MANSFIELD -- Tim Theaker and Don Bryant sat about 10 feet away from one another every couple of weeks for the last four years during City Council meetings.
With election day coming Tuesday, the gap between the Republican incumbent mayor and the Democratic city council member has never seemed bigger.
It's a pivotal decision on a crowded municipal ballot that also has five spirited contests for slots on Mansfield City Council, including council president, an at-large seat and three ward positions to lead a city of 47,000 residents and about 460 employees.
The battle for the city's "CEO" position, which pays $81,000 annually, is the one that has gained the most attention between Theaker, 66, of 685 Woodhill Road, and Bryant, 34, of 913 Brookfield Drive, No.3.
It's also the race that has seen the most campaign dollars raised and spent. According to pre-election reports filed with the Richland County Board of Elections last week, Bryant began the reporting period with $1,116, took in donations of $17,055, expended $16,149 and had a cash balance of $2,321.
Theaker began with $1,583, took in $15,010, spent $15,017 and ended the period with $1,576.
How did we get here: Bryant earned his shot at Theaker by defeating Victoria Norris-Diez in the party's May primary. Bryant received 55 percent of the 2,364 votes cast in beating the political newcomer.
Bryant was elected to city council in 2015, defeating Chris Elswick in the primary, earning 56 percent of of just over 1,000 votes cast. He was unopposed in the general election that year.
In an earlier attempt at elected office, Bryant took on State Rep. Mark Romanchuk in 2014, but gained just 30 percent of the 31,000-votes cast.
Theaker was elected mayor in 2011, easily defeating incumbent Democrat Don Culliver, receiving 59 percent of about 12,000 votes cast. He was re-elected in 2015, defeating Democratic challenger Ron Abrams, earning 54 percent of just over 10,000 votes cast.
The incumbent mayor, unopposed in the May primary, is seeking his third and final term in office.
What's at stake: Mansfield is a city with measurable forward momentum, largely driven by citizen and private organizational efforts like the Mansfield Rising downtown investment plan, lauded and approved by Theaker, Bryant and the rest of City Council.
The plan has already yielded some successes, including the conversion of Mulberry Street to two-way traffic and the Fourth Street mid-block crosswalk. A public skatepark was proposed this year, though it was put on hold until a master plan for the city's parks was complete. Other ideas found in the plan, including a branding campaign, are in the works.
Funding remains a key issue for the desired improvements, as well as for maintaining and improving basic city services.
Mansfield, which emerged from state-ordered fiscal emergency just five years ago, is a city with a low unemployment rate (4.4 percent), that has not translated into greatly enhanced city revenues. More than 20 percent of the city's residents still live below the federally-established poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Finance Director Linn Steward twice this year during public meetings has cautioned the administration and City Council that general fund and safety services fund revenues, largely based on income tax collection, have begun to flatten out in the last few years, while expenses have continued to climb.
More than 800 dilapidated structures within the city have been torn down in the last eight years, largely using voter-approved PRIDE taxes in conjunction with the city/county Land Bank, including the former YMCA on Park Avenue West. Yet there is more to clean up, including brownfield sites like the former Westinghouse industrial facility, which will require federal and state grant dollars to accomplish.
The crime rate is the lowest in a decade, yet there are questions about funding and manpower in the safety forces, including police and fire departments, as well as concerns about minority employment levels in both.
A $13 million citywide water replacement program, approved by council, is underway that will more accurately measure usage and result in increased revenues. City engineer Bob Bianchi said the city produces 9.5 million gallons of water per day, yet only collects revenue on 3.8 millions per day, a 60 percent difference.
That increased revenue is expected to pay for the new meters and also help to fund a proposed $15 million dry dam in North Lake Park, a project that will remove 106 acres on the city's north side from the flood plain and lead to increased economic development.
Add in maintaining/improving basic services like snow plowing, leaf pickup and utilities collection, it's clear Theaker or Bryant will have a great deal on their plate after the election.
What are their plans: Bryant vows to create more economic opportunity for residents, provide clean and safer neighborhoods and create a partnership with Mansfield City Schools.
