Southport candidates spoke on several issues Monday night, from aldermen agendas to the sale of the old sewer plant, at a candidate forum held in the Southport Community Building, which was filled to capacity.
Mayoral candidates, incumbent Jerry Dove and challenger Joe Pat Hatem, spoke first. The two seemed to agree on what the priorities of the city are but disagreed on the handling of board meetings.
Dove and Hatem had opposing ideas on the length of public comments. Dove said three minutes was effective and if people had more to say, they could come to his monthly meetings. Hatem said the period was too short and, if elected, he’d extend the time to five minutes.
When asked what each person considers the major tasks of the mayor, Dove said his role was to provide advice to city officials and interact with the community at events, including Mayor’s Day. Hatem said the job should be to educate the public and, specifically, to explain issues in greater detail to citizens.
Hatem thought there wasn’t enough information being delivered to the public, which he reemphasized when asked his thoughts on the sale of the city’s former wastewater treatment plant to Southport Marina.
“Whether you sell it or not, that’s one issue,” Hatem said, “but the key issue is, were the citizens of Southport informed? Did they understand why it was being sold?”
Dove said the plant was turning into a “hazardous waste dump” ever since the state shut it down 12 years ago. He added that there had been no offers to buy the plant, and the marina was providing a kayak ramp and a walkway over the Tidal Creeks for the community’s use.
On other topics, the candidates agreed but had different approaches. When asked about affordable housing, both said there was a shortage in the city.
Hatem said Southport needs to work with developers to build apartments and duplexes both inside and outside the city limits since land is limited. Dove took the question as an opportunity to discuss the need for more jobs.
“I remember when I came here, the shrimp boats lined the horizon out there and the menhaden boats employed many, many of our citizens,” Dove said, “but our economy has changed.”
Dove and Hatem agreed infrastructure was a top priority for the city. While Hatem emphasized the need for more crosswalks, Dove spoke of improving transportation to address population growth.
“You can see traffic coming into town on a daily basis, backed up all the way to Walmart,” Dove said.
There were some topics both candidates agreed on almost entirely. One of those was that tourism does not have negative impacts on the environment, and the city should embrace the business. They also agreed on the value of the waterfront.
When asked what it should look like in the future, Hatem responded, “Look out the window. That’s the vision.”
Dove highlighted the waterfront stabilization project he and other city officials have been working on, and Hatem agreed that the city should prevent erosion.
Both also had similar approaches to preparing for hurricanes. Dove spoke of his experience in the emergency operations centers from which he “keeps the public informed.” Hatem said he has an idea of how the EOC works because he does similar preparations at Dosher Hospital, where he is an emergency room physician.
Next up were the alderman candidates. Robert Tucker announced over the weekend he has dropped out of the race. David Miller and Tom Lombardi are vying for his Ward 1 seat.
In Ward 2, Jim Powell and Rick Pukenas are both running for another term. They are being challenged by Nelson Adams, John Allen, Lowe Davis and Eric King.
Aldermen seats not up for election this year are held by Marc Spencer, Karen Mosteller and Lora Sharkey.
When asked how aldermen meetings should function, the majority of candidates said they need improvement.
Miller said the agenda should include more pressing issues. King used his time to talk about a lack of respect toward citizens by current and past aldermen, and Powell added that he agreed and there was also disrespect from the public.
Adams said there should be an additional three minutes for public comment at the end of the meeting. Lombardi said the comments should be five minutes.
Allen spoke of a lack of transparency regarding what is discussed in between the meetings and a need for more explanation behind decisions. Davis had a similar statement, explaining that she noticed a “pattern” where aldermen made unpopular decisions, such as selling the old sewer plant at recessed meetings without public input.
Pukenas explained that he was shot down by the board when he asked for there to be a period of public comment regarding the sale of the land.
When asked how they felt about that sale, most of the candidates said they were disappointed in the process.
Allen, Davis and Lombardi criticized the lack of transparency throughout the sale. Adams said it was a beautiful property that should not have been sold.
King, who works for the marina, said there were a lot of misconceptions about the appraisal and added that the plant was contaminated.
“The wastewater treatment plant that Southport Marina is buying (the marina is) going to have to clean up for thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars that Southport does not have,” King said.
Powell and Pukenas, who were on the board during the decision, also defended the sale, as did Miller.
The candidates were also asked about the city’s plans to leave the Brunswick County sewer system and instead build its own wastewater treatment plant on either Bethel Road or another site that Sunny Point has not yet approved.
Allen said this was another case where the board had not provided enough information to the public, and Davis said there were “so many things wrong” about the plans that she “did not know where to begin.” She continued to list financial and environmental concerns.
King and Miller said the city should not be in the “sewer business,” because of the liability. Adams said the city needed to renegotiate with the county.
As sitting aldermen, Pukenas and Powell were the only two to defend the plan. Powell said the city needs to “control its own destiny,” and added that the county had not offered the city a “seat at the table,” or the one million gallons per day in capacity it requested for the $26 million that was supposed to finance an expansion of the county’s sewer for Southport.
Lombardi said he could not comment on the plans because he did not have all the facts.
Other topics discussed were affordable housing, infrastructure, the environment and off-shore drilling, which everyone opposed.
Early voting starts Oct. 16 at the Board of Elections, located in Building H at 75 Stamp Act Drive NE in Bolivia.