MANSFIELD -- Stephanie Zader has nine months of experience as an appointed At-large member of Mansfield City Council. Sammie Dunn Jr. had three years of experienced as an elected 4th Ward representative to council.
Neither have been elected to a citywide office.
That will change Nov. 2 when the two are on the ballot for one of the two At-large seats representing all of Mansfield's 47,625 residents in a position that pays $8,311 annually.
Zader, a 33-year-old Republican, and Dunn, a 72-year-old Democrat, both said during conversations with Richland Source they have run vigorous campaigns in a race that usually attracts only 21 to 22 percent of registered voters in a municipal, non-mayoral election year.
The only recent exception to that came in 2009 when 32.1 percent of Mansfield voters participated. Also on that ballot that November was three statewide issues, including the casino question, and there were 10 candidates on a packed Mansfield City School board of education ballot.
So getting the message out for both has been essential.
"I am really pleased with campaign," said Zader, a real estate investor and commercial real estate agent who also had to defeat a May primary opponent. "We have worked really hard. My team and I have have knocked on more than 10,000 doors.
"Overall, it's been a good response. No one really likes someone knocking on their door (in a campaign). But we have gotten some good responses and have also gotten some issues resolved that residents have had," said Zader, a Greenlee Road resident.
"My intent is to not stop knocking on doors after the election is over. I want to remain visible and continue talking to people," said Zader, whose nine months on City Council began in January when Republicans selected her to fill the unexpired term of now-council President David Falquette.
Dunn, whose working career included more than 31 years with Montgomery Ward as well as stints at the local steel mill, banking and in the city's development office, said he has learned a citywide campaign is different than a ward race.
Dunn won a primary contest in the 4th Ward in 2011 and was then unopposed in the general election. He stepped down from council when he accepted the community development position with the city in 2014.
"It's easier to run for a ward seat," the Lawnsdale Ave. resident said with a laugh. "It takes a great deal more time to run for council At-large. When I ran in the ward, we had a good neighborhood watch group and there lots of things I could share during those meetings. It's harder to reach larger groups of people.
"It's just a different environment. I'm trying to cover the whole city. I got a call awhile ago asking, 'Why didn't you come here?' I said, 'I was just in your area and you weren't home,'" Dunn said.
Both candidates said accountability, communication and cooperation are keys to success for the Richland County seat.
"In addition to availability, I believe being able to ask hard questions is a key part of transparency," said Zader. "We are a government of the people, by the people. 'The people' should be allowed to ask questions and receive answers.
"The bottom line is, I am not here to get re-elected or to make other elected officials happy. I am here to serve the people of Mansfield," Zader said, one of the council members who successfully pushed forward the engineering/design plan for a dry dam to protect the north end flood plain.
Dunn, a Mansfield Senior High School graduate who served three years in the U.S. Army, said he has spent his life giving back to residents, a lot of it quietly behind the scenes.
"I believe as one man that I can't do anything. But together, we can do a lot of things. If we work together, and that's what Mansfield needs right now, pulling together public and private, and everyone pushing forward, we can get the city back to where it needs to be," Dunn said.
Both candidates were asked to respond to some of the issues raised by residents during the six-week "Talk the Vote" listening tour arranged by Richland Source.
Both said they favor expanding public transportation opportunities, particularly Richland County Transit, an idea that seems to be gathering momentum.
The transit system operates under its own board, but City Council does provide some funding and council members are in a position to lobby for changes to the operating hours it offers and geographic area it serves.
"I have been pushing for expanded service for several years, even before I was on council," Zader said. "I understand it's like the chicken or the egg. We don't necessarily have the money to expand it, but we if do expand it, it will eventually make money," Zader said.
"We will see a lot more people will actually ride RCT if it actually suits the needs of the population," Zader said.
During his time on council, Dunn said he told RCT of the dangers of dropping off passengers at the BP station, which required them to then walk to jobs farther north near the airport.
"I wouldn't even feel comfortable walking along that highway. I think we should go to major employers and ask them to help fund expanded service," Dunn said.
"It will save them money when they don't have to constantly fire people for being late or not showing up to work. Training new employees costs a lot of money. These companies are making an investment in hiring these people.
"You need them at the table (with expansion) because they are getting a benefit from it. And the community needs to see these companies are a part of this community," he said.
Mansfield City Parks
The city unveiled its parks "master plan" unveiled in 2020, with its $29 million overall price tag. Officials admitted its a wishlist of projects and ideas and that finances are limited since Mansfield's parks and recreation department now is funded only through the city's PRIDE tax, which allocates about $850,000 per year, two-thirds of which is spent annually on mowing and maintenance.
Dunn said he would be in favor of a parks-only income tax levy on the ballot in 2022.
"We don't have enough staff now to even take care of the parks," he said. "The community has to buy into this and join the city in helping take care of the parks. I saw stories about trash being left in the parks. But if you are concerned about your park, you will not leave it that way.
Dunn said he was recently visiting Liberty Park and was picking up trash.
"Someone stopped me and said, 'Aren't you running for something?' I said yes, but I am picking up trash because someone had a party here and they didn't take the time to clean it up. The next thing I knew, we had several people picking up trash," Dunn said.