"We need to able to showcase our city and showcase the assets we have here in Mansfield," Bryant said during the public 2019 mayoral debate at The Renaissance Theatre. "What I propose is putting together coalitions from the academic, business and government community, traveling to different cities to bring back opportunities to Mansfield."
To Theaker, the plan is to continue steady, if not spectacular progress, while also living within the city's means. He cites improvements made during his eight years in office while helping to lead the city out of fiscal emergency.
During the same debate at The Ren, Theaker cautioned Bryant's plans will cost money the city doesn't have.
"We have worked with the Mansfield Rising group, and we are going to help that as much as we can, but you have to have budget constraints," he said. "I would love to have more police, fire, street workers, but at the end of the day, you have to abide by the budget."
Bryant, the human resources manager at the Healing Hearts Counseling Center's Mansfield location on Park Avenue West, said the city needs someone who is active in community and government affairs.
"Not everything has to cost," Bryant said Wednesday during the Richland County Democratic Party weekly luncheon. "It just takes energy and the will to move things forward. It doesn't cost anything extra, Mr. Mayor, for you to do your job.
"I would never get this city into debt," he said. "I will not do any overspending. If we can't go with something, Don Bryant will always have a Plan A, B,C,D,E, F and G ready to go in case the other plans don't work."
Theaker said people and businesses are already investing in the city.
"I want to keep the momentum going. I have the experience, knowledge, connections -- locally and statewide, a strong relationship with community leaders and an experienced administration. I am not finished," Theaker said.
The two candidates have exchanged criticism, sharpening as election day draws closer.
Theaker, who said the mayor's job requires "undivided attention six to seven days per week," criticized Bryant's work as a member of council.
"My opponent repeatedly demonstrates a lack of experience, understanding and maturity during his years as a council representative. He fails to attend city public meetings, such as Board of Control, City Planning (and) Land Bank, and has only shown up once to Downtown Beautification, whereas other council members attend," Theaker said.
"Other times he has chosen to leave mid-meeting or before meetings are concluded. He often attends meetings unprepared, blaming others for his lack of understanding.
"He has clearly demonstrated a lack of consistency. His vote in city council opposed to medical marijuana growing contradicted his shouting out 'yes' to marijuana growth at a public debate. He claims to want a skate park, but left city council when it came time to vote," Theaker said.
Theaker said Bryant is a member of council's streets committee and could have offered solutions to snow-removal issues earlier this year and should be aware of the city's plowing equipment and street-plowing policies.
"He did not and has been sharing incorrect data," the mayor said. "My opponent's work history as a council representative and as a school substitute indicate that he does not have the skills required for the different, often times difficult challenges and very serious work of serving as mayor," Theaker said.
Bryant said Theaker has simply not been active enough.
"Currently, the only partnership with schools and the city is the police department. We can do better than that by investing in our young people. We will work with school leaders, teachers and educators to better support student success. Young people create the pipeline to jobs and careers of tomorrow," he said.
"I believe we deserve better than what we have. We deserve a mayor who is focused on the entire City of Mansfield. If (voters) are ready for a mayor who wants to push this city into the 21st century and move Mansfield forward ... who wants to give people a seat at the table, then let's get it," Bryant said during the debate.
"We can no longer think small and believe that big results will follow. We have to think big and we have to be smart about what we're doing moving forward," he said Wednesday during the party luncheon.
BACKGROUNDS: Both candidates graduated from Mansfield Senior High School.
Theaker earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Bowling Green State University.
Before seeking officer, Theaker was director of facilities management services for MKC Associates, Inc. in Mansfield. He began work at MKC in 2005, creating and developing a new division responsible for offering facility services to new and existing clients.
From 1979 to 2005, Theaker served in management positions with the Sprint Corporation while it was located in Mansfield.
Bryant received a bachelor's degree in political science/international relations and master's degree in education while attending The Ohio State University, Capella University and the University of Findlay.
He worked for former Mayor Culliver and said he established the Mayor's Education Task Force, created to increase attendance within the city's school district. Bryant was a staffer in Sen. Sherrod Brown's office, and worked as a legislative aide in the Ohio State House. He left a job with the University of Akron in 2018 to devote time to running for mayor.
(All Richland County polling locations open Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. and remain open until 7:30 p.m. Visit the Richland County Board of Elections website for more information.)