Benker outwitted by Witt in Chamber debate

Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum and Debate / September 30, 2009
Ward 2 candidate portion featuring Karen Benker & Katie Witt
Below are some observations of the recent debate you won’t find anywhere else.  While there were video cameras present, so far no videos of this debate has surfaced anywhere.  I have a full audio recording of this event and have made comments based on that recording, but also the feel of the debate since I attended it, and the general consensus and comments of people in the room.  This Ward 2 race in particular is one of the most watched races not just in the city, but has also been the subject of stories in Boulder and Denver publications.
This race pits incumbent council member and Mayor Pro Tem Karen Benker against candidate Katie Witt.  Much can be found online at their websites about each candidate.  The Times-Call story about this was slim on the events of this debate, I assume due to space limitations. It was much more interesting than the impression that story left, to me anyway.  Some of the quotes are paraphrased but gets the gist of the intent.
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Opening Statements
Karen Benker: Her “Tell you about myself” segment went through her resume of a lifetime government bureaucrat.  Not much else.  Did not say why she was running or why she wanted to remain in office.
Katie Witt:  Introduced herself and said why she was running.  “Prosperity, Honesty, and Opportunity” was her theme.  Make tough budget decisions in a timely manner, based on what’s best for Longmont and not political expediency.  Need a council that doesn’t bully neighbors with lawsuits.  And doesn’t hold endless secret meetings or ignoring open records act.  Get mall going again.
ADVANTAGE:  Katie Witt, for the reasons stated above.
Question: How do envision the relationship between City Council and local businesses and state one area that needs improvement.
Karen Benker:  First part was so quiet as to be unintelligible.  Once again read a laundry list of what council and staff has done.  I can only assume her point was that “here’s what we’ve done, and plan on continuing to do the same.” 
Katie Witt:  Council needs to stop being obstructionists.  Agreed with Councilmember Benker that mall is important, but so is the budget.  Thought it was a “gigantic fail” not moving forward with the first phase of development of the mall.  Said there was micromanaging going on and council wanted to dictate too much, which is not their job.  Should have listened more to our own Planning and Zoning Commission.  Need to rebuild trust with the community.
ADVANTAGEKatie Witt
Question:  On the topic of economic vitality, there are several organizations in the city, such as the LAEC, the LDDA, Small Business Development Center and many more that are designed to promote economic vitality.  What is your plan to encourage the city and these organizations to work toward a common goal for economic vitality in Longmont?
Katie Witt:  The job of city council is to encourage all of these organizations to work in the same direction.  We’ve seen in the past turf wars into who’s doing what.  We need to bring businesses to Longmont, and keep them here.  Each of those organizations has a role.  Forming Economic Development Department was important.  She struggled on this one, a little too vague.
Karen Benker:  Mentioned Shop Local Longmont as a way the city has worked with different organizations.  Discussed her role on the LDDA in this area.  Mentioned LAVA.
Rebuttal – Katie Witt:  People want to shop local but there aren’t a whole lot of options.  Mentioned the Mall again in this context.  Sams Club.  High end shopping opportunities.  “Mall is canary in a coalmine” as an indicator of the success of the city.  Until the mall is fixed it will discourage businesses from coming to Longmont.
Rebuttal – Karen Benker:  Agreed the mall is the most important issue facing the city.  She asked people to put aside what they currently see at the mall as the city has a much larger vision for it.  (If I were the council member of the ward the mall resides in, I’d beg voters to overlook the current condition of the mall, too)  Mentioned FasTracks station at the mall.
ADVANTAGE:  Katie Witt finished stronger after a sluggish start, but slight edge to Karen Benker.
QUESTION:  What is your specific solution to solve Longmont’s budget shortfall?
Karen Benker:  Whispers at beginning, unintelligible.  Cut 46 city positions.  Unintelligible about employee cuts and furloughs.  Increased fees, consolidated 8 departments down to 6.  Cut capital expenditures and one time expenditures to balance the budget.  Council is struggling to be fair to residents while at the same time providing city services.
