Two incumbents — James Babcock and Bill Smucker — face several familiar names in Stark County politics as well as some relative newcomers

CANTON  The Democratic field of at-large candidates will be narrowed from eight to three in the May 2 primary election.

Two incumbents — James Babcock and Bill Smuckler — face several familiar names in Stark County politics as well as some relative newcomers. Their fellow candidates are Katherine Baylock, Mary Cirelli, Peter D. Ferguson, Ida Ross-Freeman, Nick Mussulin and Corey Minor Smith.

Councilman Tom Harmon, who fills one of Canton's three at large seats, is not seeking re-election.

Only three Democrats will advance to the November election to vie for a two-year council term. They'll face Republican Edward L. Springer, independent Patrick Wyatt and any other independent candidates who file by the May 1 deadline.

Council members currently are paid $18,565 a year.

In interviews The Canton Repository conducted primarily by email, job creation was a common theme among the candidates. Other key issues ranged from improving the perception of Canton to retaining the city's young adults.

Meet the candidates

Q: Why are you running?

Babcock, who has been on City Council since 2011 and a realtor for 25 years, said he believes "Canton is on the move." The Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village is underway, downtown is a growing residential area and the city is becoming more appealing. "We are continuing to clean up blighted housing in the neighborhoods, and we are holding landlords and homeowners accountable for the conditions of their houses," he stated. "We are innovating with new technology with our police and fire departments to keep Canton safe."

Baylock, who is executive director of the nonprofit We Are Troubled on Every Side, said she wants more members of the younger generation to stay in Canton and find "the sky is the limit" for opportunities. "I want the younger generation to know that it's very important to support our local government," she stated. Baylock ran unsuccessfully for Stark County commissioner in 2016.

Cirelli, who's a former Canton council member, county commissioner and state representative, said she loves her city and serving the public. "I have (a) proven record that citizens needs are my No. 1 priority," she stated. "I very much thrive on helping and assisting our citizens and the issues facing our City and finding solutions to improve every facet of government."

Ferguson, who is a chiropractor and served four years as a county commissioner, said he misses being a public servant. He's also served on various government boards. "I have a strong desire to utilize my experience in further service to the citizens of Canton," he stated.

Ross-Freeman, who is the CEO of the Stark County Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program, said the city needs something new to take it to the "next level." The current establishment could do more to spur development. "We've become stagnant," she stated. Ross-Freeman is the founder of Project E.L.S.I.E., which supports those who've had a family member suffer a violent death. She also is a current member of the Canton Joint Recreation Board and a former member of the Canton City Board of Education.

Minor Smith, who is an attorney and legal services director for Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority, said she wants to serve the community she's found to be a great place to live, work and raise a family. "I am running because I want to help the City of Canton continue to develop and grow," she stated. Minor Smith is a member of the Canton City school board and unsuccessfully ran for Canton Municipal Court judge in 2013.

Nick Mussulin, who is retired from a video production facility in Cleveland and founded Visual Marketing Technology, said the city could operate better. "We need more community involvement," he stated. "We need better community dialog. We need to promote our city better both regionally and nationally." The government should represent everyone's interests and be free of political party biases. He would like Canton to embrace technology, "ultimately to attract new businesses to Canton." Mussulin also wants to foster diversity and more closely examine the city's finances. "I’m running to help make those things happen and help make our city better."

Smuckler, the co-owner of Canton Hotel & Restaurant Supply and an on-and-off Canton councilman since the mid-80s, said he's seeking re-election because he's an effective problem-solver. "My many years of public service, my experience as a business owner for over 30 years, and my willingness to raise a family in Canton offer a blend to help problem solve in Canton." Smuckler said he's initiated or supported community policing, joint economic districts, the demolition of "eyesores," and quality of life improvements through parks and recreation. He'd also like to continue seeking a joint 911 system in Stark County.

On the issues

Q: Would you support seeking an income tax increase?

Babcock stated, "I would be willing to put an income tax increase on the ballot and let the people decide. I would recommend that the increase be used for road repair purposes and that the income tax would be for a limited time."

Baylock said residents will not welcome an income tax increase, but the future of the city depends on it. "It's something that must be done but, in doing it, we must also consider improving job opportunities, which will definitely improve one's overall quality of living."

Cirelli stated, "After I have seen our financial situation, and deem we need an income tax increase, I believe the dollars that would come from such an increase should be used foremost to improve our infrastructure — repair our streets — improve our neighborhoods, remove blighted properties and improve our single-family home ownership."

Ferguson said he would support putting a four-year, 0.25 percent increase on the ballot before voters, "if all of the proceeds were dedicated to paving and maintaining our streets." The percentage is in line with a suggestion from Councilman Frank Morris, D-9, for a three-year tax increase.

Ross-Freeman said she doesn't have enough information to say yet. "I'd have to read it, study it and then come to a conclusion. Because I'm not going to vote just because somebody else voted."

Minor Smith would support an increase if revenue was used for neighborhood revitalization and repair or maintenance work on street and water systems. "As a former member of the Canton City Income Tax Review Board, I had the opportunity to hear directly from taxpayers about their concerns while they also learned about how the City's taxes are used," she stated.

Before supporting an increase, Mussulin said, he'd first analyze the city's revenue sources and uses and then determine the most cost-effective way to use them. "I’d seek out other methods of increasing funds to the city as well, most importantly, by bringing in new businesses," he stated. "I’d also consider annexation to further the effort. Supporting an income tax increase would be the last resort."

