The four announced Lebanon mayoral candidates gave their first impressions for the Nov. 3 election last week as the Wilson County Black History Committee held a candidate forum at the Capitol Theatre.
The forum, held with social distancing standards, featured Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, former councilors Rick Bell and Rob Cesternino and Lebanon resident John DeMoor, who each answered four questions related to issues facing the city.
Cumberland University’s Rusty Richardson facilitated the event and led with a question aiming at the COVID-19 pandemic and how candidates planned to manage city finances with anticipated budget shortfalls.
“I was going through the budget and I noticed, as an example, we have 10 bonds that we’re dealing with as far as debt load. Take a look at those bonds. I’d like to know when those bonds are going to reach maturity, so that we can get an estimated or exact target of when some of these debts will be relieved,” said DeMoor.
Cesternino said under his administration, department heads would be required to send 2.5 percent, 5.5. percent, 7.5 percent and 10 percent reduction plans along with annual budgets.
Ash said that throughout the pandemic, the city did not shut down or suspend essential services or employment.
“I presented a status quo budget. Everything is going to stay as it is. We will look at it again in September and may pick up some of the programs we are holding off on and purchases we need to make. As of now, things are looking pretty good,” said Ash, noting sales tax revenue figures this year have exceeded the revenue from the same time last year.
“One thing the city can do is tighten its belt,” said Bell, who said he did not favor a status quo budget. “We have to look for cuts. We have to look for places where we can save money because if businesses are doing it and homeowners are doing it, then they expect government to do it, as well.”
The second question focused on how candidates would preserve the “small-town feel” of Lebanon while attracting new businesses to the area.
Cesternino said he would favor increased design standards, more focus on quality of life aspects of Lebanon and protection of people’s investments.
Ash highlighted the projects undertaken since his time on the council and as mayor, including the Don Fox Park renovation and the auxiliary park on South Hartmann Drive. He also noted the work of Lebanon Economic and Community Development director Sarah Haston in recruiting businesses to Lebanon.
“They have engineers, real estate agents and they go to conventions all around the country. They have already brought several businesses into Lebanon,” Ash said.
“They key to keeping our small-town feel and having quality of life, I believe comes down to one thing - smart growth. Protecting our established neighborhoods,” said Bell, who noted his efforts in defeating major developments on Blair Lane, Tater Peeler Road and other areas. “We need to make sure our neighborhoods are protected, and that requires a plan.”
“Short and long-term, I’m going to stress that all the laws be obeyed. When city government starts doing that, the people will get the idea — mutual respect and cooperation. I think we can leave the zoning as it is intact, so that we can preserve the neighborhoods and build up the industrial and light-industrial areas, which will help our economy overall,” DeMoor said.
The final questions focused on the Gen. Hatton statue on the Lebanon Square and the presence of protestors around the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“When the first protesters came, our chief of police met with them to make sure they understood they were welcome to Constitutionally protest in Lebanon. You’re welcome to. Our police will protect you, keep the traffic off of you and keep anyone from you while you peacefully protest your cause,” Ash said. “But the first incident of violence, you will be arrested and put in jail.”
“We need training in all of it to make sure we do everything correctly and everything right,” said Bell.
DeMoor said he is confident in local law enforcement’s ability to do its job correctly after speaking with current and former law enforcement officials, and said he has no problem with peaceful protestors.
Cesternino, a former law enforcement agent, said the killing of Floyd was not reflective of the training he received or that majority of officers receive.
“We have a citizens review board for the police department that I’ve been told hardly ever meets. The review will meet monthly with the leaders of the police department to ensure that we have the dialogue before we have an issue,” Cesternino said.
The qualifying deadline for the Nov. 3 general election is Aug. 20 at noon, with early voting beginning Oct. 14. The last day to register to vote for the Nov. 3 election is Oct. 5.