Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton chose to highlight his feats since he took office during the mayoral candidate forum. His opponents, Lisa Cope and Betsy Summers, decided to highlight some of his potentially questionable ethics as mayor.
In the end, Cope decided the audience sided with Leighton.
“It’s obvious to me this is just a pep rally for the mayor,” Cope said.
The forum took place on Oct. 26 in the Stark Learning Center and was open to the public. The event, sponsored by The Times Leader, consisted of written questions from the audience aiming at showcasing the three mayoral candidates hoping to win the general election on Nov. 8.
Leighton referred to the poor state of downtown Wilkes-Barre before he took office, which he said encouraged him to run. He described an empty scene full of construction and vacant businesses.
“I was not going to stand by and watch our city deteriorate,” Leighton said.
He cited the downtown development during his time as mayor, including the creation of the Movies-14 Cinema and Barnes in Noble, 15,000 downtown employees collecting revenue and the city’s credit rating of fifth in the state.
The libertarian candidate, Summers, said that while these areas are among improvements to the city, there are other areas that are lacking.
“I urge you to remember that while there have been improvements in certain areas, there have been dismal disappointment in others,” Summers said.
Summer described neighborhoods as “filthy,” with garbage on the street and many vacant, overgrown homes. She said that the income tax rate in the city is one reason behind this emptiness.
“One thing the people need to realize is our city income tax has chased so many working families out of this city – this is why we have all of these vacant homes,” Summers said.
She said the solution is to develop a plan on how to reduce income tax to draw working families back to the city.
The mayor’s ethical decisions were attacked regarding multiple issues, including the security systems he installed around his house using taxpayers’ money. This issue triggered a particularly negative response from audience members. Summers questioned his decision to use city funding.
“The mayor certainly makes enough money to afford his own security system,” Summers said.
Leighton argued that he responded appropriately to threats to him and his staff by installing the system.
“I have an obligation to protect my family, my children and my staff,” Leighton said.
Cope, the republican candidate, echoed Summers’ negative view of the mayor’s ethical decisions.
“The security system, in my opinion, is a matter of ethics,” Cope said. “It’s also a matter of just flat-out stealing taxpayers’ money.”
Cope said that a major portion of her platform is to cut wasteful spending. She disagrees with the city fund contributions to the planned demolition of the Sterling Hotel and the focus on the downtown area, emphasize that focus should be turned to neighborhoods.
Both Cope and Summers seek to develop an anti-nepotism policy, another area where Leighton’s ethics were questioned. Leighton had filled city positions with family members, which Summers said created an uneven playing field based on inner contacts and connections.
“The same families hold the majority of jobs in city halls, and our school, and in our counties,” Summers said.
She urged the importance of creating a conduct code so ethical lines are clear.
“You will feel safe that nothing corrupt will be going on under my watch, and your concerns will be heard and responded to,” Summers said.
Summers stated that there is a lack of transparency in the current establishment, claiming that the city budget is expensive and difficult to access.
“It’s very difficult to find out anything from our city government,” Summers said.
Leighton denied this claim, stating specifically that the budget was available online.
“We’ve never hidden any facts the public has asked for,” Leighton said.
Leighton said he hopes to continue maintaining and developing the city as mayor and tackle further problems, such as property violations by neighborhood residents and landlords. He also expressed his opinion toward a lack of experience in his opponents.
“I think it’s obvious my two opponents don’t know how a government runs,” Leighton said.
He stood by the decisions his opponents questioned, citing his track record in office as a statement to naysayers.
“It takes a leader to make difficult decisions, and I believe my leadership has shown in the last eight years,” Leighton said.
Though she disagreed with the decisions, Summers concurred that the position would come with difficult choices. In making these decisions, she urged that the city should be run like a business.
Summers stated she would like to open up opportunities to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Also, she said one of her first actions in the role of mayor would be to cut the mayors’ pay by $10,000 and eliminate pensions for both the mayor and city council members.
All the candidates could agree on the priority of improving the overall environment of Wilkes-Barre. As Cope worded it, the goal is to improve the city “so we can once again be proud to call Wilkes-Barre our home.”