"I would not support an income tax increase," Smuckler stated. "We need to do more creative financing with the other townships and cities in Stark County." Canton recently began joint economic districts with Jackson Township, which has brought more income tax revenue. Smuckler said he'd like to continue and expand those arrangements, where cities can collect income taxes without annexation and townships benefit from tax collection and land retention. "It is not business friendly on one side of Market Ave. to have a business in Canton paying higher income taxes while a business across the street doesn’t pay local income tax."

Q: Does the city need to do more to implement the comprehensive plan and/or develop Market Square?

Babcock said the city first needs to hire a director of planning and then find a financial partner or partners to implement the plan and develop the square.

Baylock believes the comprehensive plan should be supported "in whatever way, shape or form." As the city where football got its start and the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton should be widely associated with the sport. Football brings people together and erases differences, she said. "From the restructuring of Mother Gooseland to our parks, museums, roads, streets, houses, businesses, skating rinks, restaurants, and jobs; all should be in full scale of projecting the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Cirelli stated that the city is "continually improving and developing Market Square. If we decide to implement the comprehensive plan, we need to evaluate the needs, the financing of such and have a definite start and potential completion date.

Ferguson said he thinks the mayor and City Council are doing what they can under difficult financial circumstances. "The plans for development of these worthy projects can only be accomplished with financial assistance from the state's capital budget, local businesses and foundations. As a member of City Council I will support the public/private partnerships needed for implementation."

Ross-Freeman is pleased with the landscaping at Market Square and is not a fan of the "monstrous" plan for development. "That space is not big enough," she stated. "I think they need to improve on what they have, of course, but let it remain so we have a place to go in the community downtown." A comprehensive plan should be all-encompassing, she added, and it appears some communities were left out of the plan to right-size and reinvigorate the city. Since the money's already been spent, Ross-Freeman said, officials should review, expand and implement the plan. "It's telling us step-by-step what we need to do to be better as a community."

Minor Smith said more needs to be done, but she believes the city is on the right track. "It is exciting to see the efforts already made to revitalize downtown and the entire city of Canton," she stated. "With strong collaborative efforts to move forward, Canton will continue to grow."

Mussulin stated, "Having reviewed the 68-page comprehensive plan, it would be unfair to both the plan’s author and the citizens of Canton to simply say 'yes, the city needs to do more.'" He believes the plan is "fundamentally accurate" but that Canton's problems are "cyclical" — drugs lead to crime to unsafe neighborhoods to residents leaving the city to less tax revenue and to fewer city programs. Together, they contribute to Canton's deterioration. "We must first identify the problem and then develop a solution to address it," he stated. Mussulin thinks the city should evaluate the plan's recommendations and then address problems with the most practical course of action.

Smuckler said he voted against the comprehensive plan expense. "I was afraid, like so many other plans, it would die a slow death on a City Hall shelf. It is my plan not to let this happen since we went ahead with the expenditure." The city's currently in the process of hiring a planning director, which is the first step toward implementation, Smuckler said. Canton needs to capitalize on its assets, especially its water supply. He said Market Square might be a "reasonable endeavor" if it's tied to a "football vision." Most of it will be privately funded, Smuckler said, and has been outlined in the city's plan.

Q: What other issue is the most pressing for the city?

"We need to attract more companies to create jobs," Babcock stated. He would continue to work with the Chamber of Commerce and other community partners to recruit businesses and bring "good-paying jobs" to Canton. "Throughout my life, I have believed and continue to believe that Canton is a great city, and a great city is measured by the quality of lives of its citizens and the positive impact it has on the people who live in it," he stated. "I want to make Canton a Hall of Fame City more than once a year. I want to make it a Hall of Fame City every day of the year."

"The fear of tax increases," Baylock stated. There needs to be more education about the importance of city and states surviving and thriving. She said people should consider a business perspective "that will benefit all."

Cirelli said Canton's greatest challenge is the perception it's not safe. That can be addressed by maintaining the arts district, museums, HOF events and other attractions. "These are proving that we are appealing to higher wage earners," she stated. "We must continue this upward growth and expand this involvement and Canton will once again be the proud city we have been known for in the past."

Ferguson said "lagging" income tax revenue has forced the city to make reductions in essential services. "Deficit spending is again projected for the 2017 general operations fund," he stated. "City Council needs to work in support of Mayor Bernabei's efforts for economic development. While the proposed Hall of Fame Village should provide a revenue boost in a few years, we must look for every opportunity for immediate job creation."

"Drugs and violence, which goes hand in hand," Ross-Freeman stated. She acknowledged those issues are "universal," and affect places other than Canton.

Minor Smith stated that, "the most pressing issue facing the City is sustainability directly related to Canton's job opportunities, neighborhoods and infrastructure." It's an opinion she formed after serving on the North East Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), which consists of 12 counties working to assess and develop sustainability strategies.

"Keeping young people from leaving and attracting new businesses," Mussulin stated.

Smuckler said finances are the most pressing issue. Canton should work with other communities and create an environment to attract business, which includes having a low income tax rate. "The Professional Football Hall of Fame Village will help Canton be a destination stop which will generate excitement and tax dollars," he stated. "We need to exploit our greatest asset water. Using all these areas can help maximize our income tax dollars which can help pay for basic day to day city services."

Reach Kelly at 330-580-8323

or kelly.byer@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @kbyerREP