Mayoral forum: GOP candidates seeking nomination for Columbus mayor face off at event

“Legislating is very different from governing.”

Those were the words of Columbus Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon as she discussed her qualifications to be the next mayor of Columbus during a candidate forum with her opponent, fellow Republican and former state representative Milo Smith.

The Bartholomew County Republican Ladies League hosted the forum Wednesday evening so that community members could learn more about the two mayoral candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the May 2 primary. About 90 people attended the event, including candidates for other city offices.

The forum began with each candidate introducing themselves, their background and their reasons for running. Emcee John Foster then posed a series of questions to Smith and Ferdon, with two minutes allotted for each response. The event ended with closing remarks from both candidates.

One of Foster’s questions touched on experience, asking each candidate, “In terms of your personal and professional and community background, what has most prepared you to be the mayor of Columbus?”

Smith referenced his 12 years as a state representative and more than 30 years leading a greeting ministry at First Christian Church. He also said that he has a passion for helping people solve their problems, pointing to an incident where he received a call from a woman trying to adopt her grandchild and how he contacted local officials to “try to put her on the right track.”

He promised that, if elected, he and city leaders would respond to calls from citizens and be available to help with any issues they might have.

“Another reason I got involved — and I don’t see anyone here from code enforcement — but I represent a taxpayer that has a building, a commercial building, that’s on one of the national roads, and it’s located in a flood hazard area,” Smith added. “And he wanted to get a building permit for it, and instead of trying to help him get that building permit, the local zoning people said, ‘The law says you can’t get a zoning permit. Only one time, and it can’t exceed over half of what the assessed value is.’”

Smith then called the local assessor and worked to transfer some of the assessed value “from the land to the improvement” so that the renovations could take place.

“Thank you for helping that woman,” Ferdon said in her response. “That’s county code enforcement, not city. And I do feel like the city of Columbus and departments are very helpful, and that’s something that has come from the top. Mayor Lienhoop and myself, our goal is that when someone calls, when someone emails, that they get response. And that’s something that we take a lot of pride in.”

She then said that the reason she’s ready to be mayor is because she’s already doing the work and has been “preparing for it my whole life.” She pointed to her education and work in local government, non-profit experience and partnerships with various community entities.

“I understand how to solve problems,” said Ferdon. “I understand who makes decisions in the community and how we can partner together. Again, I appreciate the work my opponent’s done at the state level, but legislating is very different from governing.”

Foster also asked the two candidates about what challenges they foresee for downtown Columbus.

“Good questions, tough answers,” said Ferdon. “So as long as I’ve lived in Columbus, we’ve struggled sometimes with keeping that vibrant downtown.”

She added that this has been even more difficult post-pandemic due to the decreased presence of a major employer — likely a reference to Cummins, Inc — and the new work habits of its employees, many who have opted to work remotely.

In discussing how to bring retail, restaurants and people back downtown, Ferdon said that she believes the completion of the Taylor — a development featuring 200 apartment units and an urban grocer — will drive downtown attraction and help local businesses.

“I also know that we have a new partnership that’s started in the downtown area,” she said. “It’s a downtown development office. It’s a partnership between the city and a lot of great private partners, because they recognize that we need to be more intensive, and we need to be more proactive about finding out what we need to bring people into downtown. And it’s not just having a lot of restaurants and retail, but it’s making sure that we have what the fits the community, who target to bring (people) downtown and to live downtown.”

Smith said that he believes traffic is a “huge issue” but added that the city needs to hear from small businesses about their problems and work with them on solutions.

“I believe Columbus downtown is doing pretty well right now,” he said. “And there is fewer traffic, but I believe the traffic’s coming back, and we need to be ready for that. But again, working with small business people, getting their ideas on how we can make things better.”

Other topics of discussion during the forum included how to spend tax dollars wisely, future plans for Donner Center and Donner Park, attracting and retaining city employees, maintaining public infrastructure and how to create effective local partnerships.

Throughout the night, Smith emphasized the importance of being accountable and available to local taxpayers and not putting too much of a burden to them. He also expressed concern about some current city projects and practices, such as NexusPark, the riverfront project, Tax Increment Financing and the move to become a “second class” city.

Ferdon said that local leaders have to balance taking care of taxpayers with ensuring that city departments have the resources they need to operate effectively. She also pointed to achievements she was involved in with the Lienhoop administration and ongoing projects that she believes will continue to improve the city, such as NexusPark and a new community mental health initiative.

In this year’s primary, which is a city primary, the only contested races are the Republican nomination for Columbus mayor and the Democratic nomination for City Council District 3.

Incumbent Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who is a Republican, is not seeking a third term as mayor and has endorsed Ferdon.

While there is currently no Democratic candidate for mayor, the party could still select a candidate for the general election; the deadline to do so is July 3 at noon.

In posing his final question to Ferdon and Smith, Foster referenced a quote from M*A*S*H: “I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.”

He then asked candidates, if there was only one thing they could accomplish as mayor, what they would want it to be.

“I’m going to identify something that’s impossible,” said Smith. “I would want every taxpayer in the city of Columbus to say, ‘Milo, you protected my rights, you represented me well, and I’m please with the job that you’re doing as my mayor.”

Ferdon replied that she would have to “cheat” and point to two projects she wanted to move forward. One was the completion of NexusPark, and the other was addressing the substance abuse and mental health crises.

“I am so proud of what we’ve done, the whole community, with ASAP (the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress),” she said. “It has been a partnership from the very beginning, and we’ve made so much good impact, but we see post-COVID that there’s so much more to be done.”