WESTMINSTER -- Until last night, they were just seven names often seen in county newspapers and heard onlocal radio and television.

Then at the Volunteer Fire Co. on Main Street, the seven people vying for three City Council seats gathered for a candidates forum, looking for a chance to separate themselves from the field.

With theMay 13 election less than two weeks away, none left the fire hall head and shoulders above the others, but the candidates offered their positions on issues ranging from the environment to the ongoing imbroglio between the council and Mayor W. Benjamin Brown.

"I'm more nervous than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs right now," admittedcasually dressed builder Michael Oakes as he faced cable-television cameras and the six-member media panel assembled to ask questions.

The discussion followed a predictable course. The five challengers -- retired small-business owners Stephen Chapin Sr. and Rebecca Orenstein, teacher Dennis Frazier, physicist Kenneth Yowan and Oakes -- took the opportunity to critique, sometimes harshly, the work of the current council.

In particular they hammered away at the council's stormy relations with Brown and its desire to appropriate $1.3 million for new city government office space before receiving a $35,000 consultant's report on how much space is needed and how much it will cost.

"It's a petty, people matter," said Chapin of the often stormy relations between the council and mayor. "Our city deserves better."

Meanwhile, the two incumbents -- Samuel Greenholtz and Mark Snyder, both first-termers -- assumed a more or less defensive posture, touting recent council accomplishments and laying out how they'd continue the work already begun.

"I'm proud of strides the council has taken during my tenure," said Snyder, noting rewriting of the zoning codes and ongoing expansion of the wastewater-treatment plant.

Greenholtz stuck up for the city office space project, saying that space will be needed and that the $1.3 million simply gets the project going.

"You have to have something to start," he said. "That's all we're doing."

Occupying a curious middle ground was Yowan, a former council member who was forced to step down when his work took him to Hawaii for two years. He enjoys the luxury of being able to speak from both an incumbent and newcomer perspective.

In his remarks, Yowan politely though firmly criticized the growth and spending of city government.

"The fastest-growing entity around here these days is city government itself," he said.

On the city space project, Yowan called for waiting for the consultant's report, which he said should be the subject of a public hearing.

"We can afford to wait a couple ofweeks, a couple of months. We can't afford not to wait."

Frazier called for stepped-up city recycling efforts. Orenstein vowed to work"twice as hard" as her competitors to better council-mayor relationsand make government more accessible to citizens.

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