GOODING — Voters in Gooding County have a simple choice to make this November election: Do they like the current City Council and mayor, or do they want change?
City Council challengers Chuck Cram and Colin Smith — and mayoral challenger Jeff Brekke — presented a united front against incumbent Council members Mel Magnelli and Diane Houser and Mayor Walt Nelson to a little more than 100 people Wednesday night as they gathered at the Gooding High School during a candidate forum sponsored by the Times-News.
“We’re running essentially as a team,” Brekke said. “We would like to see all of us elected to city government. We think there are areas that we can improve upon.”
The incumbents liked how the city government has been doing things and wanted to continue on some of the efforts they’ve started. But challengers felt new faces to the Council could bring better transparency and communication to Gooding residents.
And while candidates agreed that the city needs to beautify downtown, solve its workforce shortage and manage the budget responsibility, they had different ideas of how those could be approached.
Smith, who teaches high school in Shoshone, wants the city to create relationships with businesses to help improve the look of downtown.
But Houser, who’s been on the Council eight years, warned against offering help to businesses for projects such as painting. This could open a can of worms, she said, “because you can’t do that for everybody.”
Smith also wanted sidewalks to be installed from the bowling alley to the hospital, and other candidates noted the poor condition of sidewalks throughout town.
Houser said damaged sidewalks are not the city’s responsibility.
“It is actually the responsibility of the property owner,” she said, adding that work is being done to establish a grant program to encourage these repairs.
And the city can’t do anything to improve Main Street itself, Nelson said, because it’s a state highway.
“That’s for them to take care of,” he said. “We can’t even fix a pot hole.”
Magnelli, who’s been on the Council almost 12 years, said he believed the city is doing the best it can with what it has and can control.
Brekke and Cram thought that making Main Street more presentable to visitors would help encourage new businesses. Brekke manages the Valley Country Store and owns Gooding Fitness Center; Cram is a “semi-retired” contractor.
While largely in favor of bringing small- to medium-sized businesses to town, candidates brought up the hurdles Gooding has with low unemployment, limited housing and needed sewer upgrades.
“It’s going to be tough to get businesses to come into Gooding if there isn’t a workforce,” Nelson said.
But attracting new residents will take more housing, and “Nobody is going to come to Gooding to build a spec house.”
The mayoral candidates, Nelson and Brekee, differed on how they though the city’s budget should be managed. Brekke wanted to see the city be more productive and free up money where it could in its budget by more deeply questioning department heads.
But Nelson countered that.
“They know their job better than I do, and better than anyone on the Council,” he said. “Micromanaging is not the way to run a city.”
In discussing goals for the upcoming term, Magnelli was in favor of upgrading the sewer system. He and Houser also want to finally make whole the flood wall along the Little Wood River to protect children in a nearby park.
Similarly, Smith wanted speed bumps next to the city pool.
Brekke said his focus would be having more communication and openness.
“We want to foster a sense of community with new folks, and get new folks involved,” Brekke said.
Nelson said there already was a sense of community, but he would like to see people take pride in their town by improving their own lots and sidewalks.
Gooding residents will vote Nov. 7 on who will take the mayor and two open council positions. The two City Council candidates with the most votes will win the election. Having challengers with a united front may put more pressure on Magnelli and Houser to retain their seats.
“We are running as a group,” Smith said. “And we’re not ashamed of that.”