OLEAN — Ward 4 will have one of the largest fields in a city alderman race in years as four candidates vie for a two-year seat on the Common Council.
Paul Sungenis of North Fifth Street will appear on the Democratic, Working Families and Libertarian lines, incumbent Kevin Dougherty of West Sullivan Street will appear on the Republican, Conservative, Independence lines, James Gulnac of West Sullivan Street will appear on the 4 Change independent line, and Evelyn Cruz of Tompkins Street will appear on The Alternative independent line for the two-year term representing Ward 4 on the Olean Common Council.
Ward 4 covers the southern blocks of the city’s downtown business district, as well as the Oak Hill neighborhood and part of South Olean. The ward had 927 active voters as of Feb. 1, according to the state Board of Elections.
Sungenis, a broadcaster, cartoonist and writer, is making his second attempt for the seat. In 2017, he challenged Dougherty for the Democratic nomination. Dougherty won the primary, 40-26, and went unchallenged in the general.
“Part of the problem the city has had over the years is getting into a rut,” Sungenis said, noting that his experience living elsewhere after graduating from St. Bonaventure University is important in giving a fresh set of eyes on the city’s problems.
He said infrastructure — particularly water and sewer — would be his priority if elected.
“For far too long, the council has been ignoring major problems with our water,” he said, noting concerns over water main breaks, low pressure and discharges of sewage into the Allegheny River. “We’re going to continue to have problems … until we have a comprehensive plan in place to replace it all.”
While the cost to replace the city’s underground infrastructure could possibly run into the hundreds of millions over the course of decades, he said that “when it comes to infrastructure, can we afford not to?”
He also said more needs to be done to help small businesses.
“All you have to do is walk down North Union Street,” he said, “you turn to the right and you see the empty buildings.”
He proposes a tax rebate to encourage downtown redevelopment, as well as for existing businesses to hire more employees.
Dougherty, a contractor and landlord, was first elected in 2015.
“I’m running for reelection to continue the path we are on — to keep Olean on the straight and narrow,” he said.
Dougherty said his work on the rental inspection law was a good start tackling blight.
“I’ve noticed a lot of landlords have decided to grin and bear it — they’re buying smoke detectors, they’re buying CO detectors, they’re doing the work,” he said. “A lot of it is about safety.”
He compared the need for stringent regulations on rental properties to food safety in restaurants.
“You need to know what you’re buying,” he said, adding he also hopes to continue working with the Cattaraugus County Land Bank to demolish and restore more structures.
At budget time, “my priorities … are making sure the city can afford its groceries… and keep the ancillary stuff.”
While needs of public safety and public works come first, there are many other services residents rely on, and he would like to keep items like the city’s tree program if funding allows.
He also said it is time to overhaul the city’s plumbing code, which currently only allows three plumbers to operate openly in the city.
“There’s a lot of plumbers who work in the shadows, and they’re qualified,” he said, adding city code currently prevents a landlord from changing a shower head.”
Gulnac, a retired government official with more than 40 years of experience, has worked in urban planning and development from Maine to New Jersey, as well as several positions in the Rochester and Syracuse areas. He moved to Olean after retirement to be closer to his family.
“A few residents in the ward, knowing of my experience, asked me to run,” he said, adding his goal is “to restore some responsibility and ethical leadership.”
Having a working knowledge of local government should make the learning curve of the seat easier, he said, and his experience with development, brownfields, grant writing and even youth boards would be valuable.
For issues brought up by potential constituents, “the thing that has come up the most is that we need to bring in more jobs,” he said, noting that while the council has limited authority to directly create jobs, it is vital to make the community more attractive to high school and college students in order to get them to stay and work or start businesses.
One way to improve that quality of life is to continue going after blighted properties.
“Holding people responsible for their property,” is vital, he said, adding that that more work needs to be done on the streets in the ward and at Oak Hill Park.
Cruz, a former Spanish language instructor at New Life Christian School, moved to the ward almost four years ago from New York City.
“I’ve been visiting Olean for more than 10 years — I fell in love with Olean,” she said. “I love the mountains, I love the views, I love the tranquility.”
She recently received an associate degree in human services from Jamestown Community College, and in New York was a lab tech and worked in theatre.
“I can see there’s so much potential in Olean,” she said. “So much that can be done to make Olean a destination.
“I just want to make it so people are proud to be from Olean — I just want to be part of it.”
She said that as far as issues in the ward go she would like to continue efforts to fight blight and improve housing stock, as well as work on solutions for the many dilpapitated sidewalks.
Her biggest goal, she added, was to “hopefully get the people of Ward 4 to help out, to help fix our ward.”
(Contact City Editor Bob Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)