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Hopefuls blaze their own paths

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This is one in an occasional series of stories profiling races that will be on the Hancock County ballot on Nov. 6.

You can also watch video interviews with the candidates online at www.greenfieldreporter.com.

GREENFIELD — Brad Armstrong and Mike Merlau aren’t afraid of being outspoken.

The two are vying for the District 3 seat on the county’s board of county commissioners. They agree on several controversial issues but also want to see changes in the next four years.

Armstrong, the Republican incumbent, has disagreed with his Republican counterparts on several issues – such the Mt. Comfort Road roundabout – and has ended up casting lone “no” votes. Merlau, the Democratic challenger, agrees with several of Armstrong’s stances on issues but also wants to make several other changes on the board.

The race for the third district seat on the county’s executive board is a replay of four years ago, when Armstrong easily defeated Merlau. Merlau is hoping the third time is a charm in his bid for office, while Armstrong is defending his first-term record in his bid for re-election.

All Hancock County voters can vote in the District 3 race, even though the candidates must reside in that area, which encompasses the southern part of the county.

Armstrong, the 42-year-old owner of Armstrong Garage Doors, said his top priority in the next four years is to keep a handle on spending. The revenue picture picked up this year, he said,  but it’s important to continue to be frugal.

Armstrong’s stance was obvious last week when he spoke adamantly against a $2 million bond, which would mostly pay for new trucks for the highway department but could free up other funds for roadwork.

Armstrong suggested only two trucks should be purchased with the highway department funds already on hand; his motion died because the other two commissioners did not agree.

“That really frustrates the daylights out of me,” Armstrong said. “We’re all supposed to be Republicans, and the last I checked, Republicans were for less government regulation and reduced spending. But here in our own back door we’ll increase spending by 2 million bucks. I thought that was a very poor use of money.”

In addition to his vote against the planned roundabout on Mt. Comfort Road, he was even the lone commissioner, in his first month of office, who wanted the Hancock County smoking ban to exempt businesses that serve customers who are 21 and older. He said he didn’t want government to tell businesses what to do.

“There are a lot of 2-1 (votes),” Armstrong said. “I obviously look at things a lot different from my fellow commissioners because of my private-sector background. They’ve both worked in the public sector.”

Merlau, a 49-year-old farmer, said he could bring an agricultural perspective to the board, especially because property tax increases hurt farmers.

Merlau also doesn’t believe the county should take on debt with a $2 million bond. He, too, doesn’t believe the county can afford the roundabout on Mt. Comfort Road.

“I’m not even convinced we need one there,” Merlau said, adding that he advocated for an alternative exit off of Interstate 70 years ago.

Merlau was, however, in favor of the smoking ban that took effect in 2009.

This is Merlau’s third bid for commissioner. He was defeated in 2004 by Brian Kleiman and again in 2008 by Armstrong. Merlau also ran unsuccessfully for county surveyor in 2010.

Merlau said people often don’t understand that anybody can vote in the commissioner’s race; they don’t have to live in the district. He said people often vote straight-ticket Republican without even considering individual races or candidates.

“I don’t get beat by the candidate ever. Never have,” the Democrat said. “It’s always by the straight-ticket voter.”

Merlau said the condition of the county’s roads would be his top priority, and he wants local officials to come up with a plan for maintaining them rather than just “shoot from the hip” and borrow money when they think more is needed.

Merlau said the fact that all county officials are Republicans could compromise transparency.  He balked at the idea of a Republican caucus last month involving the county council and commissioners, who are all Republicans.

Armstrong, too, said he was against the closed meeting, which eventually was opened to the public.

Merlau criticizes Armstrong for not following through on a campaign promise from 2008 to clear blight along U.S. 40. Armstrong says money has been set aside to demolish empty properties, but the extensive legal process has gotten in the way.

Merlau also says the commissioners shouldn’t have reduced the number of public meetings to two a month from four. But Armstrong says the schedule switch means every other week, one commissioner is in the office to talk to constituents.

A political action committee was formed in 2009 support the re-election of Commissioners Tom Stevens and Derek Towle. Businesses, some of which do business with the county, donate to the PAC.

Towle was re-elected in 2010. Stevens is unopposed this fall.

Armstrong was asked to join it but declined. He said wants to make sure he makes decisions based on what’s best for the community.

“I’m not going to compromise principle just to appease a political party or PAC...” Armstrong said.

Merlau said such a PAC shouldn’t exist because it could make it easier to influence votes.

“How about we don’t take donations and we just run on merit rather than on pocketbooks?” Merlau said.

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