September 2, 2014

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AVON’S TURNING POINT: Four seek to succeed Mayor Jim Smith

Avon mayoral candidates Bryan Jensen, Rich Summers, Kevin Ward and Dan Zegarac are shown at Avon City Hall on Oct 28. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Avon mayoral candidates Bryan Jensen, Rich Summers, Kevin Ward and Dan Zegarac are shown at Avon City Hall on Oct 28. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

AVON — Four men with varying backgrounds and experience are seeking to replace popular Avon Mayor Jim Smith, who is not running for re-election.

The new mayor will walk into a far different world than the one Smith entered 20 years ago. Avon, once a quaint farming community, is now a booming town — one that people seek to live in. And that growth comes with its share of problems, such as increased traffic and stress on the city’s infrastructure.

The mayor’s favorite

Bryan Jensen followed in his father’s footsteps for much of his life.

Like his father, Neils, Jensen worked at the family’s business, Pinehaven Garden Center and Greenhouses, and he went on to serve on City Council for four terms.

Jensen, 53, said it was his father, a 10-year councilman, who pushed him to run for City Council and encouraged him as he announced his candidacy for mayor.

Jensen said his father, now 85, became involved in politics because he loved people. Jensen said his father told him that he wanted him to take his place on Council when he finished his 1997 term. Neils Jensen ran unopposed in 1995 and 1997, but was defeated in 1993.

“He liked people so much, and he also, kind of like I am, was inquisitive. He always wanted to know what was going on in the city,” he said.

Jensen said his aging father, who served under Mayor Jim Smith’s regime, is one of his biggest supporters. With tears in his eyes, Jensen described a touching moment during his campaign.

“He said he’s proud of me … It was probably a couple months back that he went to one of my fundraisers, and he saw the support and everything else, and he kind of got a beam in his eye, and he said, ‘I think you can do this,’” he said.

Jensen’s father isn’t his only big supporter.

Jensen also has backing of Smith, who announced his endorsement of Jensen on Oct. 10.

Jensen, who said he frequently calls Smith for advice, predicted that an endorsement from the mayor, whose own popularity led him to run unopposed in the last two elections, would do nothing but help his campaign.

“He’s certainly someone that I admire and respect,” Jensen said.

Smith said he believes Jensen is the best person for the job because of his strong ties to the community. Jensen, who was born in Avon and who has lived in the city most of his life, has a 22-year-old son Brett, a 25-year-old daughter Brittney and a grandchild who also live in Avon.

Smith, whose own family chose the small town to live in decades ago, said there is an importance to having close family ties in the community. He also applauded Jensen’s business acumen.

During what Smith called a “Greenhouse Depression,” when the cost of natural gas increased drastically, Jensen had the option to lay off employees to save money. Instead, he took a pay cut.

“He knew if he laid everyone off and took a paycheck, the business was destined to fail,” he said. “I like that in a person.”

Jensen said times were hard then, and gas prices required the business to conserve energy and make several cuts. He said he and his brother, Bruce — a co-owner of Pinehaven Garden Center and Greenhouses — did have to lay off some employees, but they didn’t do so until taking their own pay cuts.

“We had a lot of options, but we always talk about people, whether it’s the city’s business or our business, you have families that are depending on it,” he said. “To me, I look at it like it’s my fault that we’re in this position, so who should be the first one to suffer … when you do a cutback or anything else, you do it at the top, and I felt strongly that it had to be me first.”

At the time, Avon was considered to be part of the Greenhouse Capital of the Nation, but Jensen said most of the greenhouses went out of business when natural gas prices increased. He credited the business’s success on hard work — he said he had a desire to succeed for his wife, Kimberly, and their children — and on changing the company’s business model.

“Certainly, you learn from that and I think it makes you a better business person,” he said. “It’s made us stronger, better. We’re doing things that we’ve never done before.”

Jensen, who plans to give up his position at Pinehaven to his nephew if elected, said he will continue the work of Smith’s administration. He said the administration has been working on the traffic issues, the city pool project and on stormwater management.

“Those little things look really impressive to those who are traveling through our city,” he said.

Jensen said he believes that he is the best candidate for the job, because of his business experience helping to lead Pinehaven through tough times and his ties to the community. He said he’s served on the city’s Planning Commission, which gives him a unique perspective in the inner-workings of city projects.

He’s a graduate of West Liberty State College in West Virginia with a double major in business management and general business, and he served eight years on the city’s Safety and Service Committees.

Mike Cooper, Avon resident and president and owner of Cooper Disposal, said Jensen excelled in debates against the other candidates, and knows both “old Avon” and “new Avon” residents, which could be beneficial to his campaign.

