By Lyra Bordelon
The four Ronceverte mayoral candidates gathered in the Clifford Community & Recreation Center on Monday, May 10, answering questions on how each would handle the various issues the city is facing, ranging from water shut offs and high bills, empty storefronts, and the Island Park. Mark Mengel, Eric Mercer, Barbara Morgan, and Deena Pack each provided their own perspective on how to move forward, with Pack and Morgan reflecting on their record in city government.
A prime focus of the night was the ongoing water improvement project, with near complete agreement from the candidates that the project had to be completed before anything could be changed about the water shutoffs or water bills. Due to the current issues with the Ronceverte water system as the city works to replace lines, the first question concerned the ongoing work. What can be done?
Morgan noted the lines were in the shape they were in because they were not previously taken care of – some of the pipe in the ground is over 100 years old and is 50 years past its replacement date. Acknowledging the frustrations of the city, Pack said the water system improvement project was one of the first votes on City Council. The city’s current water loss is huge, but not only will the project reduce this, it will add more than 50 shut off valves, giving city workers more specific control over where water is shut off in comparison to the one valve they have now.
Mercer applauded city workers and noted his family was affected by the water outages. In addition, he looked to support those without water by getting in touch with Wal-Mart and Pepsi to provide it. Mangle referenced the history of the project, agreeing with all three candidates.
“The city is addressing a problem that should have been touched 50 years ago,” said Mengel. “It’s something we have to live with until the project is done.”
How and if the mayor can lower water and sewer rates was also addressed, with Pack pointing out that the Public Service Commission holds a lot of power over rates in the city. Once the water loss is under control and the expenses for water goes down, the commission could grant residents relief from the high bills. Mercer pointed to an 88 year old woman he knew that was getting a $200 water bill while living on her own, and pushed for the mayor and City Council to make the rate changes. Mengel, echoing Pack, noted the city had to have all operating costs, which is the reason for the current bill, including the losses, repairs, and more. Morgan agreed, stating that if it had been worked on before, it would not be a problem for the current administration to fix.
Next, the questions asked each candidate how they would make marginalized communities feel at home in the city. Mercer stated he would like to reach out to them and welcome them on behalf of the city, explaining the response he got from the city is part of why he chose to stay. Mengel already considers Ronceverte to be a welcoming community with a feeling of family, open to all. Morgan noted she wants to represent all of Ronceverte and she wouldn’t do differently tomorrow as she would today. Pack highlighted the importance of representation, of kids being able to see people like them working in the city. She pointed to a local hotel, citing its role in desegregating the county, and would like to see more types of people get involved.
How to best use the Greenbrier River and Island Park was considered next, each candidate asked how they plan to use the river access to the city’s advantage. Mengel began, stating that they could promote the park and the riverfront, “it’s one of the best parks around,” but didn’t see the city making money directly off of it. Morgan pointed to the Riders of the Flood show, the River Festival, and sports events as ways for the city to profit and grow. Pack, after speaking with local organizers, thinks the amphitheater is drastically under utilized, and could be the home of a music festival or have a movie night over the river. If they can get people down there, the local businesses could use that to their advantage. Mercer asked why the concession stand was not open more often, and highlighted a program from Greenbrier East High School for graduation credits to staff it. He also supported reopening the pool and bringing in horse shoe and disc golf.
And what does each candidate plan to do to clean up Main Street and Edgar Avenue’s storefronts? Morgan looked back at her record on City Council, noting the buildings that have been torn down, the new street lights put in. Pack agreed, and pointed both Make It Shine and to local property and business owners for making strides. In addition, Pack said the city is currently working on new ordinances to give it more teeth against dilapidated properties, but were delayed by COVID, keeping away the WVU professor they were working with. Mercer believes the city has “neglected” to use the current code and wants to work with business owners to get grants for storefront improvements. Mercer also highlighted Pack’s campaign manager Jorge Rodriguez-Stanley and his husband Chris for their work on the former Rudy’s building. Mengel noted the empty buildings throughout downtown, citing that as part of the reason they were having a hard time attracting businesses.