Katie Witt:  Drop the lawsuit with Firestone.  City had an option but used litigation instead of intergovernmental agreements.  Spent $139k in court costs (actually much higher) plus $300k in Firestone’s court costs that we are on the hook for.  Said “grown ups” don’t go litigation route but instead work out our differences through communication.  Council keeps putting off the decisions necessary to work out the budget.  Some things need to be put on hiatus.  Need to be as transparent about how we spend our money.  City’s checkbook should be online.
Rebuttal – Karen Benker:  Tried to put into perspective the lawsuit amount to the overall budget.  Got testy about getting out the red pen saying “we’ve already done that”.  Used the scare tactic of closing down the library and senior center, disagreed that those weren’t essential services (but Katie Witt didn’t mention the library or senior center as places to cut).
Rebuttal – Katie Witt:  Doesn’t want city council to play “political hopscotch” with special interests and make decisions based on who they like and who they don’t like (Thistle, Panattoni).  City council needs to make decisions based on the most efficient use of our resources, which hasn’t been done.  Used recent example of indecision on council over fees.  Fee’s impact people. 
ADVANTAGEKatie Witt.  She got Karen Benker on the defensive and testy about the Firestone lawsuit and budget cutting.
QUESTION:  The current city council once stated that this is a council that gets things done, do you agree with this statement?
Katie Witt:  Does not agree with this statement.  It doesn’t take an expert in any sort of field to recognize our mall is stalled, and our downtown area has a lot of room for improvement.  Hallmarks of this council has been divisiveness, not decisiveness.  Micromanaging.  Studies, which are great if you’re willing to act on those studies, but council is wasting money on researching questions and not acting.  “Paralysis of analysis”.  Need fresh perspective, different face across the table.  Transparency.  Wants Longmont to live up to its potential.  Currently spinning its wheels.  Attitude in the city comes from the top down and people take their cues from what’s going on on city council.
Karen Benker:  “We brought GE and almost 200 jobs to Longmont”.  Supplier to Vestas, Western Digital, single stream recycling, balanced the budget, affordable senior housing, purchased open space, ended Clover Basin tax, Main St initiatives, revitalize Longmont Theater, summer concert series.  Increased downtown parking.
Rebuttal – Katie Witt:  “I would really like to know what the city council did to woo GE here” (audible clap from crowd).  To Karen Benker she asked what her part was.
Rebuttal – Karen Benker:  Hard to hear initial answer, something about $180k/year, but she restated she’s a member of LAEC (called it the Longmont Area Economic Development Council).  Said that city staff and resources support LAEC (funds were actually cut by this council), again said she was a board member of LAEC.
ADVANTAGE:  Katie Witt.  Karen Benker once again read a laundry list of things the city has done, not what she has done.  Caught flat footed on the GE question and struggled.  Katie Witt went after the procrastination of this council.  Had there been a second rebuttal, Karen Benker left a wide opening with her LAEC comments.
AUDIENCE QUESTION:  Ward 2 resident asked why Karen Benker keeps saying she ended the Clover Basin Fire District fee as nothing has been signed (technically true).  Karen Benker:  Council voted 7-0 to end this tax (false statement, they voted 7-0 for staff to draft a resolution), said “last night voted on minor details” (not minor, Clover Basin residents have to cover the $4k to $10k fee to dissolve the district).  Reiterated the tax will end January 1st.  (Not on agenda for Oct 6th meeting, this question/answer couldn’t have gone much worse for Karen Benker)
AUDIENCE QUESTION:  How much will shutting down this district contribute to the budget gap – directed at Karen Benker.
Karen Benker:  talked about the millions of dollars those residents have paid, gave history of tax.  City will be picking up small amount to extinguish the debt they owe the city.  (Did NOT answer question, around $275,000)
AUDIENCE QUESTION:  Question about the boundaries of Ward 2.
AUDIENCE QUESTION:  There was an attack push poll ad poll conducted “in your name” (Katie Witt).  It’s not how we need to do politics in this town.  Asked if Katie Witt was going to report that on her campaign report.  (This speaker was later seen leaving the event with Ms. Benker, and obvious plant)
Katie Witt – She said in contentious races things get out of candidates control.  She apologized but did not know who did it, has no way of getting in touch with those individuals, or she would tell them to stop.  She asked whoever was doing it to not do it.  Mentioned another phone call that went out that she didn’t know about or approve of.  Said there are a lot of people concerned with what’s going on with city council right now and they’re trying to make people aware.  Unfortunately they are using tactics she would not personally use or approve of.
