Fourth Ward Councilman Joe Holtmeier and challenger Michael “Mike” Johns acknowledge there are stark policy differences between them, but both say they love Washington.
“Washington is a great place to live,” said Holtmeier, 60, who grew up in the town and has served on the city council for 10 years. “There is not a perfect place in the world, but I think Washington is pretty damn close.”
The city’s Fourth Ward encompasses much of downtown Washington and the city’s industrial parks, stretching westward from Jefferson Street.
“The whole city is right here (in the Fourth Ward),” said Johns, 57, who grew up in Indiana and moved to Washington at 27 and now owns Moe’s Pizza. “We’ve got new housing, we’ve got the small businesses, numerous bars, restaurants. It is exciting to watch.”
The municipal election is scheduled for April 6. The deadline for to register to vote is March 10 and absentee voting is already underway in Franklin County. The deadline to vote by absentee is April 5.
Holtmeier said he supports more housing developments in the ward like the Shoe Factory Lofts, an “asset” he’s excited to see completed. “We have to have housing that young people can afford, get on their feet and start their lives.”
Holtmeier said he decided to seek another term because he wants to help guide the city’s COVID-19 recovery efforts. Holtmeier voted for the mask ordinance Nov. 23.
Johns said he decided to enter the race the night the council approved the now lifted ordinance and would have voted against it.
“Washington has changed (since I moved here) — it seems to be getting more about more government and less about the people,” Johns said. “I believe (the city council) has slowly taken away our personal freedoms.”
Johns said his decision to run is not about masks. “I have no problem with masks,” he said, “but I don’t need a city government telling me that they’re smarter than me and they need to tell me what to do.”
Holtmeier said he stands by his decision to vote for the mask ordinance because he feels it helped curb the spread of the virus. He said he received more than 360 emails and about 50 phone calls from residents — not all Fourth Ward — regarding his vote, which he feels shows that residents know he listens.
“I try to solve the problem or learn why the problem can’t be solved ... before I call them back so that I can have an answer,” he said. “Most people are happy I personally follow up.”
Holtmeier and Johns agreed the ordinance pulled attention away from other key issues. Holtmeier’s key issues are modernizing the city’s code book, resurfacing streets, addressing derelict properties and allowing for smaller minimal lot standards, which he said have benefited and will continue to benefit the city.
“I really think when we downsized our code, that made the developers have more of an appetite to ... start new housing projects,” Holtmeier said. “COVID-19 took that out of the picture, temporarily, but Washington is really thriving.”
Johns’ key issues are infrastructure, “returning to responsible spending,” adding a playground near the Phoenix Center and fast-tracking public safety issues such as a new fire station on the city’s east side.
“I truly believe there was an overemphasis on the pandemic, and we, small businesses, suffered,” Johns said.
Another area where the candidates disagree is downtown, where last year more than $11 million in private commercial and residential investment was made and more than a dozen new businesses opened, with more planned openings in 2021.
Johns said he would “think critically” about what role the council should take in promoting investment in downtown Washington.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to do that without jeopardizing the rest of the community, because when we start to just focus on one area of this town, then I think we’re going to miss out. I’m all for downtown, it growing and prospering, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t alienate the rest of Washington,” Johns said.
Holtmeier said, “I really like what’s going on in downtown. Downtown seems to have really young energy and be very forward thinking, and I think that is a great thing for our community.”
He said the city needs to continue to support business recruitment efforts led by the city’s economic development office, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Washington Inc.
If elected, Johns said he would never vote to “take any freedoms” from the citizens and that he would promote a citywide focus.
“I am madly in love with my God. I love my family dearly. I love the city. I love that it is the kind of place that has good people who work hard, that it is the kind of place where small businesses can thrive when left alone,” Johns said. “Those are my convictions, and may I ask, do those other candidates have convictions? If they understand what the word conviction means, and critical thinking, then I wonder why we haven’t had a serious debate at the city council meetings.”
Holtmeier declined to speak against Johns. “I’d like voters to choose me because of my experience on city council and because they know I use common sense when making decisions. I’m just running to see our community better itself.”