The final question dealt with urban deer hunting. For the past two years, urban deer hunting has not been allowed in the city. In 2019 the program was voted down on the recommendation on then Chief J.R. Byers due to the administrative costs compared to the 20 people that used the program. Then in 2020, the program was considered by council, but no motion to bring it back was made.
Mercer joked he would be fine with the program if the hunters would bring him some steaks. He supports the program, noting that he had never hunted with a bow before, and would like to bring it back if the food is used or donated to a food bank. Mengel said he was opposed until a chance encounter before a City Council meeting months ago. After speaking with two urban hunters about the program, his mind was changed and he would be on board, as long as it’s safe. Morgan said she would fight for it because it allows people to feed their families. Pack agreed if its safety could be assured, like it is with the requirements for hunters in Morgantown. She would consider it, she said, after explaining the past two years of the program’s history.
In order to get a feel for each candidate, here are lightly edited versions of each candidates introduction:
“I’m so proud to see everyone here,” said Barbara Morgan. “I’ve been in Ronceverte all my life, I’ve been on City Council for years, and I’m running for Mayor because I love Ronceverte. Anything I can do to help Ronceverte I’m going to do. I appreciate all the support I’ve been getting from friends and family and the people of Ronceverte and I’ll do everything I can for Ronceverte. … This is a very impressive time for Ronceverte. It’s history really.”
“I’m happy to be here with you all tonight,” said Deena Pack. “First I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce for hosting the event and Ashley Vickers for agreeing to moderate. I’d like to give a special thanks to my husband Jeff and our kids, Nathan and Jama, and also to my mom, friends, and family who have been nothing but supportive since the moment I decided to run for mayor. Most of all I want to thank the citizens, who have given me the opportunity to serve on the Ronceverte City Council for the past three years. I started as a councilmember and recently I was voted into the position of City Recorder. I have taken my responsibility very seriously and I believe that I have made decisions that were in the best interests of the citizens. As Barbara said, I grew up in Ronceverte and I love the city very much. I want to see only good things. I believe that my record over the past three years shows my commitment to the city, and I believe I’m the right person for the position of mayor because I have proven results. I have a four part plan to capitalize on the excitement and momentum that’s surrounding Ronceverte right now. I think that if we all work together, that the sky’s the limit. But I would like to say that the Mayor does not serve as a king or queen. The mayor has to work with City Council, the police department, the fire department, city employees, and local non profits. We all have to work together and, by doing this, we can achieve great things. I’m very excited to see what happens next.
“I grew up here in Greenbrier County, up here in Ronceverte,” said Eric Mercer. “I went to Ronceverte Elementary and Greenbrier East. In the 90s I served on the roster of the Ronceverte Volunteer Fire Department, where I then left. I moved away to several states, then came back after 15 years of being in Colorado, making a life for myself. My wife, children, and I said hey, let’s go back home to where we can call it home. Being here, I came back, and I love Ronceverte. I see the condition of Ronceverte right now and it’s time for someone to stand up for the people of Ronceverte and make it right. They need to bring Ronceverte back to life, we need to make Ronceverte great again. I’m not trying to be like another politician, but I have a lot of hopes and dreams to bring Ronceverte back to life. We need to work, not only with the city officials, the fire departments, but we also have to have an open ear to our citizens. The citizens have expressed to me, many times, what they would like to see and have been ignored. Now it’s time for someone to stand up for them and represent Ronceverte. Not as a dictator, but as a friend, a companion, and also as a leader to make Ronceverte great again. When we moved back out here, we bought a house on Greenbrier Avenue. It’s a beautiful house, it’s a beautiful neighborhood, and I want Ronceverte to make it.”
“I’d like to thank you all for coming out this evening and showing your interest in what’s going on here,” said Mark Mengel. “I’ve been in Ronceverte for about ten years now, I’ve been involved with the Ronceverte River Festival for the last five. Those of you who know me, and I see some familiar faces, probably have only seen me in a t-shirt, sweatshirt, jeans. I figured I’d dress up tonight to show you that I can, and the reason for that is I believe that the mayor of Ronceverte becomes the face of Ronceverte. The representative for this town. I thank you for the opportunity to do this.”