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Wednesday, April 24,2013

City Council candidates sound off

By David DeWitt

Photo Caption: Top, from left, Jennifer Cochran, Chris Knisely, Michael McSteen. Bottom, from left, Steve Patterson, Michael Bart, Ron Luce.

With the spring block party fest season by Ohio University students wrapped up in Athens, the six at-large Democratic primary candidates for City Council gave their takes on the city's new enforcement policy.

The May 7 primary, which will take after many students have left town, features at-large incumbents Steve Patterson and Chris Knisely are running for re-election, while former council member Michael McSteen, Historical Society director Ron Luce, Avalanche Pizza manager Michael Bart and Athens Wellness Cooperative massage therapist Jennifer Cochran also are running for at-large seats. Third at-large incumbent Elahu Gosney is not seeking re-election.

The top three vote-getters in the primary will go on to the November election where there is currently no other competition, though independent candidates still have time to emerge.

The candidates were emailed a series of questions related to the relationship between the city and the university.

Here are the full questions and their answers.

Do you think that the current policies regarding regulation of student events by the city is appropriate? Is there anything you'd like to see done differently?

Luce: "Another 'Palmer Fest' has come and gone, apparently with fewer arrests and confrontations with law officers than in past years. Chief Pyle and his staff have done a great job of gaining control over potentially dangerous situations such as these 'Fests.' We should all be proud of our police and fire departments for the excellent work they do keeping us safe.  Over the past year, the police have been doing a better job of enforcing our nuisance and noise ordinances, and for that I am grateful.  Ideally, ALL neighbors, regardless of whether they are students, residents, or landlords, would respect the rights of others to enjoy the peace and quiet of their own homes and yards.  In the best of all worlds, there would be no need for ordinances to control behavior; unfortunately, we are not in the best of all worlds yet.  I hope we can rein in Halloween as effectively as we have done so far this year with the in-City fests.  I would like to see at least one or two more officers on the job, and I would like to see more landlord participation and the kind of care and safety implementation that Les Cornwell exhibited during the recent Palmer Fest.

Cochran: "I am happy that we have come through fest season in Athens with far fewer arrest and incidents that previous years and I do believe that the current policies the city has implemented in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies are proving to be effective and appropriate. Some of the incidents from previous years with beer bottles being thrown at officers and fires being set were not only dangerous, but a real embarrassment to our town and our university. The reduced number of arrests and improved compliance of party-goers with law enforcement shows that the enactment and enforcement of the noise and nuisance ordinances and collaboration of law enforcement is working."

McSteen: "Yes, I do feel the city's current policies and regulations are adequate and appropriate. I think the council did it's best to codify regulations that would give law enforcement officials the ability to take control of events that get out of control and could lead to more serious issues. That being said, I believe the Athens City Police department is doing a outstanding job under Chief Pyle in being prepared for these events, working with students, residents and other city departments to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Under Chief Pyle, I believe the Police Department is much better at making decisions "on the ground" about crowd situations and how and when to take control of these events.

Now with regard to the Numbers Fest, that is a disaster waiting to happen. The way attendees get to and from the event is ridiculous and dangerous. First, the homemade taxis that deliver attendees is both illegal and unsafe. I don't think the people who taxied those attendees to the event understand the liability that they incur when they transport  people to the event. If something were to happen, they would be responsible. I also think it is irresponsible of event coordinators to let thousands of people to walk out onto state highway not designed for pedestrian traffic without any regard for their safety.  I think the city and county should demand more from the promoters to resolve the blatant safety issues that arise from that event."

Bart: "From what I'm told it was one of the calmer fests. Maybe they should call it calmer fest instead of Palmer Fest. The police and code should be commended for the job they did because they went around and told people, 'We're looking for litter in the yard. We're looking for people blocking the right-of-way. We're looking for people taking open containers into the streets.' As long as they let people know what they're looking for and give fair warnings, and then later come and shut down people who are breaking the law, I think that's definitely the way to do it, with as much communication as possible.

I'd actually like to see that type of communication year-around with how they enforce the noise ordinance… The police really should give houses a warning before they give them a fine. The way it works now is if it's after 10 o'clock and you're in violation you can get a $100 fine with no warning.

I also think it's good that they're focusing on litter and trash (at the fests). That's a problem that stays with us long after the noise is gone."

Patterson: "I sat on the task force for the multi-house parties that took place last summer where we were exploring the possibility of putting forward a new ordinance. That didn't happen for a number of reasons. Primarily it didn't happen because we realized that it would be stepping on individual rights if we tried to craft an ordinance that said if there are X number of parties taking place on a block everybody could be shut down. Out of that really came the understanding that the city already had the tools in the toolbox to be used.

We have a noise ordinance law and it's very specific. We have a nuisance party law. It's very specific. It was just a matter of the police force having a paradigm shift, a cultural shift. I think it fit well with the semester system. The flip side of all that is that Ohio University through judiciaries has become more and more stringent on what is acceptable behavior and what can happen if someone does get a public intox. or a drug or alcohol incident.

So if you're looking at all of the tools that are in play, it's become very effective."