ADVANTAGE:  Katie Witt.  Karen Benker falsely answered one of the questions, and didn’t answer the other one at all.  Katie Witt answered a leading accusatory statement and question pretty thoroughly.
OVERALL DEBATE WINNERKatie Witt 5-1 on opening statement and answers. 
Karen Benker was stiff, rarely smiled, often spoke too softly to be heard or understood.  She was put on the defensive on the second question and her demeanor from that point on was one of irritation.  She mostly went down her list of “accomplishments” from her brochure and website, didn’t really talk to the audience, but mostly read to them.
Katie Witt had a strong opening statement, stood up to do it, read off some cards, but not overly so.  She stumbled during the second question on business development and was too general and vague, not a good thing in front of business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce function. 
After this point, Ms. Benker could have capitalized and cruised through the rest of the debate as she had Ms. Witt on the ropes.  The next question should have been an easy one for Ms. Benker involving the budget shortfall and how to handle it.  But she went into a shell, spoke too timidly, and starting going down a list of items in a fairly dull manner.  Ms. Witt immediately went on the attack and it pretty much set the tone for the remainder of the debate.
One of the rare quotes used in the rather lackluster Times-Call coverage of this debate was Ms. Benker saying the council had already got out the red pen to cut the budget.  What wasn’t mentioned was the context of that comment, what brought it on, and how Ms. Benker was put on the defensive starting with that question and from that point on.  Ms. Benker really never answered the question of what her solution to the budget problem was, just what council has done up to this point.  Not much future vision.
Ms. Witt was blunt in some of her answers about council not getting much done, and Ms. Benker response was another laundry list read off, not very inspiring, and got caught with her mentioning GE again and later on about taking credit for ending the Clover Basin tax.  Those were two major glaring errors for Ms. Benker.  The audience questions were 2-1 hostile towards Ms. Benker, and the hostile question to Ms. Witt was something she claimed she had nothing to do with.
I had heard about how supposedly smooth and experienced Ms. Benker is/was.  I saw her at the Longmont Area Democrat forum as well and did not see any kind of smoothness or better than average public speaking ability – and that was in front of a friendly crowd.  This Chamber crowd has some built in hostility towards the often anti-business, and nearly always anti-LAEC attitude of Ms. Benker (along with her fellow council members McCoy, Levison, and Hansen).  I still thought she would at least stay even or ahead of Ms. Witt in this debate.
After Ms. Witt stumbled on the second question I figured it was going to be a long 30-40 minutes for her and a major blow to her campaigns chances of unseating Ms. Benker.  But she turned it around and was much more poised and a better public speaker than Ms. Benker.  Ms. Benker was often morose and appeared moody, Ms. Witt by comparison was fired up and throwing everything just short of the kitchen sink at Ms. Benker.  While Ms. Witt did roll her eyes a couple of times, her attitude was not nasty.
Basically, Ms. Benker came across as a cold, detached, emotionless bureaucrat and politician.  Ms. Witt came across as the every-woman concerned citizen with the luxury of having Ms. Benkers record to take one shot after another at – and often scoring direct hits. 
This debate was really the only debate these candidates will have.  The Times-Call Candidate Forum will not be a debate, and should be much less stressful.  This Chamber debate had a very large crowd, bright lights, video cameras, and many of the movers, shakers, and decision makers in the community.  This venue was larger and more of a pressure cooker than I expected.

While Ms. Witt greatly helped her chances, I can’t imagine even the most die-hard Benker supporter being thrilled with their candidates overall performance at this event.

(Picture source: Times-Call)

About Chris Rodriguez

Chris is the editor/publisher of LightningRod Blog - as well as founder/editor of Wrongmont, Longmont Advocate, Vote!Longmont, Longmont Politics, the LightningRod Radio Network, as well as being the original Longmont Examiner. Chris is a writer and talker - whether it be blogs, podcasts, music, or public speaking. When he's not heard on Air Traffic radio, he can be heard on his podcasts or seen in the local paper causing trouble.
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