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Charles City Council candidates answer questions from the community

Charles City Council candidates answer questions from the community
Keith Starr, Joanne Robinson, Phoebe Pittman, Joshua Neupert, Phillip Knighten, and Patsy Beaver answered questions from the public as they seek election to the Charles City Council. Press photo by Travis Fischer
By Travis Fischer,

Six candidates for running for City Council met to answer questions from the public at a Q&A forum on Thursday, Oct. 12.

Hosted by the American Association of University Women and the Charles City Area Chamber of Commerce, Toni Noah moderated the panel in the Charles City Senior Center, presenting the candidates with pre-written questions submitted by the community.

The six candidates described their background to the audience, what inspired them to run, and what the City Council means to them.

Keith Starr, an incumbent council member who has served since 2012, has lived in Charles City for more than 20 years and works as the CFO of his farm, Starr Ag. He said that public service has always been a priority for him and his family, which has culminated with the City Council position.

“I appreciate the opportunity to run for office again,” said Starr. “It’s been the highlight of my life.”

Starr is one of three incumbents running for re-election this year. Council members Phoebe Pittman and Phillip Knighten will also again be on the ballot.

Pittman has lived in Charles City for 15 years and teaches sixth grade science at Charles City Middle School. Encouraged to run by her friends, she is finishing up her first four-year term on the council.

“I view Charles City as the little engine that could,” said Pittman.

Along with serving on the council, she is a member of Alpha Delta Kappa, serves on the Town of Colors Committee for the Charles City Arts Center, the Parks and Rec board, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Hotel Motel Tax Committee, and the Cedar River Watershed Committee.

Phillip Knighten has lived in Charles City for 19 years and is an accountant for Prichard Law Office along with operating his own DJ service, Kenyatta’s Sound. In addition, Knighten serves as quartermaster of the Charles City VFW and is the treasurer of the Floyd County Veterans Memorial Board.

Also coming up on the end of his first term, Knighten sees the council as a way to continue to serve his community after an eight-year career in the Marine Corps.

“They stress leadership as part of that position,” said Knighten. “I would best describe it as being a caretaker for the city.”

Challenging the three incumbents in the at-large election this year are Joanne Robinson, Joshua Neupert and Patsy Beaver.

Growing up in Algona, Robinson spent more than 40 years in positions across the nursing field, from nurse practitioner to teaching, along with a 26-year career in the Air Force, where she retired as a lieutenant colonel. She has lived in Charles City since 2005 and today is a member of the CIA, PEO, is chairman of the Veterans Memorial Association, drives the VA van and is active in her church.

“As a City Council member, I believe the most important thing is to listen to your constituents,” said Robinson. “To learn what the job involves and all the things that play a part in all the parts of government in the city.”

Joshua Neupert, a production superintendent at Cambrex, moved to Charles City in 2010 and has been here since, minus a brief move between March of 2019 and June of 2021.

Along with serving as a volunteer firefighter and a driver for AMR, Neupert emphasizes his business acumen and his desire to listen to people within the community as his strengths in office.

Finally, Patsy Beaver is a born and raised Charles City native who is looking for a new adventure in her retirement after a career in health care.

“I welcome the opportunity to join the City Council,” said Beaver. “I hope to advocate for the people of the community, and it goes back to participation and feedback. I’m going to give it 200%.”

The first specific issue to be addressed was the candidate’s thoughts about the future of the clubhouse at Wildwood Golf Course. 

Each candidate agreed that while the building was an important historical landmark for the community, the extent of repairs may prove the building too costly to continue as it currently operates.

“I think that Wildwood is really going to be something that … is going to take a lot of discussion,” said Pittman. “It’s a facility that everybody loves. It’s not necessarily a building that was built to really last for a really, really long time.”

“I think that if it can be preserved, hopefully there’s a committee that can help with that,” said Robinson. “We have to look at the money that it takes.”

“The foundation of that building was never designed to last to the extent it has,” said Starr. “Whatever direction the council ends up going, I want to make sure that the clubhouse will be used thoroughly if we put that kind of money into it.”

“I’m all for preservation,” said Beaver, who acknowledged she wasn’t familiar with the exact nature of the clubhouse’s problems. “It depends on where the money is going to come from and what improvements need to be made and we’re just going to have to take one step at a time.”

