Article and Photos by Karen Carr Keefe
Senior Contributing Writer
A good-sized crowd showed up for a forum Tuesday night to get to know the nine candidates running in the Nov. 7 general election and to see where they stand on the issues that are important to Grand Island.
Questions were submitted in advance by the public and reviewed and selected by organizers of the event held at Kaegebein Elementary School.
Those organizers included the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Island Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary and Zonta clubs. Grand Island High School students helped in the event. WBBZ-TV’s John Di Sciullo was moderator.
It was stressed that issues, not personalities, would be the basis of the questions, and all candidates held to that concept in their answers. It was billed as a forum, not a debate, with no rebuttals permitted.
Chamber President Eric Fiebelkorn reminded the candidates to “be respectful. Anybody who isn’t, I’ll bump you,” he said. Participants – showing their civility – even applauded each other’s answers, as did the crowd gathered to hear them speak.
Incumbent town justice candidate Mark Nemeth is running unopposed and, at the podium, he read his bio before the actual forum began. He has served one four-year term as town justice and was the town prosecutor for the 16 years before that.
The order of candidate responses for town clerk, Town Board and supervisor was chosen by lottery. Each candidate got to weigh in on each question posed, but in differing order.
Town clerk candidates were first up. When asked what outcome would constitute feedback from the public that she was doing a good job, incumbent Pattie Frentzel drew some chuckles with her answer: “Reelection.”
Frentzel, the Republican and Conservative candidate, cited as a strength her improvements in providing services to Grand Island residents, and her collaboration with town grant writers to obtain more than $249,000 to improve town record-keeping and its website. She has served as town clerk since 2004.
Democratic opponent George Hauss pointed to his 27 years of legal experience in real estate, tax, estate planning and probate. He is the supervising accountant in the Erie County Real Property Department, working directly with all the town clerks in the county. He pledged that, if elected, he would improve the town website, making it more “user-friendly.”
Development – both residential and commercial – was a hot topic in the forum. Town Board and supervisor candidates also were asked to give thumbs up or down on warehouses, a rec center and a town center.
Dan Kilmer is a 38-year military veteran, former Town of Lewiston deputy supervisor and councilmember, and a small business owner.
He said he could bring an outside perspective to what could be done to improve Grand Island’s town center and assure smart growth.
Kilmer, running on the Republican line, said that, as councilmember, he would cut spending first before voting to override the tax cap.
“Last year, the current Town Board voted 4-1 to override the tax cap, raising taxes over 5%. I knew it was time to get involved. I’m a true fiscal conservative,” he noted.
Kilmer said he supports the proposed law that would limit the size of warehouses on Grand Island: “We’re a unique community where traffic is going to be our troubles. And if we don’t control what we allow built on Grand Island, we’ll be in traffic jams; and we’re also going to give our children a future of waiting at stoplights and street corners for 15-20 minutes to get to work.”
As to development, Kilmer said, “We have a comprehensive plan that needs to be codified in zoning.” He added, “If a developer owns the land and he follows the law, there’s not much you can do, because I also believe in land ownership.”
Kilmer also said he doesn’t favor the town pursuing a recreation center at this time.
“I’ll be the one dissenter up here,” he stated. “If you’re taxing people at 5%, I don’t know where you get the money for a recreation center. Do I think it’s a great idea? Absolutely. … But our town has great soccer fields, baseball fields.”
Kilmer said the schools also have top-notch baseball and soccer fields, as well as basketball courts.
“I think we need to collaborate with what we already have and make what we have work,” Kilmer said.
He added that, until the tax burden is reduced, it would be irresponsible for the town to build a rec center.
Incumbent Town Board member Tom Digati is the endorsed Republican and Conservative candidate. He is an attorney with Kenney Shelton Liptak and Nowak, where he is a partner. Prior to being elected to the Town Board in 2019, he was a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
“The reality is Grand Island is a fairly affluent community,” Digati said. “Most people here want to feel they are getting a bang for their buck. They want services. They want the quality of life they think they deserve here, and that’s my focus.”
He said people want to feel they are getting their money’s worth when they pay their taxes.
Digati was asked how he plans to engage with town department heads and employees to better understand their individual needs to serve the residents of Grand Island. His response: “That’s pretty easy – keep doing what I’m doing. You can’t make decisions from a spreadsheet. So, any time we have a personnel issue or a department issue, I go to the department heads, I talk to the department heads … the employees.”
He said the idea is to communicate, identify problems and work collaboratively to find a solution. He also said councilmembers can’t do their jobs effectively unless they are communicating with the residents.
Kristen Obarka, Ph.D., has worked in the nonprofit health and human services field for 20 years. She now works for a full-scale human capital firm that does recruiting, retention, training and development, and succession planning.
