One day before early voting begins in Tennessee, candidates for seats on Signal Mountain’s town council are hearing plenty from their potential constituents.
Frequent topics, the office seekers said this week, include the potential sale of the town’s water system; unwise depletion of town funds; a perceived lack of civility and transparency at council meetings; issues related to commercial development and growth in general; the poor condition of the current septic/sewage system and a related longstanding moratorium on new sewer hookups.
A sizable number of voters also want to rehash last year’s contentious debate over whether Signal should break away from Hamilton County Department of Education and create an independent school district (ISD) on the mountain, some candidates noted.
“Some see this election as a referendum of sorts on the subject,” said Dan Landrum, a current town council member who is seeking reelection.
“They talk more about the turmoil created by the ISD discussion than the proposal itself. A few still ask why we ever spent so much time considering splitting in the first place, and even more so in light of recent reports about how well our students are doing.”
Councilman Landrum and five other candidates – Joe Durek, Robert Hensley, Dun Monroe, Rick Saputa and former Mayor Bill Lusk – all responded Monday to questions regarding the ISD and other issues.
Attempts to contact the remaining candidate, Susannah Murdock, were unsuccessful.
Six of the seven office seekers – Mayor Lusk, Councilman Landrum and Mr. Durek, Mr. Monroe, Ms. Murdock and Mr. Saputa – have indicated their opposition to an independent school district, at least at this time.
Their positions were outlined in their answers to a survey emailed Aug. 15 to all town council candidates. Mr. Hensley did not respond to that questionnaire.
Candidates’ responses this week indicated that, although more than eight months have passed since current council members voted to disband the committee tasked with exploring the viability of an independent school system, the issue still looms large with some voters – and some aspiring council members.
“I have been told by (Mayor) Chris Howley and (Council member) Amy Speek that the ISD is dead,” Mr. Monroe wrote, “but I don’t quite think so. What I want is an ironclad guarantee that the issue will never be brought to the council again.”
Across Signal, it’s easy to find residents who – regardless of their opinions of the proposed ISD – lament the bitter arguments and harsh disagreements that divided the community into factions, of which some traces remain today.
“Stay with HCDE,” an organization formed to oppose the ISD, still has a presence online, for example; so does the group “Friends of Signal Mountain Schools” which was created to support an independent school district.
But time moves on and the ISD is far from the only topic on people’s minds and on their own, candidates said.
“For me, other important issues are debt and deficit spending,” wrote Mayor Lusk, noting that such practices significantly reduce the financial reserves needed to fund the town’s operations.
ISD “certainly isn’t an overwhelming issue that everyone brings up,” according to Mr. Hensley, who created his own survey to circulate among potential voters.
“One topic that hasn't been in the headlines recently,” he noted, “(but) that many have raised, is dissatisfaction with the septic/sewer issue in the town.”
Mr. Hensley, one of the leaders of the effort to create an ISD, said most of the people who fill out his surveys are “relatively consistent” when asked to identify “the three things that make SignalMountain a wonderful place to live.”
However, he added, they differ greatly on another topic: “the three things that would make SignalMountain an even better place to live.”
“This is most often when the school district issue comes up . . . some strongly in favor and some strongly opposed,” he explained. “It's tough for me to say whether it's a top three issue. I don't think so but not sure since I haven't compiled all the responses in a spreadsheet and have just been reading them as they come in.”
Mr. Monroe, moving beyond his stance on the ISD, said the he wants to maintain Signal’s identity as a small mountain town and is bothered by the moratorium, although “without many, many millions to replace the old sewers we might have to with that for a long time.”
“The problem here is that citizens wearing rose colored glasses might give false hopes for expansion . . . (S)preading false hopes is not to my liking,” he wrote.
In his response, Mr. Durek stressed that he supports HCDE and is opposed to an independent school system, as are a majority of the voters with whom he has spoken, he said.
He reported recently meeting with Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton Countyschools, to talk about two issues: a second road into the Signal Mountain Middle/High School complex, and the need to change school hours.
Mr. Saputa said he believes independent schools “are considered a dead issue now, apparently viewed as not viable and not supported. Although that has not stopped the subject from coming up.”
“The main issue in the race for town council seats is the proposed sale of the municipal water system.,” he continued. “Second to that, commercial development and growth in general, particularly relating to environmental and sewer issues.The town council itself would not be far behind.”
Councilman Landrum agreed, to some extent.
“The school issue is secondary to the immediate concern about (a possible) water company sale,” he explained. “Most folks seem to think the council has already agreed to sell and ask why. I keep explaining that we’re still exploring options, one of which is keeping and improving the system.
“The other hot issue seems to be civility, or the perceived lack thereof, at council meetings,” he added.
Three council seats will be filled during the election. Currently, they are held by Mayor Howley, who is not seeking reelection; Councilman Landrum, who is running for another term; and interim Councilman Brandon Anthony, who was appointed to serve the final months of Vice Mayor Dick Gee’s term after Mr. Gee moved out of town.