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Belpre heads into primary with three contested races

BELPRE — The only May 7 primary elections in Washington County involve Belpre’s city council and mayoral race and only Republicans are voting.

Of the four wards, three at-large council seats and the mayoral primary, just three are contested.

Judith Drake and John McClead are running to represent Republicans in the November mayoral election, with the winner likely to challenge three-term Democratic incumbent Michael Lorentz.

For the city’s three at-large council seats, four candidates have stepped forward – incumbents Donna L. Miller and Susan J. Abdella, and challengers David E. Ferguson and Larry K. Martin. Drake currently holds one of the at-large seats, which she is vacating to run for mayor.

In Ward 1, Joshua Campbell is unopposed; Elmer Lee Shutts is the sole candidate for Ward 2 and Timothy Gant is the only candidate for Ward 3. All three are incumbents.

In Ward 4, incumbent Penne L. Riffle is being challenged by Kelly R. Cox.

Concerns and issues noted by candidates ranged from adequate support for the fire and police departments to attracting young families to live in Belpre.

McClead is making his first run for elected office, opposing Drake in the Republican nomination for mayor. The 72-year-old describes himself as “just an ordinary guy” who wants the chance to end Lorentz’s three-term run as mayor.

“The guy who’s in there will soon have been mayor for 12 years, and as far as I can see nothing’s improved during that time,” McClead said. “When you go to council meetings it seems like they have nothing to report. You can get in your vehicle and drive around and see a bunch of things to report – the fire department, roads, sidewalks, bushes you can’t see around, trash cans sitting out all week.”

McClead, a long-time resident of the city who has two grown children in the area, said he worked for the city of Belpre in the water department for 28 years and is familiar with how the city operates. He thinks significant change is warranted.

“I’d just like to see change all around,” he said. “We’ve contracted so much out that we shouldn’t have, pool operations, senior citizens services, multiple things. We used to all that in-house.”

Opposing McClead in the primary is Drake, who is in her second term on council, first as the Fourth Ward repreentative and currently as an at-large member.

“People have asked me to run for mayor for the last eight years, and I just didn’t want to go there,” Drake said. “This time it was a little different. I decided I wanted to do this to make a difference.”

The city in 2017 received a study done by the Voinovich School of Business at Ohio University, she said..

“A lot of citizens got to participate in that study, we held town halls, and through that study we found that Belpre has no plan and hasn’t had one for 20 years or more,” she said. “Belpre needs a plan, and I have a vision and a plan I think the citizens would embrace … If you don’t look forward enough, what you get is the status quo.”

Drake said she has served on the city council’s economic development committee and has extensive administrative experience in government roles, first with the federal Bureau of Public Debt and later with the Veterans Administration in Florida.

“These were demanding jobs, where I learned and applied laws and regulations, acted as a supervisor,” she said.

Drake, 80, first lived in Belpre in the 1940s and is a graduate of Belpre High School. She said she has a daughter in Marietta.

For city council, Cox is seeking the nomination for Ward 4. In her first run for elected office, Cox said she’s been active in the community and volunteered for a range of functions with the chamber of commerce, including chairwoman of the economic development committee as well as president and vice president. She’s also active in the county historical society.

“I’m tired of hearing that people don’t care about Belpre, that only a handful of people ever run for office,” she said. “I know that people care.”

Cox, 56, said concerns that ordinary citizens have expressed include accounting of income tax for some of the employment-intensive businesses in town, like the new medical complex, and suggestions that the city might be considering a charter-type government model, which might involve hiring a city manager.

Cox said she has lived in Belpre for decades, graduating in the high school class of 1980 and attending Ohio University afterward. Her family in the area includes her mother, a sister, a nephew and his family, and numerous cousins. Her professional background includes operation of a Curves gym in Belpre.

Riffle, 47, is seeking her second term as Ward 4 representative. Riffle said she ran for her first term after returning to Belpre from a 20-year active duty career in the Air Force.

“I came home after retiring from the military and saw some things I wasn’t very happy about,” she said. The first year, she said, was the steep learning curve of becoming familiar with procedure and city operations.

“Two years is awfully short. I’m into my second year and I just feel like I’m getting a good foothold, and I’d like the opportunity to do more,” she said.

The issues facing Belpre are similar to those being faced by other cities, she said – infrastructure, economic development.

“The inadequate natural gas supply has been holding us back, but luckily that’s been put through the state and approved,” she said. “Now we just have to ensure it happens. It will help with economic development, getting companies to come here.”

Riffle said she was born at Camden-Clark and raised in Belpre, graduating from the high school and then joining the military. She returned to Belpre in 2012. Her parents, she said, still live in the house on Fourth Street where she grew up, and her son is in the Army Reserve and now deployed.

“I’m proud to be a Belpre native, and I hope to be able to continue to serve the city,” she said.

Belpre city council includes three at-large seats, and four Republicans are running for the nominations.

Larry Martin, 60, and a member of the Marine Corps, retired, served several years back on the city council and has decided to run again.

“I was approached by the Republicans in town to run, and we talked it over. I’m an old Marine, not politically correct most of the time, I see things as being right or wrong, and there’s a lot that needs to be addressed,” he said. “We’re not doing enough to bring young and even middle-aged families with children into the community, we need more robust programs to attract them. We need that growth, to improve our facilities, schools, road, things to attract those people.”

Martin said in the aging city more than half the residents are receiving Social Security, disability or retirement income of some kind.

“That’s the big thing, we need to bring youth into the community,” he said.

Martin said he was born in Huntington but moved to Belpre in 1961 and graduated from the high school.

“A lot of people know me,” he said. “I’m pretty straightforward about things.”

Running for a fourth term in an at-large position is Donna Miller, who wants to focus on strengthening services and facilities so the city is more attractive for new residents and businesses.

“Really, would you want to invest in a place that didn’t have enough fire or police protection?” she said. Miller also is opposed to establishing a charter form of government in Belpre, which she said would place city management, out of the hands of voters.

“A city manager, hired by council, that’s just wrong,” she said.

Other concerns are a trend toward development that skirts around flooding threats through the use of dry wells rather than comprehensive drainage, and the shortage of appropriations for police and fire services, she said.

Miller, 81, said she grew up with political discussions around the dinner table and comes from a family of conservatives. She’s campaigned for former Sen. Bob Taft Jr. in the 1970s and was involved in the Barry Goldwater campaign for president in 1964. She was born in Athens, and the family moved to Little Hocking when she was young. She graduated from Belpre High School. She lived in North Carolina for 20 years before moving back to Belpre.

The other two candidates are former city safety-service director David E. Ferguson and incumbent Susan J. Abdella.

Nomination for the remaining three wards are uncontested, being sought by the incumbents: Joshua Campbell in Ward 1, Elmer Lee Shutts in Ward 2 and Timothy Gant in Ward 3.

Absentee voting is already underway and continues through May 6, at the Washington County Board of Elections office at 204 Davis Ave. in Marietta. The dates and hours are: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through April 26; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday April 29 through May 3; 8 a.m to 4 p.m. May 4; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. May 5; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 6.

Election day is May 7, with all precincts voting at the Belpre Church of Christ, 2932 Washington Blvd., from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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