With several top Delaware County Republican Party leaders in attendance, former Gazette publisher Gary Merrell officially declared his candidacy for Delaware County commissioner on Thursday.
During a speech at Marcella’s restaurant on Polaris Parkway, Merrell said if elected he would bring fiscal conservatism and leadership to the county commission board. He plans to challenge one-term incumbent Commissioner Tommy Thompson in the March Republican primary.
Merrell touted his 40-plus years in the newspaper business in his native Oklahoma and Ohio, including leadership roles at The Columbus Dispatch, The Athens Messenger and The Delaware Gazette, as well as his involvement with various Delaware County rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and the Delaware County Communication Action Organization, among other civic organizations.
Merrell said his departure from the media industry has freed him up to run for office.
“There is much to do in Delaware County. I have the time, energy and commitment to do what needs to be done,” he said.
Merrell declined to go into detail about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Gazette. He had worked as a publisher of two different newspaper groups owned by the Brown Publishing Company, the previous owners of the Gazette, for nine years before the former parent company of the Gazette declared bankruptcy in 2010.
That bankruptcy process resulted in a new company being founded, American Community Media, which was purchased in May 2011 by current Gazette owners Versa Capital, an investment firm. Merrell was terminated as the Gazette’s publisher in September.
“I left in good standing, and it was just a different philosophy from new owners,” Merrell said
While not mentioning Thompson by name, Merrell said Delaware County has “a current county commissioner who is far from a fiscal conservative.”
Asked about the “fiscal conservative” remarks, Merrell brought up an August 2010 vote in which Thompson unsuccessfully tried to eliminate a 1-mill property tax rollback in Delaware County. That would have cost county property owners an additional $30.63 a year per $100,000 of property value while bringing in $6.3 million in annual revenues for the county. Thompson has said the move was needed to help fund county government services in the face of cuts in state funding.
In 2009, Thompson, commissioner Ken O’Brien and former commissioner Todd Hanks, all of whom are Republicans, voted to eliminate 0.8 mills of the rollback, raising property taxes an extra $24 per $100,000 of property value while raising $5 million a year for the county. However, O’Brien and Hanks voted against raising property taxes in August 2010.
“We’ve got to use our dollars wisely. The answer is not always raising taxes. The answer is how can we do more with what we have,” Merrell said.
Reached for comment, Thompson, a former Delaware mayor who has served as commissioner since January 2009, said Merrel’s perspective was that of someone with no experience in public office. Thompson also previously served stints on Delaware city’s planning commission and zoning board.
“I don’t know that I want to respond to any of it. Because until he has walked a mile in these shoes, I don’t think that he truly knows,” Thompson said.
Responding to criticism by Merrell that he does not return messages, Thompson said he recalls trying to meet with Merrell in the past, but needing to reschedule because of other obligations.
“I’m in here (the commissioners’ office) just about every day. If that’s what he is saying is unavailable how would he know that unless he’s been here looking for me,” Thompson said.
Merrell’s run to unseat Thompson may already have a good deal of support from the county GOP leadership. Merrell’s campaign treasurer is attorney Jim Schuck, the vice-chair of the county Republican Party. Schuck previously served as campaign treasurer for Dave Yost, Ohio Auditor of State and former Delaware County Prosecutor.
Yost was in attendance Thursday, as was county party chair Bob Mann, and county executive chair Shawn Stevens, who spent time recruiting people to attend the event. Delaware County Treasurer Jon Peterson, a former state representative and longtime political ally of Yost’s, also made an appearance.
When asked, Mann downplayed his attendance saying “We’re being supportive of our (Republican) candidates. People can read into it however they want as far as Shawn and I both being here goes,” Mann said.
Concord Township Trustee Joe Garrett, who has not returned a Gazette message seeking comment, is another possible Thompson challenger. He has pulled petitions to run for county commissioner.
Former Delaware County Sheriff Al Myers has done the same, and said he intends to challenge incumbent commissioner Ken O’Brien.
All candidates seeking a GOP endorsement for the March primary will meet with the county party’s screening committee tonight.
The Gazette requested but has not received a list of all candidates who will screen with the party for an endorsement. The deadline to file for the endorsement was last Saturday. While the GOP is not required to release those documents, it has done so in the past as a transparency effort.
Stevens previously told the Gazette the party would release the documents on Monday. However, Mann said Thursday the party has not yet released the names since certain candidates still may drop out before today.
No Democrats have yet filed for the commissioner race. The Republicans have gotten an early start in order to complete their endorsement process before the Dec. 7 filing deadline, and because the 2012 primary will be two months earlier than usual.