Housing, policing and environmental issues were all topics of discussion during the Athens City Council Fourth Ward candidate forum Tuesday night.
Fahl has held her seat on council for 12 years and played a major role in passing the city’s two most recent comprehensive plans, documents that outline a municipality’s aspirations over a decade or two.
Swank, a longtime Athens resident, is chair of the Athens Arts, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and was the first president of the Far East Side Neighborhood Association.
Residents of Athens’ fourth ward, which consists primarily of the east side of the city, are the only Athenians who will have the opportunity to cast a ballot during the primary election, slated for May 4. April 5 is the final day to register to vote for the primary.
Fahl and Swank answered questions submitted by community members and from the media.
Both candidates listed affordable housing as a platform priority, with Swank specifically pointing to a necessity among the senior citizen population. He noted that he has seen parents of many of his former athletes (he was formerly a volleyball coach at Athens High School) move out of the city due to lack of “affordable, quality housing,” distancing themselves from their loved ones.
Fahl, who helped create the city’s Affordable Housing Commission, said that regardless of homeowner status, residents should expect certain things of their elected officials. For example, residents of a city should have access to clean water, and elected officials should take the steps to ensure that happens. Some demographics, such as Ohio University students, have specific needs. Fahl noted she has worked with OU students on car towing prices and keeping towing yards in the city.
Funding through the American Rescue Plan, Fahl said, could provide opportunities to identify issues with housing and broadband and provide recreational opportunities, which she said could attract people to the city.
Swank, who highlighted racial equity as a priority within his platform, said he was disappointed in council for its lack of action following a June 2020 resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, which also committed council to performing a review of city code under a lens of racial equity.
“Are we talking about good or are we doing good?” Swank said. “Nine months later, the good has not been done. I find that embarrassing.”
More embarrassing, Swank said, is that part of the commitment to review city code was also to review the contract for the city’s police department. Police union contracts were renewed last December with no racial review.
The City of Athens partnered with the Athens County Foundation this year in order to use a subgroup of the foundation, the Racial Equity Coalition, as a "hub" for the city to follow through with parts of the resolution. Work city leadership has completed in relation to the resolution has focused on searching for discriminatory language in deeds.
Fahl, who voted in favor of the June 2020 resolution, noted that during last summer when numerous protests for racial equity occurred locally and nationwide, she had to educate herself on the topic and on policies associated with the city’s police department.
“Before you go and do policy changes, you need to know what’s going on,” she said. “And not everything gets talked about when we’re doing stuff, because it’s boring.”
Fahl pointed to the necessity for broadband support in terms of diversifying the city’s economy, but she also noted that she and other councilmembers have been working with OhioHealth to make Athens a regional hub for healthcare.
“Healthcare is a way for, especially young women, to lift themselves out of poverty,” she said. “That sort of investment is really important because it helps diversify the people who are able to come in and get jobs.”
Swank said he agrees with Fahl about broadband, noting its utility especially in regard to remote work. He also pointed to outdoor recreation opportunities, healthcare and manufacturing as means to promote diversity within the city's business landscape.
Both candidates also addressed how they believe the city should utilize funding from the American Rescue Plan, saying the funds should be used on programs heavily impacted by the pandemic. Fahl and Swank noted that parking, for example, took a huge hit due to COVID-19.
When the City Council passed the climate emergency resolution last year, Fahl said, it gave Athens the tools needed to combat climate change and work toward carbon neutrality in the city.
Both Fahl and Swank agreed that moving toward banning single-use plastics would be good for the city.
“We are inundated by plastic,” Fahl said. “We need to really look at source reduction and getting our house in order.”
In addition, Swank voiced the necessity for free bus transit to encourage the reduction of car usage. Swank also said the city’s composting plan, which is an opt-out program and has fees associated with it, should be free.
Diversity on council
Fahl and Swank answered questions from both The Athens NEWS and The Athens Messenger. The NEWS asked both candidates if they believe Athens City Council lacks diversity, a concern voiced by local activists and Councilmember Peter Kotses.
Swank said that council lacks racial diversity and that it may also lack diversity in terms of political philosophy.
“One thing that I feel is lacking on council right now… is a sense of fiscal responsibility and conservatism,” he said. He pointed to recent contracts for water and sewer rates that he feels should have been renegotiated, rather than simply passed.
Although Fahl previously told The NEWS that she disagrees that council lacks diversity, she further added during the Monday night forum that she thinks it's important to keep in mind that council positions are a “quarter-time” gig, with a stipend earned. Some people in the community may be unable to take on the role because of scheduling conflicts, she said.
“There’s not enough time for them to be able to make enough money,” she said. “That does reduce the number of possible students and young professionals.” She encouraged people who participate in committee’s for the city, noting they may have administrative insight to add to city council conversations.