Knisely: "I think the city police department is more actively enforcing laws that are already on the books. I'd say that the number one aspect of that policy is promoting city safety. There are a number of other things that are going on with the Joint Police Advisory Committee. They've been looking at safety in a number of ways, such as taking a safety tour of the city, like looking around the city at night where we could use more lighting.

I think the joint policing between the city and OU has been effective. The thing I'd like to see is more community-student interaction, and discussion… In the broader sense, my hope would be that if there are more opportunities for students and community members to interact together then it seems more like one community."

Council members are sometimes faced with balancing the interests of landlords and student tenants and the interests of nearby neighborhood permanent residents. What would be your approach, or what is your approach, as a City Council in making decisions that impact all of those parties, and balancing those interests?

Luce: "All decisions depend upon numerous factors and need to be made on a case-by-case basis unless there is clear law or city codes dictating the obvious decision.  The reporter's statement and question above suggests that there are three distinctly different entities in the city: landlords, student tenants and permanent residents in conflict.  This is not the way I look at it.  EVERYONE who lives in Athens deserves all the rights and privileges of any other person who lives here.  ALL of us need to be thoughtful about our behaviors and considerate of one another.  When ANY person living in the city is inconsiderate, threatening, or dangerous, that person should be dealt with as such.  We need a new vision of who we are collectively as diverse people sharing this city.  Let's get rid of the "Us vs. Them" mentality once and for all.

As to the "Blue Gator" building, let me state what I have said previously:  There is nothing architecturally wrong with a balcony!  However, we have codes that state how far anything can protrude from a building into public space; any exception needs to be considered on its own merits.   Unfortunately, this current  "balcony issue" has come down to trying to control bad behavior we have seen numerous times from balconies elsewhere in the city . . . the real issue is about behavior rather than the structure itself.  Since our police, fire department, and other safety officials have all said this is a bad idea to allow a balcony (based on past experiences), I would take that strongly into consideration before making a decision.  However, I also think the landlords did follow all guidelines and proper procedures when they petitioned for a "revocable license."  If old couples were renting the apartments and using the balconies to sit outside while drinking tea, I doubt there would be much controversy; the real concern is the fear of "student" behavior.  The powers of a revocable-license-compromise seems realistic to me as an opportunity for the tenants to prove themselves.  If the tenants are abusive, and the landlords cannot manage the tenants' behaviors, the renewable license should be revoked by City Council."

Cochran: "There will always be challenges in balancing the interests of constituents, whether they be students, landlords, neighborhood residents, or other groups, but we need to make sure that we are following the City's established Code of Ordinances and if those ordinances are unclear they need to be clarified and applied evenly across the City. Each time a variance is granted precedence is being set for future building projects and we need to be consistent in our application and execution of City code as it applies to new construction and renovation."

McSteen: "If you are wanting to know if I would have approved the original variance, yes, I would have approved it. The developers of that property have invested a considerable amount of money into that property. In my opinion they have greatly improved the property. From a city perspective they significantly increased the tax value of the property. That is a benefit to the city and it is what we want investors and developers to do, improve the tax value of properties.  Investors have visions for their properties and they are willing to take risks to make those visions come true. A 48-inch balcony does not seem unreasonable to help these developers complete their dreams. The city does risk alienating investors if they aren't willing to reasonably work with them to improve city properties. Same can be said about the old Bella Vino property. 

I understand that some city residents have some concerns about the balcony. But I believe most of their concerns are centered around the behavior of people on the balconies. I don't think any property owner can fully protect against people doing stupid things. I don't think allowing a reasonable variance would protect against it either."

Bart: "The first step in my approach would be seeking as much input from the public as possible, whether it's from neighbors or people who just walk by. Government can't really do anything without the people who put them in power. It wouldn't be just me. I'd listen to the opinions of students, residents and neighborhood associations.

I don't think that the misbehavior of some students should impede landlords from trying to improve their property with things like balconies. If there are problems I think the full force of the law should come down on people who are throwing stuff off balconies or harassing people.

I don't think balconies should have porous floors. If you look at the balcony about Subway, every time there's a party and I walk under that I'm worried that someone's going to be spilling a drink on me. So I don't think there should be a porous floor that people walk under."

Patterson: "When you're at-large you hear from across the entire city and so I always take those various opinions into account. I have to. We all do. We're sworn to… What's important is reaching out, in this case, to the landlord, especially in terms of strengthening the language if it's possible in their lease agreements.

You have a lot of power in that lease, especially if it's enforced, to facilitate the learning of what you can and can't do on a property and the learning of what ordinances say. I would like to see something like that in most lease agreements, something that lists the codes, everything from litter all the way through nuisance parties, and that these are things the tenants need to be conscious about and that these are city laws, and please don't violate them.

In terms of City Council's role, we are the stewards of serving all the people and we have to do that effectively. I have to work daily on finding a common ground."

Knisely: "It is balancing and listening to different people respond to the situation and what they think are concerns about it or what's good about it. It's listening to people and then asking what's on the books; what codes or laws are there to guide us… I'm trying to listen to as many people comment as I can, including developers, other business owners, students, residents and looking at other experiences with other balconies. Some have been trouble-free, others have not.

