By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor

Though the primary election is late in August, the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce kicked off election season on May 8 when it hosted candidates vying for four Town Council seats.

Seven candidates have declared for council races so far, including incumbent members Eddie Cook, Jordan Ray and Vice Mayor Brigette Peterson. Councilman Victor Petersen, whose seat also is up, has not formed a committee for re-election.

Challengers for Town Council include Aimee Rigler, director of communications and government relations for Arizona Free Enterprise Club; Barbara Guy, real estate agent with The Real Estate Firm; and James Candland, a small-business owner, who served on the council for seven months in 2016 after being appointed to fill a vacancy.

Ray and Jason Cvancara, a small business owner with 11 years of law enforcement experience, missed the forum.

The forum, at The Falls event center, gave candidates their first opportunity to discuss their platforms and qualifications in an open setting. They responded to a range of topics, including their vision for Gilbert, the role of local government and the town’s budgetary priorities.

One question dealt with which expenditures should be paid from the General Fund and which should be funded through bonds — a hot topic as Gilbert balances an array of needs like town-wide road improvements, investment in the Heritage District and a growing population in the less-developed southern area.

Peterson said bond funds from previous elections — such as those approved by voters for street improvements in 2006 and 2007 — should remain allocated toward projects that voters approved and not redirected to others.

Other responses centered on fiscal responsibility, with Candland stating that the budgetary process is the most important role of government and that “in any organization, whether it be public or private, there’s always a way to trim a little bit.”

“During the budgetary process, I think there’s ways to look at what the needs are for the town, what the public is communicating is important to them…” Candland said. “We also need to remember that we have important issues we have to fund (like) public safety…”

Rigler said that among areas that could be cut back is spending on parks, pointing to the Gilbert Regional Park that will be built at Queen Creek and Higley roads.

She acknowledged that there is a need and desire for the park in south Gilbert and said she approves of the first two phases, which will include playgrounds, splash pad, athletic courts, amphitheater and a lake.

“As far as moving into that third phase when we’re talking about more extensive amenities like convention centers (and) aquatic facilities, I think that is an area we can revisit and see if that is all actually required,” Rigler said.

She added that some infrastructure projects and parks could be funded by general-obligation bonds.

“You’re asking your voters to decide what their priorities are since there are a limited number of services local governments can provide,” she said.

Cook praised the town’s budgeting process and stated that increases in its budget over the past several years have not been excessive and have kept pace with population growth.

“We have a policy that says growth pays for growth, so the town is spending very efficiently and is fiscally sound,” Cook said.

He did note that Gilbert has several “big-ticket items” coming up — including its planned public-safety training facility, street improvements, a potential Phase 3 construction on new park projects — that should go to the voters in a bond election.

Guy noted that bonds could be used to address public-safety issues, including the training facility.

She said the town must address infrastructure issues, specifically roadway improvements needed in south Gilbert due to increased usage caused by a growing population.

These budget and bond decisions are inextricably tied to Gilbert’s future, another key topic during the forum.

When asked where they see Gilbert in 20 to 30 years, most candidates addressed maintaining the town’s clean and family-friendly reputation while balancing commercial and residential growth as Gilbert approaches buildout, which the town projects will be in about 2030.

The next update to Gilbert’s General Plan, which is in the works, will play a significant role in shaping its future.

Peterson said that Gilbert must strike a balance in types of development.

“The General Plan is going to be a very important discussion … with property that is currently zoned for commercial and retail and the change in commercial and retail that has happened in the past eight years, we have to find the right way to handle that,” she said.

Cook noted that continuing to build upon signature family-oriented developments in Gilbert, like the Heritage District, Agritopia and the new Gilbert Regional Park, will play a large role in the town’s future.

Candland focused on the General Plan process and said that planning and conservative budgeting for necessary services and infrastructure will be key to Gilbert’s future. He said he would seek resident input to determine what projects are needed.

“We need to make sure over the next 20 years that we’re building Gilbert in a way that our citizens have the input,” he said.

Bringing jobs to the community was yet another concern.

Guy said that she would like to see the town bring in more business growth along the Loop 202 corridor in order to bring in high-wage jobs and find a balance among residential, entertainment and commercial.

She noted that the town must invest in infrastructure in south Gilbert to keep consumers from opting to travel into neighboring cities to spend their money.

Several candidates mentioned aspects of Gilbert that they would like to see unchanged.

“At the end of the day, a clean, safe environment is what we hear (residents care about) quite a bit,” Cook said.

He added, “When folks travel from (other cities into Gilbert), you always hear how clean it looks, how open it looks and that’s literally the fruits of prior leadership and prior councils that actually set the standard for that.”

Rigler echoed that sentiment, saying that she hopes that in 20 to 30 years Gilbert continues to rank among the safest cities in the country and is an attractive community to the next generation of young people.

“I hope it is a place where a younger generation decides to lay their roots down (and) become a part of a younger generation that grew up here, went to school in Gilbert Public Schools and is now deciding that (they want to stay in Gilbert).”

Rigler, who sits on the executive board of the Welcome Home Veterans Park, said she wants Gilbert’s patriotic culture to continue into the future with projects like Operation Welcome Home.