Zader shares a belief in community involvement and spoke before joining council about the need for an official "Adopt-A-Park" program in the city.
"It's the perfect way to bring the community together. That's how parks were maintained for a long time. The levy would give us something to work with for a start and we can use that as leverage for federal grants," Zader said.
"There are tons of federal grants out there for parks. It could turn out to be something really big," she said.
Zader said as business owner that she understands you have to invest money to grow and sustain a business. It also takes a team, she said.
"We have one person (in the city's economic development office) and we have nine of us on City Council. If we are always working for our city in trying to promote it, we can play a huge role in economic development," Zader said.
As an example, she cited a recent visit to Kentucky when she came across a beautiful building. She looked at the name of the business and made contact with the owner, whose company makes wiring for the U.S. military.
"I have stayed in touch. I told him we have air, rail and highways here, plus a military base. They are now located kind in the middle of nowhere. They aren't looking to relocate just now, but it never hurts to reach out and have those conversations.
"I think there has been a lot of complacency on City Council. I know there are things that are not our role, but that doesn't mean we can't help," she said.
Dunn also pointed at the fact Tim Bowersock is just one man in the city's economic development office.
"That department is understaffed for what we are trying to do," Dunn said. "I understand Tim is a one-man wrecking crew. But he is dealing with a lot of time-consuming projects and he is by himself.
"One of the most important things the city needs to do is attract new business and retain the ones we have," Dunn said. "But we have just one man trying to do it all and you cannot do that."
Trash hauling/illegal dumping
These issues were raised in 2019 during "Talk the Vote" sessions, resulting in a four-part series of articles in Richland Source in February 2020.
City Council, in March of 2021, took a stab at creating trash-hauling zones, which would result in private haulers working in specific areas of the city on one day a week. The idea was dropped when residents and haulers opposed any such move.
Council, in May of 2020, approved the five-year solid waste district plan, which could include a litter control enforcement officer. According to the 210-page plan, a litter patrol officer in the sheriff's department could be created that would help enforce illegal dumping and other violations within the county, including the City of Mansfield.
Dunn said the costs associated with taking trash to the transfer station are prohibitive for smaller haulers, which likely contributes to improper dumping. He said a lot of homeowners can't afford prices charged by larger haulers.
"I think the city got out of the trash hauling plan without a good plan for the system," he said. "I think that was wrong. I don't know how you solve the problem now because it's going to be costly.
"I don't know about the city getting back into the hauling business. Those trucks are expensive and so is the maintenance of them," Dunn said. "But now that we are doing strictly private people, a lot of homeowners can't afford it.
"We also need more people in codes and permits enforcing the regulations. We need to sit down with other cities our size and asking how they have solved this problem. The residents can't pay. We don't want to raise taxes. We don't have the staff to monitor everything."
Zader said she doesn't agree with government getting involved in private enterprise.
"That's why I was not a fan of the solutions proposed this year," she said, adding she also believes the codes and permits department needs more staffing.
"We have two inspectors for the entire city and that is absolutely ridiculous," Zader said. "There is no way they can keep up with all of the things going on in this city with two people. There are six wards, maybe we need one in each ward. Or may divide the city into four quadrants and have one in each.
"We need accountability and follow-up when a citation is issued. There needs to be a fine attached to it or something that incentivizes people to fix the issue. If we staffed up codes and permits and we made real consequences for the violations, I think we would see a big change in illegal dumping, trash, taking care of properties ... all of it," she said.
The city has a growing homeless issue, especially in the downtown Central Park area.
A month ago, Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero said the apparent visible rise in homeless residents in downtown Mansfield was prompting him to see how the county can help. He said commissioners have been contacted by multiple business owners and residents "inquiring what we can do."
Since that time, the city has learned it will receive $1 million in federal funds to assist with homeless residents and those at risk of becoming homeless.
Dunn, who said he has volunteered to be a part of the city's planning process, has been involved in the building of Habitat for Humanity homes in the past. He said bringing lots of organizations to the table is essential to solving the problem, including Mansfield Metropolitan Housing.
Locating and building places for people to live requires community participation, he said, including a proposed 200-bed homeless campus in the city's former Hamilton Park.
"You're going to have to smooth it over with the public, which may not want such homes in their neighborhood. Everyone is afraid what it will do to their neighborhood. But we have to provide this service somewhere and let's face it ... most of the buildings that have been demolished are in the north end and that's where it's going to happen," Dunn said.
"You are going to have to have community leaders, private individuals, the general public and everyone involved. It has to be different. It can't just be something dropped on people and just let it go," Dunn said.
Zader agreed the homeless situation is a huge issue and also agreed there is no one easy answer. She said she has had conversations with local agencies and law enforcement about it.
One possible answer, she said, is to have a phone number law enforcement can call when responding to a call that involves a homeless resident.
"Police can call and a case manager can some out and we can begin working with these people who are hanging out and getting into trouble ... whatever has triggered a police response. Maybe that way we can get them the help they need.
"I believe most people don't want to be on the streets. There is likely some level of mental health or drug addiction issues that we should be able to address. There needs to be a partnership between (City Council) and the executive branch and we should be able to talk about these things.
"We don't have to operate in our own silos. We should be out in the community to see the things that are going on, become aware of them and have the right conversations to resolve them," Zader said.