“He’s a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy. He’ll tell you the straight story,” he said. “For the residents, I think that’s who they need to have.”

The lifelong Avon resident

Dan Zegarac has been the president of Council for two years, serving on Council for a total of four years, but his experience isn’t the only thing that is appealing to Avon residents, said attorney Jim Gemelas, who counts himself among one of his supporters.

Gemelas, who has lived in Avon for 20 years, said Zegarac has the best interests of the city at heart, mainly because he’s always been there.

“You’re making decisions as mayor that will affect your neighbors, friends and people you’ve known for decades,” he said.

Zegarac, a 50-plus-year Avon resident, moved to Avon with his family at the age of 6, graduating from Avon High School in 1974. He has five children — Dan, 31, Joe, 28, Bob, 25, Paul, 23 and Katie, 19 — all of whom attended Avon Schools.

Zegarac said his time spent in Avon gives him a perspective that other candidates do not have.

“I grew up here, went to school here … I think it gives me a real solid advantage in terms of knowing my city and what it used to be like,” he said.

The 58-year-old said he hopes to continue the explosive growth that Avon has experienced in the past 10 years. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s population grew from 11,446 to 21,193 residents, and Zegarac saw the small farming community turn into a hot spot for businesses and home buying.

Zegarac said the city will continue to grow, and it’s important to maintain the city’s infrastructure and services.

“Residents want sensible growth. They want the growth managed properly,” he said.

He said he believes his business expertise as a sales and business manager for Ganley Auto Group has given him the tools he needs to succeed in running the city.

Zegarac attended Kent State University for a year before he decided to pursue a career in sales. He worked at car dealerships in Elyria and Avon Lake, including Prout Chevrolet in Elyria, which later became Jack Matia Chevrolet.

Zegarac said it was his friendship with Matia, whom he worked with as a teenager, and his experience that later landed him a job as general sales manager at Jack Matia, where he worked for 11 years before taking a sales and business manager position at Ganley Auto Group in Cleveland.

Zegarac became involved in Avon politics in 2009, when he was elected for a Council at-large position. He ran again in 2011, and he was the top-vote getter in the city, running against former Council President Clinton Pelfrey, Councilman Craig Witherspoon and Mark Yonchak.

Zegarac was picked to serve as president by Council after then-president Pelfrey stepped down following a DUI arrest on March 30, 2012. He gladly took the reins and said serving as Council president was rewarding.

“I enjoy the responsibilities of it, and I don’t take it lightly,” he said.

The decision to run for mayor was an easy one for Zegarac, who said he’s been considering campaigning for a few years, knowing that Smith would be stepping down.

Gemelas, who said he recently met Zegarac but paid attention to his work on Council, said he was surprised when Zegarac announced that he would run for mayor given his successful career with Ganley.

“This is a guy, realistically, that really doesn’t need the money,” he said. “He’s not running for personal gain.”

Zegarac said he was not discouraged by not receiving endorsements from the mayor or from four of his fellow Council members, who jointly endorsed candidate Kevin Ward. The endorsement that matters is from the residents of Avon, and Zegarac said he has heard good feedback.

“I’m getting a lot of positive response from people,” he said. “They’re encouraging me and that kind of confidence breeds confidence.”

Zegarac added that he was pleased to receive an endorsement from the Plain Dealer.

June Mitchell, who retired in July as assistant finance director for the city, said she is endorsing Zegarac as well.

“I saw him in action as Council president,” she said. “He asks a lot of questions before he’ll vote on any ordinances. He always does good research, I feel.”

Mitchell said she has also known Zegarac personally for years. She said his business expertise, combined with his knowledge of the community, makes him the best candidate.

“I think he’s a good fit,” she said. “He has a passion for Avon.”

The newcomer

Rich Summers is new to the political scene in Avon, but he said his outsider’s perspective is more of a blessing than a curse.

“I think (residents) want to see a different perspective. A lot of people feel that there is a network, and people want to see someone outside of that network,” he said. “They’d like to see someone with a different view that isn’t involved with all of the team players.”

Summers, 42, did apply for Council once after Council President Clinton Pelfrey stepped down following a DUI arrest on March 30, 2012. He said he applied on Friday, and on Monday, Council made the decision to appoint Mary Berges to Council without interviewing him.

Summers said the experience was eye-opening and led him to believe there needed to be a change in city politics.

“They never interviewed anyone, as far as I know… I’m not naive enough to know that they probably knew who they wanted, but at the same time, with 19 or 20 people, why wouldn’t you take a chance to sit down with these people, because these are people who obviously want the position, sit down and talk to the people about ‘What do you think we’re doing right? What are we doing wrong? What can we do for the city of Avon? You know, just to get an idea of what’s in their heads,” he said.

