SHERIDAN — The Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce hosted its first candidate forum ahead of November’s general election Wednesday, giving voters an opportunity to consider candidates for local offices.
Six candidates made their cases to take one of the four open city council seats during Wednesday’s forum.
Two of those candidates are incumbents. Council Vice President Erin Hanke is seeking reelection to a four-year term, and sitting councilor Patrick Henderson is running for an unexpired two-year term.
The other four candidates in attendance Wednesday are all running for four-year seats. One candidate, Victoria Hernandez, who was not in attendance, is challenging Henderson for the two-year term.
Candidates identified several priorities, including maintaining the city’s infrastructure, ensuring health and safety services remain strong and facilitating economic development, but the conversation frequently returned to the lack of affordable housing in the community.
Every candidate said that addressing the lack of affordable housing in the community would need to be a major priority for the next city council, but candidates had different philosophies on what role the city should play in solving the housing shortage.
Aaron Linden said he does not believe it is the city’s role to build housing, but thinks the city can play a role in facilitating the construction of new housing. He suggested the city review its zoning and planning codes and eliminate policies that could hinder housing projects.
Henderson also suggested the city review its codes and policies, but said the code audit should be one of several solutions the city explores. For instance, he said the city could look for ways to encourage infill projects and explore opportunities to utilize the existing housing stock in the community.
Hanke said she believed the housing study the city is collaborating on with the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority would help better define the problem. She noted that Sheridan does not lack low-income housing, but rather housing that lower middle class professionals and families can afford and the study would help pinpoint the price ranges the city would have to target to address the problem. Like Linden and Henderson, Hanke also said the city should review its building ordinances to ensure affordable housing projects can move forward unimpeded.
Jacob Martin pointed out that the community has confronted this problem before and, rather than paying for new studies, he suggested the city analyze reports from 2006 and locate solutions that worked previously and could be applied to the city’s current attainable housing shortage.
Clint Beaver raised a similar concern. He said that conducting housing studies is costly and that he does not believe those studies will significantly change the city’s understanding of the housing problem. He said, at its core, the affordable housing shortage is the result of supply and demand, and that he believed the city would struggle to influence the market and change the supply or demand.
Vixie Miller also said she believed the city would struggle to address the problem, but agreed that looking over city building ordinances would be a good start.
Besides the two sitting council members, candidates also said they believed the council should give more voice to city residents and allow public votes on the fluoridation of the city’s water and whether the city should continue operating with a city administrator.
For their part, Hanke and Henderson said their stances on those issues have been made clear and they would like to see the council focus on more pressing concerns.
Four candidates are competing for three open seats on the Sheridan County Commission. Three of those candidates emerged from a crowded Republican primary over the summer and the fourth, Jay McGinnis, is the lone Democrat running for county commissioner; he ran unopposed in the August primary. Terry Cram is the only incumbent seeking reelection.
When asked to identify their chief priority, the four candidates had similar answers. The candidates agreed that managing the community’s growth over the coming years would be one of the county commissions primary responsibilities, and the revision of the county’s comprehensive plan would serve as an opportunity to identify strategies for accommodating growth.
The candidates were split on how large the Sheridan County Commission should be, though. Sheridan County expanded its commission from three commissioners to five in 2008, but because of budget shortages, some have suggested the commission go back to three commissioners to save the county from having to pay the two additional salaries. Cram said that while having five commissioners works well, he sees the larger commission as a luxury the county cannot afford with its current financial situation. McGinnis also said he thinks the county should reduce the commission to save money.
Christi Burgess Haswell, though, said the commissioners’ salaries were relatively small, compared to other expenses in the county budget, and that she believes the larger commission facilitates thorough deliberation of county matters and provides more perspective on issues.
Nick Siddle said ultimately his stance on the size of the commission did not matter, as county residents voted to expand the commission and would have to vote for its reduction as well.
The four candidates strongly agreed on the importance of air service to the community, however. When posed with the question of whether the county should subsidize local air service, the candidates all said yes.
The chamber will host a second forum Thursday, which will focus on candidates for state and national offices. The event will begin at 6 p.m. at the WYO Theater. The Chamber will also host a Tongue River Valley Candidate forum at the Tongue River Valley Community Center in Ranchester.