With the election six days away, Keene’s two mayoral candidates shared a debate stage Wednesday night, offering their views on housing, economic development, property taxes and other local issues.
City Councilors George S. Hansel and Mitchell H. Greenwald are vying for a two-year term as mayor. The general election is Tuesday, and also includes 11 City Council seats and various election-administration positions.
The opening question of the debate, sponsored by The Sentinel and held at the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College, was about how each candidate would approach the mayor’s role.
Keene’s mayor is the ceremonial head of the city and presides over the City Council. The mayor does not vote on council matters, except to break ties, but has certain procedural powers, and appoints members to city boards and commissions.
“The mayor can be an effective figurehead for Keene outside of our borders,” negotiating with state officials and advocating for the city’s needs, Hansel said. “Getting to the table is key.”
Greenwald said he views the mayor as a “coordinator” and “communicator.” “He has the ability to work with the 15 city councilors and bring out the best in them,” he said. That includes working with nearby towns, the county, the school board and Keene’s representatives in state government, Greenwald added.
One overarching theme was experience, with each candidate claiming he is the right person for the job.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years,” Greenwald said. “I know how to do this job. I’m ready to step up and become the mayor of your city.”
Greenwald, 67, has served more than 20 years on the council and chairs its finance, organization and personnel committee. He owns Greenwald Realty Associates on Main Street.
A 1974 Keene State graduate, Greenwald talked about staying in the city and how he has children and grandchildren who have attended local schools. At several points, he brought up accomplishments from his tenure on the council, as well as previous mayors he has worked with.
Hansel, 33, is operations manager and a co-owner at Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene. He was elected to the City Council in 2015.
He cited his positions as a University System of New Hampshire trustee and chairman of the board of Monadnock Economic Development Corp., in addition to his personal experience as a millennial living in Keene.
“The same old steady-as-she-goes just simply won’t do it anymore,” he said. “We’re in a very competitive environment. Competitive for people, for businesses and for resources, and that requires proactive change.”
Greenwald and Hansel jumped into the race after Mayor Kendall W. Lane announced in April that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term. The city’s Oct. 8 primary indicated a close contest, with Greenwald receiving 1,113 votes to Hansel’s 1,111.
In their answers Wednesday, both candidates stressed the need to develop the economy, keep property taxes in check, improve the city’s housing stock, attract and retain young people, make the city greener, and ensure Keene is welcoming to everyone, though they offered different specifics in some cases.
Greenwald said he would coordinate large projects with the county and the school district — which also affect Keene tax rates — to keep property taxes from spiking, and work with surrounding towns on possible cost savings.
With large new housing developments coming online, Greenwald said, the city’s older housing stock needs to be improved. He said he would explore programs to help property owners insulate and otherwise improve homes, adding that city councilors can help spur grassroots solutions.
“Let’s work within our wards and develop neighborhood groups to work within the streets to encourage more housing improvement, or person to person and assist, like the community that we are,” he said.
He also advocated for lowering speed limits to 25 miles per hour in neighborhood streets, and said he’d appoint committees to tackle homelessness and substance misuse in the city.
Greenwald called economic development a key issue that involves various components.
“We need the workers, so we need the housing,” he said. “We need the arts and entertainment to make the area more desirable to work at. We need to make the process more simple for the construction of projects. That will increase the tax base.” He also mentioned the need for faster Internet.
Hansel said his connections in New Hampshire’s business community can help him bring companies to Keene and match them with sites that are appropriate for development.
“I want to bring three new businesses to Keene with about 50 employees apiece,” Hansel said. “I think that’s manageable, and because of the size of our community, it’s something that would make a tremendous, tremendous difference.”
He also called housing a critical issue, in part because lower property values mean higher tax rates. “One of the first things I’ll do as mayor is appoint a committee to study the housing issue, and make sure that the current housing stock matches the needs of the people that are here and the needs of the people we’re trying to attract,” he said.
State funding could be used to improve older single-family homes, making them more energy-efficient and attractive to workers, he said.
Hansel also mentioned the need for more sober housing in Keene, and touted public-private partnerships that he said can get projects done with limited impact to taxpayers. He said he would ensure a more diverse group of people is appointed to the city’s various boards and commissions.
He also pledged to resolve an idea that has been kicked around for years — whether to build a parking garage downtown. As an envisioned arts corridor comes to fruition and brings new visitors, Hansel said, “We need a very visible place for them to go and park.”
Other questions strayed from meat-and-potatoes municipal issues, prompting discussions of immigration enforcement, the city’s tobacco-age ordinance and the prospect of banning plastic bags. Both candidates touted solar arrays installed by their businesses.
One of the sharpest exchanges came in response to a question on partisanship, which has entered discussions of the race despite the ostensibly nonpartisan nature of city elections. Greenwald is a registered Democrat, Hansel a registered Republican.
“We are nonpartisan,” Greenwald said. “We deal with snowplowing, we deal with water and sewer —”
“But the mailers you sent out say differently,” Hansel interjected, referring to a flyer sent by the Greenwald campaign that displays both candidates’ party affiliations.
“We deal with basic city issues,” Greenwald continued. “As I’ve been knocking on doors, within the first two questions, someone asks me, ‘What am I?’ I answer the question. As I’ve tried to communicate with the public, I answer the question. That’s all there is to it. The Sentinel has really made a big deal out of it and waved it around quite a bit and made it into more of an issue than it was.”
Since early July, The Sentinel has published two articles and an editorial on the question of partisanship in the mayor’s race.
Former Sentinel editor Jim Rousmaniere, a selectman in Roxbury, moderated the debate. Questions were asked by a three-person panel — Sentinel reporter Sierra Hubbard, WKBK’s Dan Mitchell and Keene State student Casey Schmidl-Gagne — as well as audience members.
As candidates and members of the audience mingled in the lobby later, John F. DiBernardo, 68, of Keene, said he was glad he attended. “There was a lot that was covered here that wasn’t covered elsewhere,” he said.
DiBernardo said he’s still undecided, but is certain he’ll vote.
“I’ve only ever missed one primary, once, in my entire life,” he said. It was in 1992, and he was hospitalized.