“Although I would love for it to remain, it may have, and very well probably has, outlasted its function at this time,” said Knighten, who suggested that a new clubhouse could be built for public use while the historical building be preserved as a museum.

“Really, it would have to be something we would have to do a lot more research on,” said Neupert, who suggested seeking out grants that could contribute to a solution. “I think keeping the historical value to the town in some fashion would be beneficial.”

In the next question, the panel was asked what they felt was the community’s perception of the council.

“I think that the City Council works hard with what they do to manage the city,” said Robinson, offering her own perspective. “There’s so much that’s very complicated. There are so many projects on the table. … I don’t believe that the city is really unhappy with what has taken place.”

“We work very hard to have everything that we work with on an agenda format so people know what’s coming,” said Starr, emphasizing the council’s prioritization of transparency. “The feedback that I get from the community shows that they’re actually reading that and making suggestions.”

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” said Beaver. “I am open, if I happen to get elected, to listen to any complaints.”

Openness to feedback was a recurring theme in the answers, with Knighten saying that anybody that wants to talk with him can call him on his cellphone.

“You always hear a little bit of negativity from time-to-time but generally, if I hear negativity, I try to explain my position or explain the project and a lot of times it’s just misunderstandings,” he said.

Pittman also said that she felt the city’s transparency and openness to suggestion went a long way toward improving public perception.

“The reality is, it’s a government entity. You’re not going to get a 100% approval rating no matter what entity you’re talking about,” said Pittman. “You can’t always make everyone’s concern or idea for change happen, but you can certainly take that opinion under consideration and use it to help inform the decisions you make in the future.”

Offering his own criticisms, Neupert said he felt that opinions on the council were mixed, commending the discussions that happen at the council, but suggesting that the city can take on too much.

“From what I’ve seen and read, I do feel that there’s a lot of reaching out, trying to find the next big thing without actually focusing in on certain topics,” said Neupert. “I feel that if we were to start narrowing the focus on some topics I think that would help grow the city to what it could be.”

On the subject of not being able to make everybody happy all the time, the panel was asked about the considerations they would take into account in balancing the comfort of residents against economic development interests.

“I don’t really have an answer for that right now,” said Beaver. “Ask me in a year and I’ll be able to tell you more.”

“I lean more toward the comfort of the citizen,” said Knighten. “I believe that if a proposed project is going to negatively affect the community more so than positively affect the community, I would probably be opposed to that type of a project.”

“I believe that, like Phil there, ultimately when you make a decision you need to weigh how it’s going to affect the citizens and from there you can trickle down,” said Neupert.

“Every issue that comes up, you do an individual cost/benefit analysis,” said Pittman. “You have to weigh what we are potentially going to get versus the potential negative impacts.”

Pittman used the upcoming Main Street rehabilitation project as an example, describing how the closing of streets and sidewalks in the short term would be worth the inconvenience in the long run.

For Robinson, the priority is making sure that whatever the city does, it does without raising costs for residents.

“We have a lot of people here on fixed incomes so that is something I think we need to be taking into account,” said Robinson. “We need to look at the costs and the benefits. Do we have the money without really infringing on people’s living conditions.”

“When I think of this question I really think about what we balance every week when we sit at the City Council,” said Starr. “We talk in terms of new business development and how that’s going to change things.”

Starr recounted when the Hy-Vee and Theisen’s stores were put in place of the old mall and the opposition to that at the time.

“I think most of us would agree that those were positive changes to the community, even if it took a little bit to get used to,” said Starr.

On another policy question, the panel was asked about their thoughts on Charles City developing a Climate Action Plan.

“Most of my decisions are driven by what’s best for the next generation, what’s best for the children, and certainly leaving a better environment than we came with is certainly one of those purposes for that,” said Starr.

“Whatever it is,” said Beaver, uncertain of what a Climate Action Plan would entail. “I will meet it head on and do whatever it is that will meet and suit our community.”

“You have to consider that we are restricted to the laws of the state and federal government,” said Knighten. “Although it’s great to have those discussions, I’m not sure whether or not it would actually be in our purview to discuss something or even propose something of this nature.”

