WATERVILLE — In their first chance to face one another publicly, the three candidates running to be elected Waterville mayor used a forum Monday night at Thomas College largely to focus on the city’s economic future.

Candidates Karen Heck, Andrew Roy and Dana Sennett met for the hourlong debate in Ayotte Auditorium, fielding questions about topics including city spending and taxes, the municipal airport, and the mayor’s powers.

However, economic development issues — attracting new businesses, jobs and energy use — largely dominated the discussion, which was attended by more than 100 people. Some candidates even said that Waterville was at a crucial point.

“We’re in a situation where we could go either way,” said Sennett, the incumbent mayor. “We could just kind of shrivel up and die as a community … or we can grab this opportunity and make it the wonderful city we all think it is.”

Co-sponsored by the Morning Sentinel, the debate was moderated by James Libby, an associate professor who teaches economics and political science and chairman of the college’s Department of Business Administration.

Heck, 59, an unenrolled candidate, is senior program officer for the Augusta-based Bingham Program, which provides grants for projects that support healthful living in Maine.

Roy, 37, a Republican, is owner of Andy’s DJ Service.

Sennett, 59, a Democrat, is an advertising account executive for the Morning Sentinel. Sennett became mayor in a special election held in June to fill the remaining term of Paul LePage, who resigned as the city’s mayor after being elected Maine governor.

Although the candidates generally agreed on some of issues, they differed sharply on what they see as the city’s top priorities and exactly what the mayor can do to make a difference.

Heck said her priorities are updating a comprehensive plan for the city with a “bold vision” while promoting more alternative energy programs and deciding the future of the airport. Sennett cited the importance of the city education system and facilities, road maintenance and keeping spending levels as low as possible. Roy said his priorities are talking to business owners about what they need, addressing a drug “epidemic,” and getting feedback from college students.

The candidates made several specific proposals.

Roy said he immediately would be establishing a steering committee that would reach out to existing businesses in the region “and seeing what we can do for them.”

“It’s not science to figure out that Waterville has become a service town more than a city,” Roy said, “and we really have to ask the outside towns what they need form us to prosper and grow.”

Heck said that as mayor she would bring “out-of-the-box thinking” to the job. She said the city needs its own Facebook page with a young person in charge of updating it and posting on Twitter.

“I think we should be out there promoting what we have,” she said.

She also proposed creation of “energy districts” within the city, using fuel such as methane or using multi-fuel boilers to provide cheaper energy.

Sennett said he would contact employers and find out what they need from the city and how they can add new jobs. He also proposed making Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport a regional airport, not just municipal; forming a new airport authority; and remaking the airport into a big asset. Management of the airport, which is without a fixed-base operator, has come under increased scrutiny recently following the theft of aircraft fuel.

On the airport, Heck said the city first should figure out its market, perhaps through a focus group, and then decide what it needs. Roy said he’d like to see the airport sold to a company, because he doesn’t think the city should be responsible for it.

The candidates also offered differing views of the role of mayor.

Although the city charter gives the mayor a limited role in mainly presiding over the City Council, Heck said her biggest job would be representing the city.

“I really want to be an ambassador for this town,” she said. “I’m lucky. I have a job that takes me all over the state, and I bring people to this area.”

Sennett said he’s noticed that when anything goes wrong in the city, people “immediately call the mayor.” He praised City Manager Mike Roy and other officials for handling those calls and fixing problems and touted his experience as a city councilor and current mayor as giving him insight into how municipal government works.

“It’s more than just presiding over the council,” he said. “It’s facilitating the whole department, the whole municipality.”

Roy said the mayor’s only job is “to manage the council.”

“There isn’t much power,” Roy said. “You go and meet and greet people, welcome new businesses when they come.”

They were also asked whether they would use the mayor’s power to veto council votes.

“I personally liked the way LePage used it,” Roy said. “I would use it frequently if the spending is always unsensible. … To spend money without knowing how we’re going to pay for it is kind of ridiculous.”

Sennett said LePage used to hint at a veto on nearly all council actions, and “it’s something that was usual for him, but I don’t think I would use it.”

“I think the threat of a veto is a way to get the council to rethink the vote,” Sennett said. “I would rather have somebody table a vote until they had a consensus rather than use the power of the veto.”

Heck she wouldn’t place much importance on threatening to veto or issuing vetoes.

“I don’t really think the threat of the veto is a good idea. It’s counterproductive to me,” Heck said. “I would much rather see the council working together toward common solutions.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]

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