I also try to listen to city staff and find out what do fire, police, code and public works say?"

What type of experience have you had dealing with the relationship between students and the city of Athens and its permanent residents? What issues do you think need addressed and what types of issues have you dealt with personally in the past?

Luce: "I taught at Hocking College for twenty-five years and have lived around and among students since 1980.  I love young people and enjoy their energy and enthusiasm.  I find the vast majority of students I've encountered over these thirty-two years to be bright, interesting, wonderful people.  As far as I am concerned, there is no reason whatsoever that we should not all be able to live together comfortably as neighbors as long as we ALL observe a few basic rules for getting along:  1. Respect your neighbors, their homes, and their properties; 2. Remember that you are not the center of the universe; 3. There is no shame in saying, "I'm sorry . . . I was wrong . . . and I won't do it again."

Having stated the previous paragraph, let me clarify that I have seen people trash our streets and yards; I have heard language that I would never use in public; I have seen the aftermath of drunken debauchery, and I find such behavior offensive and unbecoming of humanity. I have heard and seen such things from every aspect of our City . . . not just from students.   I know that our safety is sometimes in jeopardy because of some people who do not share my vision of what humanity could or should be.  Clearly as a society, we need to confront bad behaviors.  As individuals we need to speak up when people are undermining our use of our personal property or any aspect of our collective environment.  People who complain about abuses should be taken seriously and supported.  We need to educate our children about self-respect and respect for others.  We need to take bold actions in asking for better behaviors wherever possible and then forcing the issue—if necessary—if people are becoming threatening or are diminishing the quality of life in our City.  I advocate for cooperation, positive collective action through neighborhood associations and other such groups, and believe education is the primary means for changing the way we live in this city together.  For those who do not buy into collaboration and cooperation, we need enforceable codes, consistent enforcement, and human and financial resources for insuring the health, safety, and welfare of others."

Cochran: "I have been a student at Ohio University, worked as a full-time administrator there, and now serve as a massage therapist at the Ping Fitness Center. I have worked side-by-side with students on community service projects and appreciate the man contributions they bring to my children's classrooms. Each individual interaction I have with a student is positive and I'd like to reframe our discussions so we don't think so much in terms of us and them or students and residents. I think minimizing the negative impact of the spring fests on the community at large will go a long way toward improving community relations. Add to that better code enforcement to ensure the upkeep of rental properties and I think we'll be making great strides toward a better quality of life for all of us. We want students to come here and grow and learn along with us. They enrich our lives and we enrich theirs. We know that some of them will stay in this community after they graduate, or they will go away and return just as many of us have who are no longer University students. We just need to maintain balance."

McSteen: "I think it's all about how we as citizens of Athens live together.  How we deal with each other on a daily basis. I know some permanent residents who have issues with other permanent residents. I've also known students who were outstanding neighbors. It really depends on the individual and how much they want to be a considerate member of the city, whether they have lived here for 40 years or 40 days. The issues that arise are the same with any neighbor. Are they noisy? Do they maintain their property? Do they manage their animals? Are they considerate of others?

From my experience, I have found that getting to know your neighbors is the best way to address these issues. Being proactive rather than reactive. Helping them resolve issues rather than constantly complaining. Now I know it doesn't work in every situation, but being a model good neighbor goes a long way in developing positive relationships with both student and permanent residents."

Bart: "I am a former student who has become a permanent resident of Athens, and I do not think that is an uncommon phenomenon in our city. The University attracts many talented and industrious people to the town, and some of them may want, as I did, to stay and make Athens their home. What I am interested in primarily, is how to expand the opportunities in and around the city for young people. People who want to start a business, own home, or start a family. People who will help the city grow and thrive in the future. Currently, I think that the cost of rent, both for a business and for a home is quite high in Athens, and it can make doing business or living here difficult. I hope to introduce programming that may help make it easier for first time homeowners and business people to purchase and hopefully improve the property they purchase."

Patteson: "All of the boards such as the Joint Police Advisory Council have student components. We have student members. And I teach at OU so I'm very open to having students come up to me and ask me questions. I really like the way JPAC has worked and I'm currently working on a second memorandum of understanding. It would be similar to JPAC but would deal with disabilities, or, a better way to phrase it, different abilities. It would be an entity that would have university affiliates, students, faculty and people from the different wards.

I think we're doing a better job of integrating the student body, the university and the city together to come up with solutions to different problems. We have a long ways to go but we're doing better. My job as a city council member is to come up with different ways to utilize voices throughout the campus and city to come up with positive solutions to solve problems."

Knisely: "Noise is still an issue, and not just parties but barking dogs. Trash is always an issue. Code and conditions of the neighborhoods are still an issue. It's all quality of life for the community.

I think in a way I've put my foot in both worlds, having been involved and working for the university and the city. Right now some of my experience with that has been serving on the committee for the memorandum of understanding. So we're looking at broadstroke areas of how we can work more effectively together."


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