Summers said he also believes that Avon needs to be unified. He said, as mayor, he’d like to focus on more community programs, such as weekly movie nights and creating more communication between residents and government officials.

“When you walk from development to development, people are very close to their developments. They do things within their development and not necessarily with their city,” he said. “One thing that I do see is that people come together during the football games, and I’d like to see more of that… Everyone’s happy when they get together and they have a pride of their city.”

Summers moved to the city six years ago. He currently works as an attorney at McDonald Hopkins and assistant law director for the city of Parma.

He graduated from Baldwin-Wallace University in 1994 and from the University of Akron School of Law in 1998.

Summers said his experience focusing on municipal law for the city of Parma would be beneficial to the residents because he is familiar with planning and zoning issues and has a clear understanding of the law.

He said Avon can learn from other cities, where growth was short-lived. He said he’d like to maintain steady growth, as well as the city’s infrastructure.

“It’s going to be developed, there’s no question about it, so I’d rather have my hands in it,” he said. “If you try to build a city behind retail, I can’t think of another city that’s been built behind retail. Retail will bring you high traffic, more than what we have right now, it will bring you lower tax dollars, and probably, most importantly, in 10 to 15 years, it will move to the next hot city and will leave you with empty storefronts, and there’s nothing worse than that.”

Avon resident Paul Daher, who also works as an attorney, said Summers has valuable experience in city government, and he believes he is more qualified than the other three candidates.

“They don’t really have the experience that he does,” he said. “He’s been exposed to a lot of issues that came up in the city.”

Daher said it is also beneficial that Summers’ 9-year-old son, Max, attends Avon Schools.

Summers, who is married to wife Kelli, said he moved to Avon because it was an appealing area in which to raise a family. He said he’d like to continue the growth of the city, although he believes that it needs to be properly managed.

Summers, whose last indicated party affiliation was Democrat in 2012, said he’d also like to continue to keep the city nonpartisan, as Smith has stressed during his 20-year career.

“It’s very important to keep things independent,” he said. “Party politics doesn’t seem to work anymore. That’s why Washington was shut down — party politics.”

The experienced businessman

Kevin Ward, the city’s 3rd Ward councilman, said the endorsement from four of his fellow Council members is the best indication of why he would make the best mayor.

Ward, 45, announced his candidacy April 23, and approximately five months later, four Council members – Mary Berges, Craig Witherspoon, Dennis McBride and Dan Urban – stood behind him.

Berges said looking at Ward’s background, she and the other Council members determined that he had more experience than the other candidates.

“What I’ve observed over the years that I’ve attended and been on Council is that Kevin Ward has consistently questioned finances,” she said. “I truly believe that he has the background, experience and skills to manage this city… I don’t know if any of the candidates have managed as many people as Kevin Ward.”

Ward is the owner of the Spartan Group, where he works as a business consultant.

Previously, Ward said he managed approximately 400 co-workers as president of Rentokil Pest Control, a company that had $30 million is sales. He also worked as chief financial officer at JC Erlich Pest Control, vice president of operations and chief financial officer at Initial Security, and chief financial officer at Aggregate Equipment and Supply.

Prior to his employment, he served in the Army from 1991 to 1995 and earned the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon and Parachutist Badge, according to an Army spokesman.

Ward, who has lived in the city for seven years, said he became involved in Council because he wanted to become a deeper part of the community.

Elected in 2009, he served on the Finance Committee and as chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee.

Ward said he decided that he wanted to run for mayor in March, but with his father’s failing health, he held off on the announcement. Ward’s father passed away in April, but Ward said his father supported his dream of becoming mayor.

“He knew I was going to do it,” he said. “He was all excited about it.”

Ward said his wife, Karen, and their three children — Kevin, Jr., 15, Brittney, 14, and Ryan, 11 — have been his biggest supporters, designing literature and campaigning with him.

Ward said he has gotten criticism from some people during the campaign, who asked him why his children do not go to Avon Schools, but he said he and his wife Karen believe in the importance of the children attending Christian schools.

“It’s not that we don’t support Avon Schools. I’ve supported all of the levies,” he said. “It’s just that we feel very strongly in our Christian values.”

Ward said the city is no longer a small town, and the next mayor will be responsible for handling a $34 million budget and 150 employees. He said he has the proven skills to handle the large budget, as well as the number of employees.

“(Growth is) going to continue, and you need someone who is capable of managing something of that level,” he said.

He said his focus will be on encouraging light industries as well as professional businesses in the medical, legal and IT industries, to locate to Avon. He said he will work on road improvements and on reducing flooding issues.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaMillerCT.