Laurel mayoral candidates answer questions for upcoming election

By Tony E. Windsor

Laurels municipal elections are scheduled for Thursday, March 23. Council incumbents, Robin Fisher-Cornish and Jonathon Kellam are running unopposed and will resume their seats for another term following the elections. Councilman Don Phillips will not seek re-election this term and his seat will be filled by former town councilman Alan Schweitzer who is also running unopposed.

The sole municipal race is that of mayor where two candidates have filed. The mayoral race will feature incumbent Mayor John Shwed, of Lake Drive, who is being challenged by Jeff Roberts, of South Central Avenue, the current executive director of the Greater Laurel Chamber of Commerce. In an effort to ensure fairness, the following are responses from questions asked of both candidates regarding their run for Laurels mayor. The candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Place of employment and length of time at your job? If retired, what was your career? Jeff Roberts: I am an account executive with United Healthcare for four years. John Shwed: In 1993, I retired from the DuPont Company with 27.5 years of service. At retirement I was a technical group manager at the Seaford Nylon Plant. During my career I supervised a group of technically trained personnel who developed new products, reduced manufacturing costs, and improved product quality. From 1993-97, I served as startup CEO for the Delaware Manufacturing Alliance, a non-profit organization created to provide technical and business assistance to Delawares small and medium-sized manufacturers. In 2002, I began my career with the Laurel School District where I have served in a variety of assignments. I am presently assigned to the Laurel Middle School as a classroom paraprofessional.

2. Are you married? If so, what is your spouses name and the length of time you have been married? Jeff Roberts: I am married to Laurie, my best friend and trusted advisor. We have been married for six years. John Shwed: I am a widower. My lovely wife Bobbie passed away Aug. 1, 2010. We shared 46 great years together.

3. Do you have children/grandchildren? If so, what are the names and ages of each? Jeff Roberts: Yes, three incredible daughters, Megan 18, Katelyn, 22, and Stephanie, 29 John Shwed: I have two daughters. Nancy Shwed, admissions specialist, Wor-Wic Community College. Susan Whaley, director of transportation and student services, Laurel School District. Four grandchildren: Jordan Whaley, 27, Zachary Whaley, 24, Garrett Whaley, 22, Sara Jo Whaley, 20, and grand-dog, Flacco. I am proud to say that all six family members are Bulldog graduates of Laurel High School.

4. What do you see as the most critical issues facing the Town of Laurel? Jeff Roberts: Lack of good paying jobs. The need to consistently enforce town codes and clean up blighted areas to make Laurel more attractive. Public safety, whether the issue is crime, dilapidated buildings or lack of sidewalks. Making the downtown area and area along Broad Creek marketable to new business as well as making our existing parks safe and clean. John Shwed: New economic development in the downtown historic section and along Broad Creek in the area as envisioned in the plan known as The Ramble, as well as new commercial and residential development in the Rt. 13 Corridor. The financial strength of the town must be improved through growth of the property tax base and not through ever increasing tax increases and fees on existing residents. Two, working with our local and state partners we must improve the appearance of the community. Hopefully, the Downtown Development District with financial incentives provided by the State, Sussex County, and the Town of Laurel will encourage existing property owners to remodel and developers and entrepreneurs to construct new housing and businesses. Three, our Police Department under the leadership of Chief Danny Wright must continue to implement community policing so that we have an excellent relationship between all citizens and members of the Laurel Police Department. Great progress has been made, but there is more to be done.

5. What is the primary reason you seek to be, or continue to be, the Mayor of Laurel? Jeff Roberts: My decision to run for Mayor of Laurel is based on an understanding that what we do today is tomorrows history. On April 13, 1883, Laurel was incorporated as a town by the General Assembly. By 1885, Laurel was considered to be the wealthiest in the State. Today, sadly, it is the poorest, based on its median household income. I am running to bring a fresh leadership to the town to rekindle the heart of the downtown business district. I will work with county, state and federal government to seek help in restoring Laurel to what it was and also what it can be. I want to work with local businesses to see them grow. I want to help attract new businesses that will utilize Broad Creek and complement the natural beauty that Laurel is blessed with.

Laurel also has a unique designation of having the largest historic district anywhere in Delaware. Sadly, however, many of those homes are vacant and in despair. I want to work with Code Enforcement to do everything we can to hold accountable the landlords and owners of those properties to bring those houses back to livable condition instead of places to let pigeons roost and trees grow through the porches. A trusted friend and advisor told me once, If nothing changes then nothing changes. I know change is not easy; most people hate change and continue to take the path of least resistance. Change is hard, familiarity is easy. I am offering fresh ideas and a willingness to join others who have a vision of what Laurel can be and opening up the way for that idea to become reality. I am running for Mayor of Laurel because I believe in Laurels history and its future. If elected mayor I will work hard with you the people to return Laurel to its place of prominence in Sussex County and in the State of Delaware. John Shwed: This town has been good to me and my family. My record of public service clearly shows that I have a deep-seated interest in working with people. My record also shows a proven record of accomplishment both as an elected town official and in various other organizations. I have had the pleasure to serve the voters in both good and challenging times. We have the town positioned for great future success. I would like to serve again to help usher in that new era. Working with council and others I hope to play a part in making a great small town one of the best small towns in Delaware.

6. What do you feel is the most significant role the mayor can play in service to the Town of Laurel? Jeff Roberts: To provide vision and leadership. The town has many opportunities to transform itself, including The Ramble waterfront redevelopment initiative, the recently designated Downtown Development District, nature/heritage tourism plan, new brand (Laurel: Great Things Come Naturally), new water and wastewater service to the highway, our new comprehensive plan, and other efforts to improve our community and lift ourselves up. We have all the tools for success, along with committed citizens and organizations. John Shwed: The Town Charter defines the mayor as the chief executive officer. Every day I have served I have tried to perform my assignment with that role in mind. The mayor is the chief communicator. I have done that in media interviews, presentations, and meetings. The mayor is the towns cheerleader. I have done that in my writings, presentations, and in interacting with town citizens. I also have been the leader who had to deal with some unpleasant issues such as laying off five town employees, including two police officers, at the depth of the 2008 recession. I also believe the mayor, in consort with members of council, must provide a work environment for town employees where they feel valued and challenged. In doing the mayors job I treat each person fairly regardless of race, sexual orientation, or social status; and I am not beholden to any special interest group.

7. Do you have any special qualifications or interests that you feel make you a good candidate for the office of Mayor? Jeff Roberts: I have two backgrounds, one in manufacturing and one in insurance. In these roles I have been in production, sales and management. I work every day with small businesses and understand issues they face. I am a member of Rotary, the Laurel Historical Society, Trap Pond Partners and ESAHU (Eastern Shore Association of Health underwriters) as well as the Laurel Chamber of Commerce where I serve as executive director. I have a diploma from the N.C. School of Textile Technology and certifications in computer information technology and Oracle Database from Catawba Valley Technical College. John Shwed: I have the leadership experience of both private and non-profit sector management. Prior to my service as mayor I served on various town committees and the Laurel Board of Education. I have had the pleasure of visiting just about all of Laurels churches. It has been a great broadening experience for me to observe and meet the members of the very diverse congregations. My interest simply is to use the talents that God and experience have given me to help the people.

8. What do you feel makes Laurel a good place to live and raise a family? Jeff Roberts: Laurel is not a good place to live; its a great place to live. When I was asked by my company to move to Eastern Shore of Maryland to work I could have picked anywhere to move to. My family and I chose Laurel because it offered everything we were looking for. Its schools are modern; there is a hospital within 20 minutes of us. There are the waters of Broad Creek and Records Pond, as well as Trap Pond and the fact we are 45 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Housing was reasonable and the house we found was filled with history. However, all of that describes a place, places are just that. What makes Laurel a great place to live and raise a family is its people. The people of Laurel have incredible Bulldog spirit - they opened up and said welcome, come join us. We did and have not regretted it.

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