Aurora -- The new year has brought a new face into the mayor's chair at Town Hall, and she's the first new elected mayor to occupy the seat since 2002.
Ann Womer Benjamin was to take the oath of office from Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor on Dec. 30, two days before the new year rolled around.
The last time an elected new mayor took over was Jan. 1, 2002, when Lynn McGill began his first term. He was re-elected twice, but resigned late in 2012 for health reasons and was succeeded by Council President James Fisher.
Womer Benjamin was elected in November, receiving 1,541 votes (34.58 percent) in a six-person race. John Monroe finished second with 1,156 votes and Tom Plunkett was third with 807.
Womer Benjamin, a former four-term state representative, was elected as a Councilwoman-at-large in 2011. Council soon will interview candidates and pick a successor to her, who will serve until the term ends Dec. 31, 2015.
Womer Benjamin said she's excited to assume the city's top administrative post, and has already met with many employees to talk about the future.
She has picked Dean DePiero as her law director, replacing Alan Shorr, and has not reappointed Rich Wehrenberg as planning-zoning-building director. The latter post will be filled in the coming months, Womer Benjamin said.
"I'M NOT sure who will head the planning-zoning-building department," she said. "I am looking for qualified candidates, and may undertake an executive search."
Despite not having a planning-zoning-building director, Womer Benjamin said a primary focus early in her term will be on plans to create a mixed-use zoning district for land in the northern part of town, some of which formerly was Sea World and Geauga Lake Park.
"We plan to place creation of the new district on the May ballot, and we're already working hard with Bainbridge Township trustees and talking to the public about the need to pass a zoning amendment," she explained.
Meanwhile, Womer Benjamin said Fisher "has been wonderful" helping to make the transition from himself to her as smooth as possible.
"He has kept me apprised of union negotiations going on and other important city matters," she said. "He's been willing to assist me in any way possible and has been very helpful," she said. "I think the transition will be easy."
The new mayor also divulged that she's been meeting with city employees in all departments, "so I can get to know them and they can get to know me."
She said she probably will not reorganize any departments immediately, but she's not ruling that possibility out in the future. "There are some good directors for me to work with," she noted.
Finance Director Bob Paul, Service Director John Trew and Parks-Recreation Director Jim Kraus will continue to head their departments, as will Police Chief Seth Riewaldt and Fire Chief David Barnes.
WOMER Benjamin said Riewaldt plans to retire at mid-year, and she and her department heads will seek to find the best possible person to replace him.
"I believe one of my strengths has already been to develop good relationships with the people around me -- such as when I headed the Ohio Department of Insurance -- and I will work hard to continue that," she said.
"I'm excited to serve the people of Aurora as mayor. There are many opportunities ahead of us, and I'm ready to work hard to move the city forward. I will continue to be very focused on constituent service."
Womer Benjamin has lived in Aurora for 28 years. She is an attorney by trade, as is her husband David. He is a former Aurora law director. They are parents of two grown daughters.
Womer Benjamin saw 20 of her bills passed in the state legislature. Since 2007, she was executive director of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, leading it to bring higher education and business together to advance economic development in the region.
The new mayor earned her bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, and received her juris doctorate from Case Western Reserve University School of Law. She practiced law for more than 20 years with firms in Cleveland and Canton.
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