Six candidates for Athens City Council’s three at-large seats stated their case during a candidate forum at the Athens Community Center last Thursday.
Topics during the forum – hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County – ranged from the recent, controversial arrest of a young African-American man in uptown Athens two weekends ago, to Ohio University’s recent downturn in enrollment and how that might affect the city, to the relatively high cost of rent, living and operating a business in Athens.
Below is a brief summary of each candidate and his or her opening statement.
• Chris Monday, first-time Independent candidate, local worker and local cartoonist. In his opening statement, Monday advocated for paying all workers a “living wage” and attempting to find a way to reduce the cost of rent in Athens.
• Pete Kotses, incumbent Democratic candidate who is finishing up his second term on Athens City Council, owner of Athens Bicycle. Kotses highlighted his work as chair of City Council’s transportation committee, as a member of City Council’s finance committee, and noted that he engages with the community every day as a business owner and public official.
• Ellie Hamrick, first-time independent candidate, self-identified socialist, worker at Casa Nueva in Athens. Her campaign has four main tenets: “fighting for the working class” and a $15 minimum wage; prioritizing “care over criminalization” with harm reduction policies for people addicted to opioids; the city should end cooperation with federal immigration officials and allow non-citizens to vote; and “putting planet over profit.”
• Beth Clodfelter, first-time Democratic candidate, employee at the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council, former director of the office of nationally competitive awards at OU. Clodfelter highlighted her work at OU helping people obtain Fulbright Scholarships, as well as her work on the boards of the Athens-Hocking Recycling Centers, the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network, and as a member of Rural Action. She said she wants to work to improve the city’s sustainability, safety and stewardship of public funds.
• Patrick McGee, incumbent independent candidate who is finishing up his second term on Athens City Council, former managing attorney at the Center for Student Legal Services. McGee highlighted his attempts while on council to advocate for responsible spending of taxpayer dollars, and to critically consider the city administration’s proposals. He said his “biggest disappointment” on City Council is that “we don’t get options, we get presentations.”
• Sarah Grace, incumbent Democratic candidate who is finishing up her first term on Athens City Council, local landlord. She highlighted her work as chair of the city’s Affordable Housing Commission and as a member of the Joint Police Advisory Council. She said her main focuses are looking at the “long-term health and wellbeing and sustainability” of Athens.
We’ll include some highlights from the rest of the event below, but anyone interested in hearing the full proceedings can watch the video by going to this link.
In response to a question about the recent forceful arrest of an African-American University of Cincinnati student on North Court Street, Kotses said he knows racism exists in the foundation of society, but doesn’t believe the city administration or Athens Police Chief Pyle would condone racism at the APD. “I don’t think we knew yet” what all transpired during the arrest, he said.
Grace said the video of the arrest made her “sick to my stomach,” but similarly noted that “we don’t know what information the police had as they responded to the call,” and said that it doesn’t look like the person arrested was harmed (you can see more background on the incident here).
Clodfelter said she was “really disturbed” by the video of the arrest, and said she thinks allegations of racism in the arrest “should be investigated” thoroughly, though she said she’s been impressed with Police Chief Pyle and comments he’s made about racism in policing.
Monday said he believes there was physical harm in the incident and also mental harm. He argued that there’s a way to deal with situations like that without the level of force he saw being used, and noted that people have a “legitimate fear” of police in America, and of the APD.
Hamrick said she thinks it was “clearly a racist incident,” and called on the APD to immediately release videos they have of the incident, drop the charges against the man who was arrested, and investigate the officers responsible for the arrest. She said she believes the function of police is “oppressive.” Later in the forum, she advocated for pulling funding away from the APD toward anti-poverty programs.
McGee, meanwhile, said he doesn’t believe the incident was about “racism, although it is endemic in the system” (he has a statement online about the arrest). Still, he said he believes the man shouldn’t have been arrested in such a forceful way, considering what the officers were responding to in the first place. He said the officers’ approach to the situation also could have led to the escalation in charges and use of force for the arrestee, considering he was walking away in the first place.
Asked about the biggest issue facing the city, the candidates had a variety of answers.
Hamrick said she believes poverty and inequality are the most pressing issues facing Athens, as well as the “looming ecological catastrophe” on a global scale. She proposed a massive hike in taxes on the “richest” people in Athens in order to help pay for anti-poverty programs.
“One in three children in this county are hungry, the elderly also suffer disproportionately high rate of food insecurity, and it’s the poorest and most unequal county in Ohio,” she said.
Grace said continuing to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure is one of the big goals of City Council, although later in the night she also said the city needs to continue to work toward the affordable housing commission’s goals of encouraging development of single-family homes in the $125,000 to $250,000 range.
Clodfelter said declining enrollment at OU should be of concern to everyone, from fewer customers for local businesses to lower tax income for the city, although she did note that the downturn seems to be part of a national trend.
“I would also like to see a real concentrated effort to (help) people start businesses in less expensive ways,” she said, suggesting that the unused former Athens Armory could be a good business incubation location.
Monday said he believes one of the biggest problems facing people in the city is the cost of housing and rent, while wages continue to be low for working-class people.
“I have four jobs, and I’m worried about paying the rent,” Monday said.
Kotses said his biggest concern is keeping oversight over the city’s budget, with less tax revenue potentially coming in this year, while still investing in the city’s transit system and other infrastructure.
“This is looking at the books and making sure that we are being mindful of those dollars and spending in a way that allows us to maximize our dollars,” he said, adding that the city also needs to work to encourage new businesses in town.
McGee said he also thinks the city needs to be mindful of its spending while trying to boost economic development. He said he agrees with an idea proposed by Clodfelter of solar co-ops to put solar panels on residential homes and increase those jobs in the area.
In other highlights during the forum, in no particular order:
• Monday and Hamrick voiced their support for bringing rent control to Athens, which typically locks landlords out of increasing the cost of rent each year that somebody rents a home. Hamrick also said she supports Athens mayoral candidate Damon Krane’s “operation slumlord smackdown,” for which she helped provide input. McGee and Grace said they don’t agree with implementing rent control, although McGee noted that “it’s a constant struggle” to get landlords to keep their properties in good conditions.
• Kotses, Hamrick and Monday said they all support a $15 per hour minimum wage becoming standard in the country. Kotses said he already does that at his business.
• Clodfelter suggested increasing tax incentives for people to redevelop currently vacant or blighted rental housing. Grace suggested the city pursue grant funding to incentivize people who would like to move into the city and rehabilitate those homes and occupy them.