This post was originally published on this site
CLOSE

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the candidates appearing on the April 6 municipal election ballot.

Of all the positions up for election on the April ballot, the race for mayor is probably the one folks know best.

In Springfield’s system of government, the mayor serves as the face of the city. He or she can issue executive actions and form commissions, but other than that, they have little authority beyond being a ninth vote on the council. (The city manager makes most decisions about budgets, staffing and city planning.)

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, incumbent Mayor Ken McClure has been busier than usual in the volunteer post, issuing state of emergency orders and appearing on local media and at press conferences as the face of the city’s response.

His challenger, Marcus Aton, said in a news conference last year he and three other candidates he recruited are running largely because of that response. He said the opposition and division created by the pandemic has had a negative impact on the area.

The News-Leader interviewed both candidates about why they’re running, which issues are important to them and where they stand on various problems facing the city. Here’s what they said.

Incumbent mayor of Springfield Ken McClure

McClure, 70, has been mayor of Springfield since 2017.

He grew up in Springfield and lived here much of his life. For 25 years, he left for Jefferson City where he served in several roles, including as chief of staff and transition director for Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and chair of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

McClure returned to Springfield and worked at Missouri State University as a vice president before retiring in 2015.

On COVID-19 and economic development

If re-elected, McClure said his biggest priority would be to help make sure Springfield continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

McClure said he was proud of the city’s response overall, pointing to successful efforts in the spring to “flatten the curve” so hospitals could get ready for future surges, as well as issuing a mask mandate in the summer and facilitating work between community organizations to make sure resources were available to people who were struggling throughout.

Still, not every part of the city has recovered, and McClure said he wanted to continue to help the local economy. He pointed to a recent council vote to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money to local businesses as evidence of that effort.

But McClure noted there has been good news for Springfield’s economy this year, too.

More: Amazon announces it will open a delivery station in Springfield and another in Joplin

In the last year, Costco, Veterans United Home Loans and Amazon all announced they’d be coming to Springfield, and local manufacturer Kraft Heinz invested in new equipment and jobs.

The city is also in the planning phases of a $26 million effort to transform the Grant Avenue corridor between Sunshine Street and Downtown, which McClure said will bring in more development.

And, he added, an ongoing effort to create the “Forward SGF” comprehensive plan for land use and development for the next 20 years has gotten a lot of public engagement and input.

“In a very difficult and trying year, I think we made the best of it,” he said. “We haven’t stopped, and I think that has been reflected in the good economic data we have seen.”

More: Greene County to get more than $8 million for rental assistance

On equality and equity

Over the summer, national protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis reached Springfield, with thousands of people rallying downtown to call for justice.

McClure noted he “could not be prouder” of the peaceful demonstrations and the police department’s handling of the issue and said he took the calls for change to heart.

The city has seen some action since then, with the NAACP and other organizers pushing the police department to implement body cameras and ban a certain type of neck restraint.

McClure applauded Chief Paul Williams for being “visible and accessible” during that process.

But there’s more to be done to make sure the community is completely inclusive, he said.

More: United Way of the Ozarks launches ‘Academy for Inclusion and Belonging’ for police, nonprofits to address racism

A study conducted last year by a city board tasked with mediating potential human rights violations found nearly half of the 2,276 people who responded believed the city was “not inclusive” or “not very inclusive,” and a little more than 50 percent had themselves experienced discrimination or knew someone who had.

On Monday, McClure launched an initiative on equity and equality to “develop guiding principles” to ensure access to opportunities and “recognize the inherent dignity, value and worth of each individual.”

That 20-member committee representing various sectors of the community will work to improve “the attitude and the culture of our community.”

“Our policies, I think, by and large are good,” he said. “But how do we change the attitude and culture of our community? That involves all of us, and it’s much larger than just what happens at city hall.”

On crime in Springfield

McClure said the biggest way to improve public safety is “a strong economy and high levels of employment.”

To address that, he said the city needed to continue its work to tackle the perennial problem of a skills gap, where high-paying jobs are available in the area with not enough people to fill them.

He also said the area needed to continue to invest in alternative ways to deal with criminal activity, citing a partnership with Burrell Behavioral Health to create a crisis mental health center that helps people avoid going to jail or the emergency room and Greene County’s Family Justice Center, which seeks to connect people with resources to address family violence.

“You have to deal with addressing mental health issues, addiction issues, and that helps reduce the cycle of recidivism and keeping people from going to jail,” he said.

Still, the area continues to struggle with crime, and McClure noted multiple seemingly random instances over the past year of police officers being injured or killed while on duty.

“That just is beyond belief,” he said. “But there are so many other situations where it’s people who know each other and it’s a household situation. That doesn’t make it any easier, but the best public safety initiative is a strong economy.”

On nuisance properties and neighborhoods

McClure said he was grateful to the strong group of neighborhood associations across the city helping to improve public safety.

But one issue that was at top of mind for many local residents, especially in Springfield’s older neighborhoods, is nuisance properties.

On Monday, the council considered adding five building and property inspectors to its payroll in an effort to get back to levels attained before the Great Recession caused mass layoffs in the city’s Building Development Services department.

“I am so pleased to see a light at the end of the tunnel on nuisance properties,” he said. “It’s a quality of place issue, a public health and safety issue and it is also an economic vitality issue.”

Beyond nuisance properties, residents of Springfield’s neighborhoods are often prevalent voices in disputes about zoning issues.

