Meadville council Dem candidates

Meadville City Council Democratic candidates (from left) Jack Harkless, Larry McKnight, Autumn Vogel and Jan Bialous speak during Monday's public forum at the Lew Davies Community Center.

Four well-prepared Democratic Party candidates for Meadville City Council made their case before an audience of more than 50 people Monday at a question-and-answer forum sponsored by The Meadville Tribune.

Two of the four candidates in the May 21 primary will advance to the general election this fall in which two City Council seats will be contested. The two Democratic nominees chosen in the primary will likely run in the fall general election against John Battaglia and Nancy Mangilo-Bittner, both of whom are unopposed in the primary for the Republican Party's two nominations.

Armed with binders and worn notebooks bearing neon flags to mark particular topics of interest, the candidates addressed issues ranging from fluoridation and housing to raising money from nonprofits and their vision of Meadville’s near future.

Given their shared party and the fact that two of the four have campaigned together, the fact that the candidates indicated their agreement on numerous issues was unsurprising. Nonetheless, distinctive strategies became evident over the course of each candidate’s multiple responses. One of the more prominent patterns involved the direction each candidate looked when asked about the need for increased public involvement and how to achieve such an increase.

Jan Bialous, a 62-year-old industrial sales and marketing representative, stressed his connections to local political, economic and cultural leaders in making his case that he would be the best candidate to help the city work with such leaders. Recent city leadership has been effective, Bialous argued, and he would fit right in with that leadership.

“I can say that as a fact,” Bialous said of the working relationship between city government, county government and leading local organizations that make up several of the city’s leading employers, “as I have personally sat down with the president of Allegheny, the COO of Meadville hospital and also the superintendent of Crawford Central. These people all believe that the city works well with them.

“This is an important thing that the residents and the voters of Meadville need to know,” Bialous added. "The city does an extraordinary job of working with them.”

Jack Harkless, a 27-year-old program specialist for an Erie nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges, offered common-sense responses to demonstrate his passion for public service.

“My network of people isn’t quite as impressive as Jan’s,” Harkless joked in addressing the same question of how to improve public involvement in making key city decisions. “The people I know are just mostly average people.”

Harkless, a member of the stewardship team of the My Meadville program, cited his experience there as a model for how to get people involved.

“Seeing us having this energy, harnessing energy from the community, everyday people wanting to put in their two cents and tell you what they thought,” Harkless recalled. “We are harnessing the energy at grass-roots levels. People want to participate. We just need to stop putting brick walls in their way.”

Larry McKnight, 62, a truck and bus driver, stressed his lifelong love of Meadville and his desire to return Meadville to the kind of nurturing environment he recalls from his youth by involving more low- to moderate-income residents in city governance.

“We believe that it’s City Council’s job to make city government easy and accessible to the residents,” McKnight said of himself and candidate Autumn Vogel. “If City Council is doing all that it can to promote and educate people, we’ll see a better community. I think it’s also very important that people are involved with the budgeting. They need to know — be made aware of — how their tax money is being spent.”

McKnight has run a joint campaign with Vogel, 26, a barista and former community development coordinator for the Redevelopment Authority. Vogel emphasized the importance of building on the momentum of My Meadville, the program she directed as program coordinator for several years as it developed a shared set of values for the city and crafted an action plan to implement those values. Like McKnight, Vogel repeatedly cited the city’s own 2013 Comprehensive Plan update when citing steps that have been recommended and that, she said, should be taken but that have not yet been launched by current city leadership.

The inclusion of diverse voices was central to the My Meadville project, Vogel said, and is “paramount” to the cooperative campaign she and McKnight are running.

The My Meadville action plan, Vogel said, “was developed by hundreds of residents together and through that process I saw firsthand how willing people were to roll up their sleeves, to spend their time and to get some work done for our town. The spirit of that project, of that entire process was to embed itself in the way we go about making decisions here in town.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.