At forum, voters decry ugly accusations
CHARLES TOWN – The City of Charles Town will hold municipal elections next Thursday. On Monday, the candidates for the two contested seats had the opportunity to meet one another and city voters as part of a forum sponsored by the Jefferson County NAACP at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
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The two open contests are between Councilman Rich Bringewatt and his opponent Geary Johns, who are running for the Ward Four seat and Councilman Don Clendening who is seeking to hold onto his Ward Three seat against political newcomer Jonathan Wertman. Mayor Peggy Smith is running unopposed.
At Monday’s forum, the candidates sought to distance themselves from their campaign literature and instead laid out what they’d do if elected.
Wertman, who serves on the town’s Planning Commission, said he would represent all of Charles Town’s residents, not just those in his ward. He said he was not running to attack his opponent.
“I want to serve,” Wertman said. “This is not a referendum on anyone’s else’s record.”
Wertman touts his experience as a lawyer, saying he would make an effective advocate for the city when trying to attract new businesses.
“What I’ve been trying to tell people is that we have to start with a vision. We have to looking not only a day from now, but 10 years down the road,” Wertman said. “We have to build a common goal, and a plan.”
Wertman favors a strategy of “working from the center out,” focusing on improving the downtown area in order to improve the broader community.
Wertman, who did not address campaign attacks that he is not from Jefferson County, in an interview brushed aside claims that he is an outsider.
“I am from Martinsburg, and I lived my entire life in the Eastern Panhandle,” Wertman said. “I don’t believe that living in Charles Town for your entire life if a prerequisite to run for City Council. I understand the issues here. I don’t think that closing down two CVS’s to build one or building a Tractor Supply two miles outside of our town constitutes economic development.”
Clendening points to his long history of community service as an asset for his candidacy.
“I’m not one to see this place turn into a concrete jungle, but the biggest thing that has faced us in recent years is that revenue is falling off,” Clendening said, arguing that the town needs to attract more businesses to compensate for a slowdown in building and flagging gaming revenue.
“Some people put a whole lot of emphasis on the downtown and want to ignore the rest of the town,” Clendening argued, adding that too much focus on the downtown area would overly limit the town.
“We are very limited. The big problem downtown is the lack of square footage,” Clendening said, arguing that the town needs to attract more big box stores. “People do like the box stores. Whether some people want them here or not, that’s where people go.”
At Monday’s forum, Clendening also defended his lone vote against the newly formed Teen Court program, noting the money raised in traffic fees is money ciphoned from the city’s police department.
Bringewatt also defended his vote for the program, saying opponents who call his vote “some wild liberal thing that crazy people do” were wrong. He said the program helps relieve the cost to the juvenile justice system and empowers young people to make better decisions.
Johns said his business and accounting experience would help him monitor the fiscal situation of the town. Like Clendening, he thinks too much focus is being put on development downtown.
“(The council seems) to mainly want to focus just on the downtown area. I think that in order to increase our tax base and bring in more revenue we need to spread out farther and bring in some bigger businesses,” Johns said. “Some people frown upon bigger businesses, but I think we need them to bring in more revenue than the smaller businesses that are on main street right now.”
In response to a question about attracting high-paying jobs to the area, Johns said the city should do more to try to lure the federal government, namely in disaster recovery.
Johns says he thinks Bringewatt, his opponent, has taken too much credit for the vacant building demolition programs, along with several other programs emphasized in the race.
“One person can’t do much himself,” Johns said. “It takes the whole team.”
Bringewatt said his time on the commission has shown that he is capable of bipartisan leadership. He argues for focusing development on the downtown area without excluding new development at the city’s periphery.
“If you don’t have an active downtown, the community kind of dies out,” he said. “It is important for us to reposition ourselves to take advantage of the 21st century economy: information technology, energy technology, education and health.”
Bringewatt says he was central to the development of the vacant building demolition program, and adds that it should begin to have a serious impact on the problem soon.
“In every ward, there are properties that have been lingering without anyone taking care of them for a long time,” Bringewatt said. “It is both a social and an economic issue.”
Bringewatt also emphasizes the importance of historic preservation for maintaining the character of the city.
“We are one of the wealthiest communities in the country when it comes to history,” he said.
At Monday’s forum, the candidates also tackled whether to consider merging with Ranson and what to do about getting businesses to pay the city’s B&O tax.
Clendening said one holdup to merging with Ranson was the differences in the way benefits are set up in the two police departments. He said, absent a merger, there are ways the two towns can work together to reduce redundancies and collaborate.
Bringwatt said a merger would ultimately depend on whether both towns’ residents wanted one.
“You don’t do this without the support and will of the people,” he said.
The once-contentious topic of building a new CVS store downtown was also raised at the forum, with Bringewatt asked to square his remarks Monday with positions he took at the time the project was getting underway. He said he had concerns about the project and about CVS’s business plan of building free-standing stores instead of those that are part of a downtown streetscape.
Wertman said CVS has added no new jobs in shutting down two stores to open the new one on Washington Street, and said more could have been done to require that the store conform to the streetscape.
Clendening said CVS made a number of concessions to the town in the project, including changes to the building’s facade, and to parking and lighting.