Obarka, a Democrat, was asked what she planned to accomplish, if elected, in a four-year term, as well as if she would be willing to complete an annual public satisfaction survey to garner feedback.
“Of course I would do a survey – I’m a psychologist!” she answered.
“If I’m elected, you are my clients,” she said, referring to town residents. Obarka said she hopes to move toward the town having a fiber optics network, possibly a recreation center “because investing in the youth is important – they’re our future.”
She said she would look into grants as a way to fund a rec center. Obarka also favors strategic growth that follows the town’s master plan and is what the community wants.
Wayne West is running on the Democratic line. His background includes military, nonprofit and community service, as well as real estate and corporate management.
He was asked his opinion on the comprehensive plan calling for development of a town center concept. West said it make sense to have a town center – “someplace that we can go; someplace that we can be proud of. … I would love to be able to see the town government, alongside recreation and seniors.”
West said the seniors are the people who built the community of Grand Island, and, “I’m not going to forget you.”
In response to the question about development – both residential and commercial – West said, “I want to bring intelligence to the conversation. It’s not a question of whether we want it or don’t want it.”
He agreed with Kilmer’s statement about the rights of property owners who work within the law.
“If we say something, and then go back on our word, we’re opening up the town to a lawsuit,” West noted.
He said the people who would pay for such a mistake would be the taxpayer, and he wouldn’t want that to happen.
“I’m probably one of the most fiscally conservative people up here. I would squeeze that penny until it cries!” West said.
A Grand Island High School student passes along slips of paper that will determine the order of questioning at a candidate forum held Tuesday night at Kaegebein Elementary School. From left, the political candidates are: Mike Madigan and Pete Marston, supervisor candidates; incumbent Tom Digati, and Dan Kilmer, Kristen Obarka and Wayne West – Town Board candidates; incumbent Town Clerk Patricia Frentzel; and George Hauss, town clerk candidate.
Both candidates for supervisor have said that, if elected, they would make the post a full-time job.
Pete Marston Jr., currently deputy supervisor, has owned a small engine sales and service business since 2001. He is running on the Conservative line. He said that, if elected supervisor, he would step back from the day-to-day operation of the business in order to devote full-time hours to the town post.
“I would hire somebody at my business to facilitate more that needs to be done there,” he said.
Marston said he is already spending about 30 hours per week on town business since he took over as deputy supervisor from John Whitney, who resigned as supervisor in August.
Councilman Mike Madigan, who won the Republican line for supervisor over Marston in the June primary, has more than 30 years’ experience as a manager at Thermo Fisher on Grand Island. He said that, if he’s elected supervisor, he would retire so he could be a full-time town supervisor.
Marston has expressed a passion for improvements to parks and trails on Grand Island. Before serving as councilmember, he was a member of the Sidewalks and Trails Committee. He has been a member of the Town Planning Board, including being past chair. He has also been on the Assessment Review Board and the Long Range Planning Committee.
Marston was asked to name the most important function of being town supervisor.
“No. 1, the town supervisor is basically … a Town Board member. They have one vote,” he said. “But the town supervisor is the lightning rod.”
Marston said the department heads who work for the town all have excellent skills: “The important thing is to collaborate with them. Work with them, solve problems and get to the bottom of what needs to happen.”
He said that, if department heads, employees and town officials work effectively together, it saves money.
Regarding commercial development, Madigan said, “I think our Grand Island Boulevard is a mess.”
He stressed the need to beautify the boulevard as an entryway to the town. Madigan said the town needs to work with the developers of the Rivertown project to develop a town center and make it a reality.
He also said the town needs to make safety a priority for residents of Staley Road while maintaining good access for the pharmaceutical companies that share the road with them.
“We’re a small community, limited points of access, and there are certain things that probably aren’t a good fit for Grand Island,” Madigan said of some projects under consideration.
He noted he isn’t anti-development, but stressed it’s important to look at the zoning code and make sure it aligns with the town’s comprehensive plan.”
Regarding residential development, Madigan said, “I think some of the things to really look at are ‘Where should high density be?’ Do we have sufficient high-density apartments on the Island already?’ ”
Asked about his view on commercial development, Marston asked a question of his own about limiting the size of warehouses and distribution center. “Are we still talking about the proposed law?” Moderator Di Sciullo said it was an overarching question about development.
Marston replied, “Zoning and our development is very much an ecosystem. We need to be very careful. There are very fragile things that affect it. Probably the biggest is roads. Every road is two-lane on Grand Island.”
He said it’s foolish to build a huge development 3-and-a-half miles down a two-lane road in the midst of residential development.
“You really need to see each project, what they’re asking for, what their impacts are, what their zoning is,” Marston said.
He stated the town needs to look at each project very specifically.