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Mar. 21—NEOSHO, Mo. — An expansion in the number of seats and a larger number of candidates make April's election for the Neosho City Council more prominent than usual.
The list of candidates includes former members and newcomers alike, each with an interest in the Neosho community:
—Three people have filed to run for one at-large seat. The candidates are former Mayor Charles Collinsworth, Kathi Hukill Pellegrin and Mitch Jarvis. The winning candidate will hold a three-year term.
—In Ward 2, Clyde B. Hopper and former Mayor Richard Davidson will run for a two-year seat.
—In Ward 3, former council member Jon Stephens and Julia James Humphrey will run for a two-year seat.
—Ashton Robinson will run unopposed in Ward 1 for a three-year seat.
Collinsworth, 48, is a former mayor and member of the council, with six years of experience on the panel, one as mayor. He did not run in 2017, he said, so that he could care for his dying father and widowed mother as well as help raise newly adopted children. He is currently employed with Marco Group, and has also been a bus driver for the Neosho School District and an admissions coordinator for Wichita Technical Institute.
Collinsworth said his previous experience on the council gives him an edge.
"I know council people pretty well, so I would not be walking into this blind," Collinsworth said. "I have a good pulse for the town, its history and its citizens, and I could bring experience and insight that a new council could benefit from."
Pellegrin, 66, is a Neosho graduate who has recently moved back to the area, after spending about 40 years living in Houston, Texas. She spent those 40 years working as a legal assistant for several law firms.
Pellegrin said her long experience of working with lawyers makes her the best choice.
"I've been working at law firms for the last 40 years on litigation teams, preparing for trials, and it's important to be real diplomatic in the way things are presented," Pellegrin said. "That background in diplomacy is what the city needs at present."
Jarvis, 52, has been a pastor with the United Methodist Church for the last 17 years and was appointed as the pastor to Neosho United Methodist Church five years ago. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force from 1988 to 1992, he is also a former air traffic controller and is the board president of Neosho Habitat for Humanity.
Jarvis said his experience as a pastor best prepares him to serve on the council.
"I have to lead a diverse congregation that's all over the board on issues, and I lead those folks in a way we all can get along and drive toward the same goals," Jarvis said. "I'm used to working across the aisle in many different ways, and I'm an empathetic listener."
Hopper, 77, is a real estate agent with 35 years of experience, including 11 years as president of the Newton McDonald County Association of Realtors. He has also been a teacher and coach at Carl Junction and Winona high schools.
He said his dedication to finishing tough jobs makes him a strong candidate for Ward 2.
"The main thing I like to do is renovate homes, turning something that didn't look very good into something you can live in and be proud of," Hopper said. "Working on housing issues has helped me meet a lot of people and learn a lot of issues."
Davidson, 50, is also a former mayor and council member, serving for nine years, six as mayor. He is also a former member of the Neosho Board of Education. He is a co-founder and president of Marco Group, a Neosho manufacturing business that builds furniture components for educational and retail groups.
Davidson pointed to his experience of running a business and serving on the council as his strength.
"This is an important time to have experience on the council," Davidson said. "With what's changing in D.C., Jefferson City and the country, it's important to have leaders who stand up and oppose restrictions on freedom."
Stephens, 43, is attempting to win his second term. He lost in 2020 to current council member Tyler DeWitt. Stephens is the office manager for Signature Granite in Neosho and a real estate agent with Realty Executives Tri-States.
Stephens said his sense of common sense is the best option for Ward 3.
"When presented with a challenge, and you often are in the realm of politics, you always have to be someone who is level-headed," Stephens said. "Having the experience that I have in my career and other things, I have that. Someone with good common sense can propel the right thing to come about."
Humphrey, 48, has worked for the University of Missouri's Educare Project REACH since 2004, and also has worked for the United Way of Southwest Missouri and CASA of Northwest Arkansas. She was also an adjunct instructor for 12 years at Crowder College, helping the college develop its early childhood degree program.
Humphrey said her experience with nonprofits is the biggest asset for Ward 3.
"I have a history of working in nonprofit organizations," Humphrey said. "I know how you have to work with lots of people in different backgrounds for a common goal."
In order to boost the economic health of its downtown area, the city has taken a different tack: investment in parks.
A new set of bike trails and increased trout fishing at the nearby Morse Park are hoped to draw more tourists to the area, thus boosting city sales tax revenues. The Globe asked candidates if that was a plan that should be kept at current levels, beefed up or scaled back.
Collinsworth cited his previous support of improving parks during his earlier terms, but he called for restraint in the future, as well as attention to other parks properties.
"I feel like parks are a big draw, and I'm also a big proponent of Scenic Park getting more equipment," Collinsworth said. "With regards to downtown, we still need to make sure first things first. We need to upgrade the water pipes downtown."
Pellegrin agrees with the current direction and wants to see it continue.
"I've seen a great deal of cleanup in the parks," Pellegrin said. "I see it as a good draw for tourism. ... Downtown around the square has died away, with a lot of empty buildings. I'd like to see Neosho attract more business as a venue for tourism."
Jarvis called for even more investment in parks, including the city's disc golf course or a trail connecting the city to Crowder College.
