They say three’s a crowd, and when it comes to politics in Gambier, that may well be the case.
The general election on Tuesday will mark the Village’s first contested mayor’s race since 2003, when current Gambier Mayor Kirk Emmert defeated Dan Ralston ’71 and John Ryerson ’72. Races are often uncontested; in the last two elections, Emmert ran unopposed, winning with 162 votes in 2007 and 309 votes in 2011.
But Emmert’s decision not to seek reelection, the way he announced a council member’s decision to run, and a recent outside evaluation of the Village prompted by negative staff relationships, account for a crowded field.
The candidates — all current council members — are Liz Forman ’73, a retired College administrator, Betsy Heer, owner of the Gambier House Bed and Breakfast and Kachen Kimmell, chair of the Village’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
In the spring, Emmert announced he would not seek reelection and would instead run for a position on Council. He also said Kimmell intended to run for mayor.
One council member described the announcement as “a tactical mistake” on Emmert’s part, in that “it made it sound like she was his designated successor.”
Kimmell said it was “unfortunate” if people perceived the announcement as an appointment, “but now we have a race, so it turned out fine.”
Emmert said he encouraged Kimmell to run and didn’t know at the time anyone else was interested. He also said he declined to endorse anyone in the race.
After the Council learned that Kimmell was running, Heer and Forman announced their candidacies. Kimmell said Heer expressed the belief that the election should not go uncontested. Heer declined to comment on the perception of Emmert’s announcement and said a variety of factors influenced her decision to run, including issues presented in a recent consultant’s report.
In June, the Village hired Circuit Rider Management Group, a Granville-based consultant, to investigate dissension among staff members.
According to the report, presented to the council in July, Emmert spoke with three Village maintenance workers last fall and “was surprised to learn that the crew was significantly demoralized and critical of their superiors,” which include Village Administrator Suzanne Hopkins. Emmert was under the impression Hopkins did not follow up with the crew, and when a new wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operator was hired, the crew’s criticism of Village administration increased.
“Increasingly the VA was concerned that the Mayor was contributing to staff problems by encouraging the crew and the WWTP operator to talk to him,” the report states.
Hopkins did not respond to multiple email requests seeking an interview.
While the report doesn’t mention sex discrimination, some council members believe conflict emerged between Village administrators and maintenance workers due to gender differences.
“I was pretty sure that the consultant would find that the men had problems with women in positions of authority, and he pretty much did,” Councilmember Tom Stamp ’73 said.
Emmert denied this view, saying, “I don’t think it was a bunch of guys complaining about women.” Rather, he said, the report exposed a lack of process in how the Village handles complaints among staff, and provides recommendations for “bringing Village government into the 21st century.”
Emmert said it became clear that his self-assumed role as a mediator was not working out, and that an outside evaluation would be the best option to examine and address grievance procedures.
One council member quoted in the report said, “The mayor should not act as the Village Administrator and should allow the VA and staff to do their jobs,” and described the interaction between administration and maintenance as “miserable” and one that does “a disservice to the residents of Gambier.”
Heer said the issues in the report were one factor in her decision to run for mayor.
“I guess I was concerned about how personnel was managed, and that was one of my thoughts… ‘Could I do a better job?’” she said.
Forman, who heads the Police and Personnel Committee, said the personnel issues probably could have been avoided. She said the committee is now looking to address the consultant report’s recommendations, which include adopting personnel reviews, job descriptions and grievance procedures.
“Without this report, I do not think villagers would have any sense that there were questions about staff morale,” Forman said. “In my opinion, that shows you how strong a staff it is that the job is important to all of them, even if in the structure of working there may have been dissatisfaction.”