looking around Elkhart, they’re looking around Nappanee for what you will give them. I know that sounds bad. You’re going to have to give them something. You might have to give them tax abatement. You might have to do other things.
“They’re not looking for that quality of life,” he continued. “They’re just looking for the bottom dollar right now.”
Kauffman seized on the issue.
“I couldn’t disagree more on that,” Kauffman said, suggesting local taxes were not a top priority for companies looking to open a business somewhere. “I believe the quality of life is the most important foundation to increasing our economy.
“If we can attract the young entrepreneurs like the way we are right now in our economy, jobs are going to come to where those people are. There is no one thing to laser in on to make this happen. It’s a holistic approach.”
Riegsecker said very difficult times are ahead if the city does not change course and said the city does not have a reputation for being business friendly. He says the city asks businesses to jump through too many hoops to move here.
He said he hears it from the business community.
“They say this was one of the most difficult places to build,” Riegsecker said. “This administration has on more than one occasion been asked to be more helpful, courteous and friendly to businesses locating here. And instead of responding to the criticism with changes, they stand firm in the belief that we don’t have a business-unfriendly reputation despite overwhelming evidence.”
Kauffman denied that claim and said he’s been told by the Goshen Chamber of Commerce appreciates the relationship with the city.
“I have not talked to one person,” Kauffman said, “who has told me that a company that located in Elkhart or somewhere else because we were not business friendly.”
Riegsecker said he would form an economic group that would work more with the Elkhart County Economic Development and one that would be ready to meet with any companies that are looking at Goshen.
Civil rights ordinance
The two also reasserted their opinions over the anti-discrimination ordinance that would have banned discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. The ordinance failed along party lines in 2009.
Kauffman took exception to Riegsecker’s suggestion that the city tried to sneak the ordinance through, noting that the final hearings included participation of more than 100 people.
Kauffman also tried to end speculation that the ordinance would be on the agenda again after the election.
“That’s just absolutely false,” Kauffman said. “But if it ever does come back and I’m the mayor, my position will be similar to what it was before. You have to build community support … I don’t want it to be a divisive issue the way it was before.”
Riegsecker, who has called the topic a hotbed issue, said he believes the existing ordinance is adequate.
Kauffman pointed out that Riegsecker supported the idea when it was brought to a vote at the Chamber of Commerce.
On the surface, the proposal sounded harmless, Riegsecker said.
“But people were figuring out then, if you add those words to it, what does it do?” Riegsecker said. “And I’m not sure anyone really knows what that does, so that’s a problem. It can cause issues on employers that they’re not planning on. You’re putting more burdens on them.
“I think it was kind of snuck through. It just kind of went through the system,” he continued. “You didn’t get both sides of the story so you don’t really know what the issue was.”
Gang violence & more
The topic of gang violence also came up.
Kauffman said it is one of the most difficult issues for police. He said finding alternative activities for youth is a good place to start to address the issue.
Riegsecker said he had “heard story after story after story” about the problems of gang violence in the schools.
Both candidates were asked what government services were most important. Riegsecker suggested all the services were important, while Kauffman said public safety was clearly the most important.
The forum at Sauder Concert Hall was attended by roughly 200 people.
Riegsecker has worked in engineering and construction, is a former business owner and currently works as an investment representative. He was appointed to City Council last year, replacing his brother, Darryl, and began serving on the council Jan. 1.
Kauffman served as a city councilman for 16 years before being appointed mayor in 1997. He is in his third full term as mayor.