"Our neighbors to the south have benefited greatly from the emphasis on bikes and trails," Jarvis said. "I'm out there three times a week, and never once have I been the only person out there. They are absolutely bringing people to the city."
Hopper said the parks development has been noticed in his field of real estate and thinks it should continue.
"I think it's an excellent plan," Hopper said. "(Parks Director Clint Dalbom) has the right idea, and I'm pleased with what he's doing to keep things clean down there. We should complete what we started."
Davidson likes the city's current path and will work to see it continue.
"The parks are one of our true assets, and we're blessed to have several," Davidson said. "We have seen a resurgence in bike trails in Northwest Arkansas, and they can have people come into our community to see what we have to offer."
Humphrey said the work on Morse Park has led to more usage, and that is a good thing. She will also push for playground equipment accessible to children with special needs.
"The bike trails have created more options, and that's important for people who don't live here looking for a daylong experience," Humphrey said. "I like to see things like that continue."
City's biggest challenge
Each candidate was asked what they felt the biggest challenge was for their ward, or for the entire city in the case of at-large candidates, and what their plan was to address it.
Collinsworth said the city's biggest challenge is a more resident-friendly process for addressing issues with the council, and he proposes to see agendas posted even earlier than the two business days before a meeting. Agendas for meetings are usually posted on the Friday before the next Tuesday's regular meeting.
"It's not a citizen-friendly process right now," Collinsworth said. "I still have respect and trust in City Hall, but this last year, with things being done under emergency measure, it doesn't sound like a City Council that wants to hear from citizens."
Pellegrin said repairing and maintaining the city's infrastructure is her top priority. The city is in the midst of addressing water loss from city pipes; Pellegrin wants to assist that process.
"Working to improve infrastructure is important," she said. "I met with the city manager, and one of the issues is water loss. I want to work with them on moving forward to fix this."
Jarvis said improving some services, such as internet coverage, is his top priority. He said he is prepared to deal with a learning curve, but he emphasized the city should follow through with its plans, whatever they are.
"In the past, the city has had studies done but hasn't acted upon them," Jarvis said. "Water loss is one we can't afford to not take action on. That's an investment for the future."
Hopper said deteriorating housing is his chief concern in Ward 2. While he does not yet have a specific plan, he mentioned possibilities of how the city can work with private groups for assistance.
"In a lot of neighborhoods, the homeowners can't afford to repair their houses," Hopper said. "Any cooperation between the city and private groups is a way to improve some of those situations."
Davidson, like Collinsworth, said open dialogue is the most important thing for his ward and the city. He proposed bringing back regular town hall sessions similar to when he was mayor.
"Anyone with a question can express their concerns and let us know what's happening in their part of town," Davidson said. "We need to make it easier, not harder, to voice concerns and raise questions to elected officials."
Stephens' previous experience as an at-large member of the council made it difficult for him to separate ward problems and city problems, and did not settle on one key issue as most important. He said he would focus on the water loss problem the council has been facing, as well as drainage and street conditions.
"Water loss is a big challenge, and drainage because of the flooding of our streets, so I'll keep those in the forefront," Stephens said. "I'll also make sure the airport area is holding its own."
Humphrey said Ward 3's two separate areas, with two distinctly different compositions, make it hard to focus on a single issue.
"Ward 3 has more needs than maybe other wards, and they are two different neighborhoods," Humphrey said. "In the (more northern section), there are a lot of abandoned homes that have been allowed to deteriorate. ... In (the southern section), there are newer homes but not any city parks, and they are further from a lot of city resources."
Motivation to run
This is an interesting time in Neosho's history, with the council set to expand by two members. Each candidate was asked what the biggest factor was for motivating them to run at this time.
Now that family situations are more stable, Collinsworth said, he wanted to rejoin the council because he feels this is an important time for the city.
"I've always been interested in serving, whether its for my church or a ball team," Collinsworth said. "That feeling doesn't go away. I view this as an important time. With the pandemic and change on boards, there are some disappointing things in the last year. We need a change."
Pellegrin said she is now in a position to give back to the community that raised her.
"I grew up in Neosho," Pellegrin said. "It has always been my intention to retire here and give back to the community,"
Jarvis said his love of the city and interest in raising his family in Neosho led him to run for the council.
"I have roots here," he said. "I'm a Southwest Missouri kid. My wife and I, it's our intention to retire here and make it a forever home. I want to invest in the city's future."
Hopper cites his community activity as his highest motivating factor.
"I've always been active in the community," Hopper said. "If you don't get involved, then when things happen, you don't have a reason to say things could have been different."
His dissatisfaction with city actions in the pandemic led him to run.
"I think the controversy we have seen over COVID, and the criticism over the council related to it are most compelling for me," Stephens said. "We should work to have council open and be transparent when talking to voters."
Stephens cited the city's handling of the pandemic as why he wanted to run again.
"I felt the current City Council was infringing on a lot of rights," Stephens said. "This goes back to common sense. The facts weren't matching up with the hypotheticals, and I just didn't feel what they did was the right move."
Humphrey said the council's realignment into wards brings better focused representation that she wants to help address.
"We can now have voices from all sections of town," Humphrey said. "I think the council needs to have new voices, new people coming in to take a look at things and help the city continue on the upward trajectory we've had over the last couple of years. A lot of things work very well in Neosho."