Commissioner candidates face off in Kent debate

Timothy Magaw

Incumbent Smeiles faces 19-year-old college student in race

Although one candidate pushed for change and the other touted experience, yesterday’s debate in Kent was not between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

It was between two Democrats facing off in the March 4 primary for one of the three positions on the Portage County Board of Commissioners.

Nineteen-year-old Brett McClafferty, of Streetsboro, will go against 20-year incumbent Christopher Smeiles, of Kent, for the party’s nomination March 4.

McClafferty said last night to the crowd at the Kent Presbyterian Church that getting people involved in government is the main reason he declared his candidacy for commissioner.

“I believe that people need to take a hands-on approach to keep their government accountable,” he said at the debate, which was co-sponsored by the Northern Portage County League of Women Voters and the League of Women Voters of Kent.

Smeiles and McClafferty agreed citizen input is important in county government. Smeiles said he would like to see boards for citizens to voice their concerns.

“We’ve had those in the past,” he said. “They start out great. They go good for six months. People kind of lose interest, and before you know it, people stop showing up.”

One way McClafferty said he would bolster more involvement is to put forth legislation to adopt a county charter. McClafferty is calling for the elimination of the board of commissioners and the creation of a county executive to lead the executive branch and a county council to lead the legislative branch.

“This is something I feel is necessary for this county to give adequate representation to all the people of Portage County,” he said.

Summit is the state’s only county to adopt a charter, and Smeiles said there’s a reason it’s the only one to do so: It’s expensive. He said, however, the charter form is worth looking into.

“But be warned taxpayers,” Smeiles said. “It’s going to be more expensive. If we’re going to go down that path, let’s do it right and not do it the way Summit County did.”

The candidates also explored issues facing the relationship between the county and Kent State, the county’s largest employer. McClafferty said the county has a unique flow of traffic because of the university. He stressed the importance of improving relationships with the university administration – but mostly with students.

Smeiles, however, touched on the university’s presence in the county, not specifically the student body. He emphasized the use of resources Kent State has to offer.

Both candidates said economic development is a key issue in the county. McClafferty said he was disappointed the county’s economic director position was empty for two years, but he was reminded by debate moderator Barbara Hipsman Springer, co-president of the League of Women’s Voters of Kent, that Smeiles had announced earlier in the debate someone had been hired for the position.

McClafferty said Smeiles’ 20-year experience is a double-edged sword. For instance, he said Smeile’s experience offers an advantage because of the relationships he’s probably made, but it has also left him vulnerable.

“As far as actually being able to inflict change, he’s proven that he can’t do that,” McClafferty said in an interview early yesterday. “That’s what the county needs right now and not just the county, but the whole country.”

Smeiles, in an interview early yesterday, said change for the sake of change is an immature viewpoint. He said the Portage County taxpayers trust the county’s elected officials to spend their money wisely, adding that it takes experience to manage the county’s general fund of $44 million and more than a thousand county employees.

“If you were CEO of Kent State University,” Smeiles said, “would you turn the keys over to your 19-year-old son just for the sake of change?”

Although McClafferty hasn’t even been alive as long as Smeiles has been in office, he said he’s “in it for the win.”

“When you’re a young person taking on a long-term incumbent, you’re an underdog,” said McClafferty, adding that Portage County is a community of underdogs.

But Smeiles said he isn’t taking his opponent lightly because there are only two ways to run for office – run unopposed or run hard.

Craig Stephens, chair of the Portage County Democratic Party, said he can’t really gauge who’s leading the race because he hasn’t seen any polling, but he said McClafferty is facing a challenge.

“It’s clearly a very difficult uphill battle to unseat an incumbent who has served in that office for a substantial amount of time and from my understanding has built a substantial base,” Stephens said.

McClafferty is currently taking credit hours at both Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College, but if he were elected as commissioner in the November general election, he said he’d have to cut back on his credit hours.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Larry Solak, a Shalersville trustee who is unopposed in his party’s primary, in November. Maureen Frederick, the other commissioner for reelection, is unopposed in the primary.

McClafferty finished third in the Streetsboro mayoral runoff election between eight candidates in May, falling behind Linda Kovacs by one vote.

Portage County voters last elected Smeiles for his fifth term in 2004 when he faced Republican Daniel Smith. Smeiles beat Smith with a 19 percent margin. But in the Democratic primary preceding that election, Smeiles narrowly defeated attorney Timothy D . Ludick by a 5 percent margin.

Contact public affairs reporter Timothy Magaw at [email protected].