Compared with the amazing amount of explosive energy expended throughout most of the North Coast each year around Independence Day, the potential fireworks show at the Ocean Shores mayoral candidates debate last week at the North Beach Senior Center turned out to be a dud. Two-term incumbent Crystal Dingler and two-time challenger Susan Conniry both kept things positive as they answered questions in front of an overflow crowd.
The Nov. 5 general election is a rematch of their 2015 mayoral race, which saw Dingler defeat Conniry with 61.4% of the vote. After moving here in 2004 and being appointed to the City Council in 2011, Dingler was first elected mayor in 2011 with a 49.6% plurality win against Bruce Leven and write-in candidate Jim Jordan.
Conniry, who moved to Ocean Shores from southern California in 2014, is running for a city office here for the third time in five years. If she loses, she still has two years left on the City Council term she won in 2017 by defeating two-term incumbent John Lynn with 52.2% of the vote. If she wins, one of her first acts as mayor will be to oversee the new council’s vote on her replacement.
Their first debate question asked each to “describe the duties, responsibilities and activities” of mayor. Dingler said it is “almost anything that comes in your door … the buck stops there.” She added that the job is to “take on whatever needs to be done,” and that, among many duties, “I do my best to draft almost all of our legal documents … and that saves us a heck of a lot of money,” although the City Attorney still reviews everything.
Conniry recalled being inspired by her grandfather’s public service as a local council chairman. She said the mayor has to be both a community and a political leader, and is “expected to provide the leadership necessary to deal with important public issues, to implement policy adopted by the council, and focus on long term strategic planning that will allow us, in good times, to assess our weaknesses and focus on how to improve those areas prior to any kind of investment, keeping your city moving in the proper direction.”
She listed several typical mayoral functions and specified that “to protect the health and safety of the people and the environment and to ensure our quality of life, I will supervise the planning staff, enforce the building codes and other development regulations.
“The recent hiring of a city administrator will allow us to spend time representing our community as the ceremonial head of the city, to meet with our partners, attend social events and ribbon cuttings.
“Being the mayor is about communication, trust and transparency,” and continued with a promise to be “inspiring and encouraging diverse voices to the table, allowing the very people whose money we spend to be part of the discussion. … We may not always agree but our conversations and sharing of ideas will always guide us to make the right choices.”
Dingler agreed that the newly hired city administrator should take over much of the day-to-day running of the city. She said that situation “frees the mayor up to do the bigger projects; to do the things where you meet with those people outside and you bring the funding in; you meet with our legislators; you meet with our governor, and you even meet with people in Washington D.C., and have an opportunity to influence how they are going to vote on things that are important to us. Those really are the primary goals of the mayor, with a city administrator.”
Another question asked, “What are the three priorities you plan to actively pursue from 2020- 2023? How will you accomplish these?”
Conniry said, “We need to maintain what we have, most important … I hear citizens on a regular basis (saying) ‘please maintain our infrastructure.’” She mentioned roads and the city water system, and concluded, “All in all, maintaining what we have is the most important thing we can do. We don’t want to be caught short and find that we have to upgrade and spend a great deal of taxpayer money when we can be maintaining along the way.”
For her second priority, Conniry said, “We need to manage our growth.” She said that doesn’t mean stopping growth, rather that “you work together to provide the best that you can in terms of quality of life for those people who live here. Everyone has the right to build on their property. But we need to look at the properties we have and we need to figure out how we can make that building the best it can be.” She noted concerns about losing trees and said, “We can replant the trees … we can do lot of things that encourage people to landscape and to put back what’s been taken out.”
And, she said, “We need to have a vision for our future. … In terms of priorities, if we don’t have that vision, we don’t know where we’re going. … That is incredibly important. We haven’t done it. We started updating our comprehensive plan but we didn’t have a vision when we started to do it. So that, to me, is probably where we should start. Maintaining and managing is all very well and good, but are we doing this in accordance with the citizens and what is their vision for the future?”
Dingler said, “Economic development is really important to Ocean Shores. We need to bring more people in on the shoulder seasons and in the winter … if we want to reduce taxes, we need to bring more people in — that brings more tax money into the city. It doesn’t take that much to operate a city with a thousand more people. It’s been proven in other cities.”
The incumbent added that she “started a committee working on that. I’m really excited about that; I believe we have a real opportunity.” She said she invited the city’s finance committee, along with citizens and business people to participate. “We will, from time to time, update you on what we’re talking about and where we’re going with this.”
“I also think that quality of life is really important in Ocean Shores, and it comes down to things like fixing up our parks.” She also mentioned the coming high dunes trail system and concluded, “I think it will be a wonderful advance for our city, for us to use, and it’s also economic development in that we will have our tourists using that as well.”
Dingler said the “ferry to Westport is hugely important for us.” She concluded by saying, “I think my opponent is right — keeping up our infrastructure is hugely important. And, its relatively young, so we have an advantage there that lots of other places don’t have. I’m excited about what we’re doing and what we can do.”
Conniry responded that “… my hope is that we can work toward getting some sort of private investment using our opportunity zone, and trying to encourage, not sure exactly where the project is at the moment, but the transoceanic fiber, the cable landing, if it lands in our area will help us tremendously…”
The city has purchased property across from the fire station that could eventually house a new city hall. Both candidates agreed that a new city hall is needed, although Dingler said she didn’t think the property would be big enough for the “centrally located community and visitor center with space to display our history” that Conniry said she would like to see.
The candidates had simple answers when asked, “Can you both continue to work together, no matter who wins?” Conniry said, “Yes,” and Dingler said, “I agree.”
The remaining debates at the Senior Center take place Tuesdays at 6 p.m. and run as follows: Oct. 8: OS Council Pos. 6, Bob Peterson and Chuck Anderson; Oct. 15, Hospital District 2, Pos. 2, Lynn Csernotta and Richard Thompson; Oct. 22: GH Port District Commissioner Pos. 2, Tom Quigg and Tim Carr; Oct. 29: On the Fence? Numerous candidates available for one-on-one conversation.