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Mayor's Race in Watertown pits long-time incumbent against City Council challenger

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The mayor's race in Watertown pits long-time incumbent Jeff Graham against a challenger with similar longevity on the City Council, Jeff Smith. Graham has said the city's doing well and he has the experience, knowledge and contacts to continue to keep Watertown on a good track. Smith says his candidacy represents new leadership and a new vision for the city. Both candidates for mayor have years of experience on City Council, and both are small business owners who say they're committed to fiscal discipline. Joanna Richards reports.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

Mayor Jeff Graham owns the bar Fort Pearl on the north side of the city. He also hosts a midday political radio show called “Hotline” on WATN, which he suspended during his reelection campaign. Jeff Smith works as a physician's assistant and he and his wife own the urgent care clinic Quick Med.

In Watertown, the city manager runs the city, while the mayor serves on City Council, acts as city representative and performs other ceremonial duties.

The two men have been rivals on City Council for years. Jeff Smith is working hard to convince voters his candidacy for mayor represents a new vision for the city:

“And what I would do is have concrete ideas for the city of what we can be and do to be a much better community. I want to be a community that outsiders and people inside our, look at our leadership and say, ‘Hey, this is a progressive city. This is a city that we can be proud of,’ for people who live here, and for people looking in, saying, ‘Boy, that city's moving forward and they've got good leadership,’ so it's a whole different, ah, idea and vision. But it's not ‘vision’ just as a punchword; it's vision with, like I said, concrete ideas.”

But Graham says his opponent doesn't represent anything truly new:

“Well I hate to break it to the voters of Watertown, but Mr. Smith and I have both been on the City Council together for over a decade – there's nothing new about either one of us. It's a question of which one has the leadership skills, the ability to reach consensus and compromise, and you know which one has the best connections and work ethic for the job. And I think I've demonstrated that over the years. I mean frankly, temperament I think is an issue, too, and I don't think you want a mayor who's, you know, petulant or vindictive or anything like that.”

While Graham suggests he is better suited temperamentally for the job, Smith argues that Graham's well-known blog, “Mayor Graham's View,” shows another side of the mayor.

“My concern, my issue,” Smith says, “is if you're going to do that, do it accurately and don't put a spin on it that's negative for somebody else or misinformation.”

Graham maintains his blogging is a means of communicating with constituents and keeping government as transparent as possible.

One issue on which Jeff Smith and Jeff Graham are clearly at odds is whether the city should explore green energy projects. Smith is interested in doing so – he has solar panels on his house and cites a recent study suggesting geothermal power might be a good new heating and cooling option for City Hall and the library.

“I look at renewable energy as a way to save and make money for the city,” Smith says.

Jeff Graham is skeptical.

“A lot of these things don't make necessarily a lot of sense, economically, at this time,” Graham says. “And I don't think that we should be out experimenting on these more exotic forms of energy production.”

To address crime, Smith has offered a new idea of rehiring retired police officers as part-timers. The city would benefit from increased police protection and the experience the officers would bring with them, but wouldn't have to pay expensive health benefits. That's an idea that would have to be negotiated with the police officers' union, something Jeff Graham thinks wouldn't pan out and could anger the union. But Smith says it's worth a try.

“I look at it as, let's sit down with the union and say, we're not looking to hurt you, we're not looking to take away any officers, full-time officers, we're looking to supplement the police department and make it better, and make it better for the community,” Smith says.

Smith has also placed emphasis on strengthening recreation in the city by focusing on infrastructure like pools and the ice arena and has floated the idea of transforming Thompson Park into a venue for outdoor concerts. Graham also supports improvements to the ice arena and fairgrounds.

An audit earlier this year showed the city Parks and Recreation Department was owed thousands of dollars in back fees for use of the fairgrounds. Asked whether the city could have done anything to prevent mismanagement, Graham says: not really. He says the day-to-day operations are up to the city manager. He says the city took action to clean up and reorganize the department as soon as it could. Jeff Smith says it was his proposal – separating out the Department of Parks and Recreation from the Department of Public Works – that was ultimately adopted by City Council to help provide better oversight.

“And now Parks and Recreation will report directly to the city manager,” Smith says, “so there will be much more accountability there.”

Jeff Graham has said this may be his last race for mayor of Watertown. If he is reelected, it will be his fifth term in office:

“But on the other hand, at 56 years of age, I've got a lot of energy, I've got a lot of knowledge that I think is useful, and I wanted to put that to work for the citizens of Watertown for another four years. And ah, while I don't expect to be a candidate in four years, ultimately those decisions will be made at that time.”

Election day is Nov. 8.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.

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