A crowd of about 100 people showed up at the Hilton El Conquistador last Thursday night to get an earful from Oro Valley's town council and mayor hopefuls.
With the primary election scheduled for March 9, candidates were eager to get their messages to the voters and distinguish themselves from their competitors at the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum.
Mayoral candidates Paul Loomis, Satish Hiremath and Mike Zinkin attended. So too did council candidates K.C. Carter, Mark Finchem, Joe Hornat, Matthew Rabb, Mary Snider and Lou Waters. Work obligations prevented candidate Don Emmons from attending.
With the chamber as sponsor, it wasn't unexpected that much of the questioning would focus on the candidates' business friendliness. To that end, moderator Mark Evans of the Tucson Citizen plied the candidates with numerous queries about economic development and funding of such groups as Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and the Tucson Metropolitan Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
The candidates were asked if they had ever owned or managed a business. Four of the candidates present — Loomis, Rabb, Waters and Zinkin — answered that they hadn't.
Loomis said his experience in the private sector and as an engineer with federal government made him responsible for many employees and multi-million dollar budgets.
The other candidates all said they had experience managing and owning business.
As part of small startup company, Hornat observed "It wasn't how big your budget is, it's how you manage it."
On at least three occasions, the questioning turned to issues of economic development and funding of groups like the MTCVB and TREO. A few of the candidates came out in favor of renewing funding for such groups. Hiremath gave unequivocal support for resumed funding.
"100 percent I'm in favor of supporting MTCVB," Hiremath said.
Loomis noted the town general plan envisions Oro Valley as a haven for resorts.
"We all benefit through development throughout the region," Loomis said.
Hornat too, said he wants the town consider funding the groups.
"These folks are professionals, their career path is to make things happen," Hornat said.
Waters said he'd support the groups with strengthened oversight, adding, "MTCVB and TREO is how you make a deal."
Snider said the town could designate specific tax dollars to fund the organizations. "They're our chamber of commerce," she said.
Carter too, said he favors a second look at the supporting the groups.
Other candidates, however, found it more difficult to recommend paying the groups for economic development and business recruitment.
Zinkin suggested the groups should be paid only if they bring results in the form of jobs, as compared to a simple year-long contract.
"There's no accountability," Zinkin said.
Rabb also said he would support a pay-for-performance based funding.
Finchem said the town could tap existing resources in companies like Ventana Medical Systems and Sanofi-aventis to help foster "promotion from within."
"I'm for a more local solution," Finchem said.
Finchem and Zinkin also said they would support performance-based contracts for TREO.
"I live in a pay-for-performance world," Finchem said.
Hiremath and other candidates issued their objections to that form of contract, saying it showed a lack of respect.
"This pay-for-performance, it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths," Hiremath said.
Carter, more bluntly, said the idea was "baloney."
Questioning later turned to the town's sign code, an issue that has been contentious for many in the business community. Among the main complaints, businesses have said the code lacks clarity and prevents them from getting their name out because of what they consider arbitrary lighting restrictions.
The business community rallied against the current code at council meeting in late 2009, after the town ramped up enforcement efforts.
"It's a bundle of confusion," Carter said. "The whole sign code business has to be looked at."
Finchem agreed, calling the code a mess.
Loomis said the code was outdated and needs revision.
Waters also said the code lends to confusion.
"The sign code has to be revisited, it's not working for businesses and we need business more now than ever," Waters said.
The one candidate with a dissimilar interpretation of the code was Zinkin, who said the sign code wasn't as confusing as portrayed and covered only a few pages in town codes.
"The business owners should not have been surprised that they were violating the sign code," Zinkin said.
At the end came the one question everybody surely had expected: property taxes in Oro Valley. Before asking, Evans — the former longtime editor of The Explorer — said the question was one of his favorites because it gets asked every election cycle in Oro Valley, a town founded on the promise of no property taxes.
No candidate explicitly supported putting a property tax on the ballot. The voters would have to OK a ballot question before instituting the tax.
"Only as a last resort I would support a property tax," Loomis said.
Rabb said it would be irresponsible to even consider such a tax before exhausting all other options to balance the budget.
Waters, too, said he couldn't support a new tax.
"It's irresponsible, I think, to talk about raising taxes during a near depression," Waters said.
The two-hour forum ended with brief statements from each candidate telling voters why they should vote for them.
Primary Election: March 9
• Ballots will be mailed to registered voters around Thursday, Feb. 11.
• Voter registration deadline is Monday, Feb. 8.
General Election: May 18
• Ballots mailed to registered voters around April 14.
• Early voting begins April 15.
• Voter registration deadline is April 19.
Candidates not elected with a majority of the votes cast in the primary election will run in the May run-off election.
Only candidates equal to twice the number of seats open can run in May run-off. For example, if three seats are open, the six top vote-getters will be on the run-off ballot.
New council members take office on June 2.
For more information, call the town clerk's office at 229-4700.
For information about voter registration or to request an early ballot, contact the Pima County Recorder's Office at 740-4330 or log on to the recorder's Website at http://www.recorder.pima.gov">www.recorder.pima.gov.