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City Council Candidates Discuss Issues in First Public Forum

Walker Evans Walker Evans City Council Candidates Discuss Issues in First Public ForumPhoto by Walker Evans.
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The Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church hosted its second “Meet the Candidates” event last night (the first one featured the four mayoral candidates) and there were almost as many people fielding questions as there were in attendance. Ten City Council candidates were seated before the audience gathered by the Columbus Coalition of Concerned Black Citizens.

Due to the large number of candidates, question response times were shortened to 90 seconds, preventing answers from going too far in depth on any specific topic. Several audience members brought up questions on very complex issues, but requested simple “yes or no” answers from the panel. Several candidates refused to answer in simple terms, which caused some issues with the format of the event.

Democrat candidates at the event included incumbents Zach Klein and Michelle Mills as well as recent appointees Jaiza Page and Shannon Hardin. Newcomer Democrats on the ticket include Michael Stinziano, Kiwan Lawson and Will Petrik. Republican candidates at the event included John Rush, Besa Sharrah and Ibrahima Sow.

The wide field of candidates provided for a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. Sow and  Sharrah both touted their perspectives as immigrants to the US who sought new opportunities. Klein and Mills talked about their track records and accomplishments, both having served on Council since 2011. Page talked about her experiences in the office of the City Attorney and growing up in Linden. Hardin and Lawson both mentioned their High School experiences in Columbus and talked about how they both want to give back to the city. Stinziano talked about his experience at the Ohio House of Representatives. Rush explained how he’s helped to create thousands of job opportunities by co-founding Clean Turn International. And Petrik dove straight into the issues, mentioning the need to increase the minimum wage and focus attention on underserved neighborhoods.

The first big question of the night came from Pastor Reeves of Corinthian, who wanted to know what the candidates would do to encourage more diversity in the Columbus police force. He said he specifically wanted to see more African Americans present in future graduating classes.

“I feel like we’re sitting on a treasure trove of talent with the African American community, but we need to be aggressive in working with Columbus State and Columbus City Schools to bridge the age gap from 18 to 21 when men and women can graduate from the training academy and carry a gun,” said Klein. “We already have a structure in place so they can get college credit in addition to being enrolled at the training academy.”

Sharrah dove in to disagree with Klein, saying that talking about work study programs in 2015 are behind the curve in addressing the issue.

“This didn’t start today, and it didn’t start with Ferguson,” she stated. “I’d like to understand what’s going on today; take the budget and appropriate some funds to trying to understand what’s wrong with our police system.”

Hardin said that outreach to the community has to begin in schools so that if there is interest in becoming a police officer, kids can be steered in a positive direction that will help to keep their records free of blemishes. Mills added that faith-based leaders need to help out by encouraging young people to pursue public safety jobs. Lawson noted that poor relationships between black communities and law enforcement keep the interest in that career path limited.

“How many of us feel safe when the police pull up?” he asked the audience. “The problem is the correlation and relationship with law enforcement. Before that rhetoric changes, our youth will have that same fear of the police. Why would they want to become something they fear?”

The second main question of the night also dealt with law enforcement. Reverend John Coats asked if the candidates would support the creation of a public review commission that would be tasked with holding public safety officials accountable to the needs of the community. The question was initially directed to Klein and Sow.

“This is a difficult subject,” said Klein, who currently chairs the Public Safety Committee at City Council. “In order to have a community review board you need to have community buy-in. The underlying issue is about how we can improve dialogue, and this already inspired me to go to our police chief to say that she needs to go out and hold her own forums and hear these issues. The community’s concerns are real.”

Sow said that he’s in favor of more preventative action and more effective policies. Petrik and Lawson both chimed in on the topic to say that they would support independent review boards and that police officers should be held accountable while also recognizing the dangerousness of their jobs.

Once the floor was opened to the public Q&A session, topics ranged from a $12 minimum wage to limits on campaign finances to addressing a visible lack of diversity in the construction workforce in neighborhoods like the Near East Side.

“There’s a drastic shortage of African Americans in the skilled trades,” said Rush. “Over the last three years we’ve provided training and employment for those kinds of jobs at Clean Turn with the specific goal of getting more people into the skilled trades to earn a sustainable wage.”

All ten candidates indicated that they would support a minimum wage increase to $12 per hour. Sharrah added that taxes should also be cut for small business owners who would be forced to pay those higher wages, and Rush said that government assistance programs should not be cut at a rate faster than a wage increase.

“I think we should look at the difference between having a job versus having a career,” said Lawson. “A career would allow for 401ks and retirement funds. A career is how people can build wealth.”

Many of the candidates agreed that limiting campaign contributions for local elections would be a good idea, though without specific details, it was tough for some candidates to answer on simple terms.

“What’s the policy?” Klein questioned.

“I can support a common sense proposal, but I don’t know exactly what that would look like,” echoed Stinziano.

“If I could run a moneyless campaign, I would,” said Rush, eliciting chuckles from the audience and the panel. “Ideally, everyone should get $500 to spend and have to run based on their character and their experience.”

Petrik pointed out that mayoral candidate Andrew Ginther has already received a $100,000 campaign contribution from Mayor Michael Coleman, saying that unlimited campaign contributions are damaging to democracy.

Another yes-or-no question from the audience was about the support for a ward-based council system rather than the at-large system currently in place. The response was mixed among the group.

“I have concerns with wards,” said Stinziano. “I’ve seen 99 members of the House siloed and focused only on their districts. So no, I wouldn’t support it.”

“I have some concerns, but I’m open to any conversation,” said Page.

“I’d like to see a mix of at-large and district representation,” stated Petrik.

“When you call upon City Council, you should have seven people accountable to your needs, not just one,” said Hardin.

One of the most provocative questions from the audience last night came from former Columbus City Schools Vice Principal and current Columbus School Board Candidate Bernadine Kennedy-Kent, who wanted to know if any of the City Council candidates were interested in meeting with local families and concerned citizens who claim to have evidence that local law enforcement officials are ignoring crimes against black children.

All candidates who answered said that they would be interested in meeting to discuss the issue.

The closest the discussion came to a debate was when Klein answered a question about economic disparity by talking about a variety of neighborhood improvement programs including code enforcement and the demolition of blighted and abandoned properties. Lawson said that he had a family member who couldn’t afford to maintain his home and that it was upsetting to hear that Klein wants to tear it down. Klein responded by saying that there were many assistance programs in place and he would be happy to ensure that Lawson’s relative had help looking into those programs.

One of the final questions of the night asked candidates to give one word that describes their campaign. Their answers were as follows:

  • Page – “Results”
  • Sow – “Committed”
  • Mills – “Opportunity”
  • Sharrah – “Unity”
  • Petrik – “Listening”
  • Klein – “Neighborhoods”
  • Rush – “Rush”
  • Hardin – “Us”
  • Stinziano – “Transformative”
  • Lawson – “Accountability”

Pastor Reeves closed out with event by chiding the candidates for not providing details on how they would improve the quality of life for African Americans in Columbus.

No one has specifically talked about the agenda you have for black folks,” he stated. “You keep using the word minority, but that encompasses several groups. Women, the gay community, the Latino community, Asians, Indians, and so on. My concerns are for everybody, but I continue to see black folks getting the short end of the stick. Everything looks great from the ivory palace Downtown, but if you come up a few blocks you’ll see different environment. Your record has to mean something.”

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