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Bluffton has a primary, but no one's on the ballot

BLUFFTON, Ohio - The mayor's job, two council seats, and the clerk-treasurer's post are up for election this year, but Bluffton's primary ballot is empty.

No one filed to run in the May 6 election. No Republicans or Democrats collected the necessary 50 signatures by the Feb. 20 deadline. But village officials say that doesn't mean the positions will go unfilled.

Instead, Bluffton's civic leaders are waiting for the general election, when they'll run as independents - extending a tradition of nonpartisan politics in this Allen County village. Even party stalwarts run as independents in Bluffton.

“I'm a Republican - absolutely,” said David Steiner, 54, clerk-treasurer since 1988. “I think others are registered as Republicans or Democrats. But we don't talk about party politics at council much. We're here to serve the community.”

Mr. Steiner, the only CPA with an office in Bluffton, has never been opposed for election. He said he plans to run this fall but adds with a chuckle, “If somebody wants it, I may not run.”

According to Mr. Steiner and others, bypassing the primary saves time and money.

“Everybody's just chosen to go the simpler way,” he said. “And you can still have a nice field of candidates that way. I go over and register, get 25 signatures and take it back, and I'm on the ballot.”

Three-term Councilman Jerry Cupples said he's “99 percent sure” he'll seek re-election in November. But don't expect speeches, slogans, or lawn signs if he does.

“I have never campaigned,” he said. “I've never spent the first dollar on a sign. ... I just never saw the purpose of it.”

Mr. Cupples, 52, said he ran as a Republican in his first two campaigns but has since bypassed the party primary.

Adds Mr. Steiner: “I think the consensus is, we don't see a need to go through the primary process for a small village like Bluffton.”

A town of 3,896 people 55 miles south of Toledo, Bluffton is surrounded by farmland in Allen and Hancock counties. While the two counties are mostly Republican, villagers say the town attracts more independent-minded people because of its industrial base, thriving downtown, and status as the home of Bluffton College.

Manufacturers in town include DTR Industries, which makes rubber products for automobiles; Grob Systems, a robotic systems producer; Tower Automotive, a stamping plant, and Triplett Corp., which makes electric meters.

The college is affiliated with the Mennonite Church, which preaches pacifism. Four of the six-member village council are Mennonites; three council members and Mayor Fred Rodabaugh work for Bluffton College.

Observers said the college and the church have little overt influence on Bluffton's politics.

“There's always the joke that Mennonites have taken over village council,” said Council President Peter Suter, 31, a Mennonite himself. “And that's more a joke than anything else.”

Mr. Suter, an assistant professor of business at Bluffton College, also is part-owner of Common Grounds, a downtown caf and coffee house. He's been a councilman since 1998.

“I really am a middle-of-the-road individual,” he said. “As a small-business owner, I have some strong Republican ideals, but as a Mennonite and a pacifist, I have some strong Democratic ideals too.”

The biggest issue in town these days appears to be the town's water supply. Bluffton's water comes from wells and is full of minerals that can corrode pipes. Village leaders are considering whether to build a water treatment plant or buy water from Ottawa or Lima.

Mr. Suter said he'd like the current council and mayor to decide what to do before the election, but he expects a debate nonetheless.

Despite the lack of partisanship, Bluffton's politics have not been free of controversy.

In January, 2001, village council suspended police Chief H. Reid Foust for 15 days and demoted him to patrolman while investigating allegations that he took home a TV set and other items from the police property room.

Council later rescinded the demotion and closed the investigation, and an Allen County judge ordered the village to reinstate him with back pay.

Chief Foust sued the village last year, alleging that he was illegally disciplined. The suit has since been dropped.

Mr. Suter said Mayor Fred Rodabaugh, who took over last year when then-Mayor Pete Schwager resigned, “has done a great job bringing stability back into the council room and with the police chief.”

Mr. Rodabaugh, who was out of town last week, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Suter said the mayor has told him he plans to seek a full term this fall.

Dennis Gallant, the other councilman whose seat is up for election, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Suter said he has indicated he will run.

What's less clear is whether the incumbents will face any opposition.

Joshua Barhorst, 30, a potential candidate, said he's definitely out of the running. He entered the race in 2001 as a Republican but withdrew after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and joined the Ohio National Guard. He has been called up to active duty and expects to be deployed outside Ohio soon.

Mr. Barhorst said he understands why most Bluffton candidates skip the primary. “Bluffton is not a partisan community. ... We're a family community,” he said.

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