Neupert said that environmentally friendly policies are better left to individuals and businesses to implement, but that the city could have a role in facilitating them.

“The ideas can come from the city,” said Neupert. “Putting people in touch with the right resources to discuss waste, mitigate waste and reduce waste. That can be there.”

“I think it would be a natural fit for the council to at least look at, learn about and potentially pursue a climate action plan,” said Pittman. “If … it was viable and within our purview to do so.”

“I think we should be encouraging residents to individually work on decreasing their carbon footprints,” said Robinson. “I do support reducing our carbon footprint. I do not really believe in climate warming though, so that’s another discussion.”

The panel was also asked their thoughts about the city’s own efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

“It could be done. It actually is being done,” said Knighten, noting that the city just recently moved forward with a plan to replace all of the street lights with new LEDs. “We have addressed it directly and we plan to continue to address it.”

“We are working with MidAmerican to replace the light bulbs and fixtures in a lot of our street lights,” said Pittman. “That will increase our efficiency and, in the long run, decrease our costs.”

“We’ve had a firm come in and look at the entire city and their pay was based on what they could save the city, which ultimately means we’re saving environmental issues with that,” said Starr.

“I believe it’s possible and it wouldn’t just be from a green standpoint,” said Neupert, who likes the cost-saving potential of updating city lights or adding solar panels to city buildings. “It would be a cost savings in the long run.”

“I believe in going green,” said Robinson, who also suggested improvements to insulation and windows as a way the city could lower its energy costs. “I do not believe in changing from gas to electric.”

“I think those improvements should have been done sooner and they shouldn’t be at the expense of the taxpayer,” said Beaver. “I feel there are probably more improvements needed, but funding is number one.”

The panel was next asked if they would consider giving taxpayers in the community some of the lots from the former Jefferson School property to build homes instead of giving them to a developer. The panel was unclear if that meant making those lots available for purchase to individuals or giving them away completely.

“I’m not exactly sure how to answer that question,” said Knighten, who instead talked about the city’s upcoming plans for a new tax abatement program that would encourage development across town.

“To my knowledge, no individual has come forward to say ‘I’d like to develop a home on one of these lots,” said Pittman.

“The city doesn’t actually own the lots there,” said Starr, who added that the geothermal infrastructure at the location necessitated development that ties into that. “We do give some incentive to continue to push that project forward because we think it’s important that that project is completed because if it’s just half done or three-quarters done it won’t get the benefit for the environment or the people living there.”

On the more general policy of giving away city owned lots, Neupert and Robinson were both against the idea.

“As far as giving them to a taxpayer or a developer, I don’t really support either option,” said Neupert. “If a developer comes along or an individual contributor comes along and offers fair market value, then there’s the option there.”

“I know housing is a big issue in Charles City right now, but I don’t believe that anything comes free so you don’t give away lots either to builders or to individuals,” said Robinson.

“This community does need more affordable low-income housing or we need to improve the structures already here,” said Beaver. “A cost factor goes along with the economy of our community and if the letters don’t land and we don’t have the investors investing in our community, we have a problem.”

The next question asked what each candidate thought the city’s greatest challenge would be.

“We know that we have aging housing stock here in town that doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of modern home buyers,” said Pittman. “We have to address how we increase housing stock that the modern home buyer wants.”

“Our ambulance service is very expensive at this point,” said Robinson. “We can’t afford their contract and I believe we should be looking at developing our own ambulance service here in the city.”

“We definitely need an ambulance service here,” Beaver agreed. “How we’re going to fund it, we’ll have to do some brainstorming and that seems to be a problem with the council.”

Both Starr and Knighten addressed the impact that decisions in the state Legislature have had on the city’s budget.

“I think our legislators need to be discussed with and be made aware of how devastating some of these changes will be,” said Starr. “If they want to cut their own budget, that’s OK. But I’d rather Charles City have the services they need at a price they can afford.”

“We’re getting hit left and right from the state level on what our funding options are,” said Knighten. “While I understand everybody likes to be able to lower their property taxes, we have to be able to operate.”

Finally, Neupert brought up the cost of living and how it affects the ability and desire to stay in the community.

“Numbers are down as far as having people live in town,” said Neupert. “People are moving away. We need to look at ways to incentivize keeping people here.”

The panel was asked their thoughts on the recent City Council decision to offer the city administrator a $6,000 car allowance, asserting that the previous cost of maintaining his city-owned vehicle was $2,000.

“I really don’t know about this, so I really can’t comment other than I hope it’s a nice car,” said Robinson.”

“I was not involved in that decision,” said Beaver. “If that’s one of the decisions that the council made I don’t feel I’m in a position to dispute it at this time.”

“It’d be interesting to see how long ago that $2,000 was established,” said Neupert.

“The decision to move from a city-owned vehicle to doing a car allowance was fairly easy when all the numbers were looked at,” said Starr. “The city doesn’t pay for the fuel, it doesn’t pay for the insurance on the car now. It also gives more flexibility to our city administrator. … I’m really comfortable that was a good decision.”

“We looked over all of the figures,” said Knighten, who challenged the assertion that the cost of maintaining the city-owned vehicle was only $2,000. “We actively looked at this issue and discussed all the numbers and overall it was a net positive for us to make that decision.”

“It made the most sense to allow our highly competent, highly qualified city administrator to have that personal vehicle allowance,” said Pittman. “This helps streamline his day to make his work more efficient. One could argue that we are maximizing his time and therefore we are getting a cost benefit from that as well.”

For the last question of the evening, each candidate was asked what their top three goals would be as a City Council member.

“I think my top three goals are consistent with the planning that we’ve done to organize the whole council into what direction they want the city to go,” said Starr, who cited nuisance abatement, housing and public safety as his priorities.

Beaver offered two goals, saying her focus would be on affordable housing and job development.

“I think the community could benefit from more jobs putting people to work,” said Beaver. “You know, jobs, jobs, jobs. I think our work is cut out for us.”

For Knighten, the Main Street revitalization is an ongoing effort he would like to continue to see through, along with housing and more community outreach.

“I believe that as a community, as a police force, as a city, we can do more things to outreach to our citizens in the community to make them more involved and volunteer.”

As a first responder, Neupert would like to see more support built up for firefighting and EMS services in the city, along with an audit of city spending to find and reduce waste and policies to help people start businesses.

“There’s a lot of people that want to start a business and work towards a business,” said Neupert. “I know we have a lot of great resources at the chamber, but not all businesses know that those options are there. I’d like to put that in front of people.”

Housing and EMS services were on Pittman’s list of priorities, along with the much less glamorous need for continued infrastructure work.

“It’s those infrastructure projects that nobody sees but it maintains a basic level of service that we need in this community and it’s fiscally responsible every time we do it,” said Pittman.

Finally, Robinson also would focus on housing, business development, and ensuring that Charles City residents continue to have access to ambulance service.

“That’s got to be a goal of ours to figure this out,” said Robinson.

Reaching the end of the question and answer period, each candidate was given an opportunity to make closing remarks.

Beaver was the first of the candidates asked, but passed her turn to Knighten while she collected her thoughts.

“As an elected city councilman I’ve worked hard to improve the community by building relationships with fellow citizens, business owners and listening to and considering concerns and hopes of the public,” said Knighten. “Charles City is a community that has a lot of growth potential. I hope to continue to be a part of that growth.”

“Charles City is a wonderful community,” said Neupert. “My goal is to continue to grow this community. When you look at hometown values, that’s what Charles City means to me and that’s what I’d like for my children to be able to see as they grow up.”

“I truly believe that strong communities do not happen by accident. They happen through hard work and dedication,” said Pittman. “With committed people working together, we can create a thriving community that both attracts new residents and retains the residents that we have.”

“I believe in this community,” said Robinson. “I think that it can be stronger. We need to work on maintenance, not just building more. We need to look at where our tax dollars are best served. There are a lot of projects going on right now that are very good and certainly we’ll consider more as they come up.”

“I really would like to see the community continue forward with some of the small things that you never really see. Things like the wastewater plant that when you flush, you never have to look at it twice,” said Starr, eliciting laughs. “I would look forward to completing the housing projects that we’ve started and would like to have your support to work through that.”

“I may not have all the experience as some of the other council members have,” said Beaver. “But I’m willing to give 200% to tackling the needs of the community and do whatever it takes to bring more jobs, affordable housing and whatever else.”

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