When asked how he balanced the desires of neighbors versus businesses when tackling zoning issues, McClure said it all goes back to the process.

“I am a big believer in process and following the guidelines and rules, and that’s what happens in zoning issues,” he said.

The council’s 7-1 vote in favor of a proposed development across from Sequiota Park along Lone Pine Avenue drew the ire of residents last year, even sparking a petition for city voters to decide the fate of the property.

McClure said while he respected the opinions of the residents, he still felt his vote in favor was the right thing to do.

“We want to grow, we want to do it the right way, and I think the developer had a solid plan,” he said. “Zoning issues are tough.”

More: Here’s a list of the 14 people who have filed for Springfield City Council

Candidate for Springfield mayor: Marcus Aton

Aton, 32, grew up in Springfield and the surrounding area, graduating from Ozarks Technical Community College and getting his Bachelor’s at Missouri State University.

He currently works in marketing.

Aton said in an interview he decided to run for office because after trying to move away to bigger cities and “chase greener pastures,” he realized Springfield was the place he wanted to be. He also said he wanted to improve the relationship between the council and local residents.

“(I appreciate) how much more of an impact you can have in a city the size of Springfield than in a big city,” he said. “It’s big enough that we have enough of everything, but it’s small enough that if you have something that you would like that isn’t yet here, you can build it here.”

On COVID-19

Aton and three other candidates for office — his brother, Alexander Aton, who is running for General Seat A, J. Michael Hasty, who is running for General Seat B, and Craig Kauffman, who is running for Zone 4 in southeast Springfield — all decided to run after seeing the city’s response to the pandemic.

In December, they all signed a pledge promising to vote against any future occupancy limits on businesses, mandatory shutdowns or “other regulations that compromise a business’s ability to generate revenue and provide jobs.”

Aton said in an interview the city needed to address health concerns, “but not at the expense of our local businesses.”

More: Beer prevails: How two local breweries adapted during the pandemic

He said the city’s stay-at-home order in the spring, which required the closure of most businesses except “essential” retailers such as grocery stores, pharmacies and general retailers, “pushed people into big box stores” and hurt smaller businesses.

But when asked what he would have done differently, Aton said he didn’t want to comment “because I don’t have all the information that they had when they made those decisions.”

He also would not say whether he supported mask mandates.

“Without being there and hearing what the experts were saying, I don’t feel like it’s my place to comment on that,” he said. “It’s not really a part of my campaign.”

On crime in Springfield

One of Aton’s focuses in running for office is the city’s crime rate, which is high compared with other cities across the country.

He said the city’s police department needed more resources and support, noting that Springfield competes with surrounding towns for potential hires.

“One thing that would be really good is if we could hire more police officers, we could assign more of them to a beat, and that means they get assigned to specific neighborhood in the city,” he said.

That notion of having “beat cops” would allow them to have a better relationship with neighborhoods and the community, he said.

More: Springfield’s high rates of gun violence, domestic abuse are linked, local leaders say

On economic development and planning

Aton said he would like to promote more mixed-use zoning across the city, which he said could provide opportunities for more affordable housing and reduce poverty rates.

He also said he was very supportive of the comprehensive planning effort, saying that is “one of the best things the current council has done.”

“I feel like it’s starting to treat Springfield more seriously,” he said. “I think there’s a whole lot of value here, there’s a whole lot of opportunity, and (that effort) gets people to emotionally buy-in to the future of Springfield.”

Aton said the Forward SGF comprehensive plan could also help better resolve future zoning disputes in the city between developers and neighborhoods by making clearer which properties are zoned in which way.

“If developers and residents both have a sense of timing of when something would come in, I think that could help address some of the tension,” he said.

He also added that the city needed to do a better job of making sure zoning transitioned between single-family homes, townhomes and apartments.

He also said he would like to incentivize bringing high-density zoning closer to downtown and preserving single-family homes farther out.

“I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but that’s something I’m interested in,” he said.

More: Project aims to house dozens of homeless veterans in Springfield

On equity and inclusion

Aton said it was the city’s responsibility to make sure that Springfield “remains an open and inclusive place for everyone.”

“I feel like the Ozarks is full of very welcoming people, and I think that is one of our selling features,” he said.

He added there may be room for improvement, though.

“If there’s a need for that, we should absolutely talk about it and find ways to bring solutions to the city.”

More: Springfield police chief reluctantly bans controversial neck restraint technique

On nuisance properties

Aton said one of the things he’s heard when talking to people is that the city’s nuisance process, which relies on complaints from neighbors, doesn’t do enough to encourage people to report dilapidated homes or properties across the city.

When asked if he’d like to change the complaint structure, he said he’d have to do more research on how it may be improved.

“I just know it hasn’t been able to be as successful as people want it to be,” he said.

He also said he spoke to a developer who was frustrated after purchasing homes in a northwest neighborhood that were previously considered nuisances.

“He said he was really frustrated that he was trying to invest in the north side but the city didn’t seem willing to work with him,” Aton said. “Maybe there’s a need for better communication (or a better process).”

Katie Kull covers local government for the News-Leader. Got a story to tell? Give her a call at 417-408-1025 or email her at kkull@news-leader.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.

Read or Share this story: https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2021/02/01/springfield-mayor-election-2021-meet-candidates-ken-mcclure-marcus-aton/4309023001/