Connell mayor challenger thinks incumbent is out of touch

Tri-City HeraldOctober 23, 2013 

— A political newcomer who thinks Connell’s city council is out of touch with constituents is hoping to unseat the mayor in the Nov. 5 general election.

Bruce Blacky Blackwell, who has never held public office, is challenging Gary Walton, who’s served on the council for 27 years, the last 15 as mayor.

Blackwell, 66, said the council is out of touch with the community’s rank and file.

“Why are there no town hall meetings where people can get up and express themselves? Instead they’re invited to council meetings,” he said.

Blackwell would like to see the mayor’s office issue a statement saying this is where we want to be in five years and a plan for how to get there.

“We need transparency,” he said.

If elected, Blackwell said he plans to correct what he calls “really slipshod management. I do not want so much to shake things up, as move in a new direction.”

Blackwell said one of the greatest issues is the council’s and mayor’s accountability to the people.

“I want to know why there’s such turmoil in city government. Why a couple of months ago a brand new city manager was fired,” Blackwell said. “As for firing the chief of police, that was something that could have been handled with a reprimand.”

Walton, 66, said the former city administrator, Gian Paolo Mammone, “just did not work out.” When Mammone resigned in August, Walton told the Herald “his vision for the city simply did not meet with our capabilities or financial ability.”

Walton is filling the position of both mayor and city administrator while a company hired by the council — Colin Baenziger & Associates — recruits candidates.

As for firing Police Chief Michael Kessler in September, Walton said “that was a problem that needed to be addressed for some time.”

Kessler was fired for allegedly viewing pornography on city equipment and sexually harassing several women, among other charges.

In Kessler’s termination letter, Walton wrote: “These actions constitute incompetency, inefficiency and inattention to duties.”

The council plans to replace the police chief as soon as a new city administrator is hired. “That will most likely be by the end of the year,” he said.

Blackwell lacks experience in city government, but said when serving as sergeant of arms for the Boilermakers Union in Seattle years ago, he handled “huge amounts of money and contracts.”

“I also spent years as a general foreman on big projects where I was responsible for managing manpower and money. I know what’s acceptable and what’s not and how to be sure things are being done,” Blackwell said.

Both candidates want to attract more retail stores and industry to the city.

“It would be nice to fill up the empty buildings,” Blackwell said.

Walton agreed. One project Walton he to see move forward is reusing the old waste water treatment plant site for commercial development.

“It’s not been used for decades. I’d like to see something out there that would put people to work,” Walton said.

The city also owns additional land already earmarked for industrial use.

“The city recently spent around $50,000 to run a water line to the edge of the property and to improve the entrance so it’s ready for building,” Walton said.

Part of the money for the project came from Hanford Economic Development and other grants. The council, Walton said, has also been working with Tri-City Development Council, the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments and the Port of Pasco to find money to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.

In recent years the council spent $1.9 million to replace about 90 percent of the city’s aging water lines.

“And the council and city staff are working to do the rest within budget. I’d like to see that project completed,” Walton said.

Other projects in the works include finding money to chip seal Main Street, or at least seal the cracks and to upgrade police equipment.

Walton, a volunteer police reserve officer and volunteer fireman, is working with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to put in a new, taller radio tower.

“Emergency services are an important part of what the city provides residents,” Walton said. Both men are retired.

The mayor’s term of office runs four years and pays $7,200 a year.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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