Five Athens City Council candidates made their cases Tuesday for why they should be among city residents’ choices for three open at-large Athens City Council seats in the Nov. 7 general election.
The candidates – three Democrats and two Independents – answered a litany of questions at a candidate’s forum put on by the League of Women Voters of Athens County at the Athens Public Library Tuesday evening.
The candidates are: incumbents Patrick McGee (Independent) and Peter Kotses (Democrat); Arian Smedley (Democrat, recently appointed to an at-large seat); Noah Trembly (Independent); and Sarah Grace (Democrat). Grace is a local landlord and was the Democrat candidate who ran and lost in the race for the 94th Ohio House District seat in 2016.
Trembly, who lives with cerebral palsy, is a member of the Athens City Commission on Disabilities, former outreach coordinator with OU on issues relating to disabilities, and owner of a consultancy company that works on similar issues.
Smedley is executive assistant to the superintendent of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and formerly worked as community relations coordinator at Athens County Job & Family Services. She was a newspaper journalist early in her career, both in Athens and out of state with the Associated Press.
McGee is a longtime local lawyer and former public defender who serves as managing attorney of OU’s Center for Student Legal Services (he was voted to an at-large City Council seat in 2015).
Kotses is co-owner of Athens Bicycle, who also was voted to an at-large City Council seat in 2015.
In opening remarks:
• Grace said she has lived in Athens for more than 20 years and has raised four children here. She cited her experience as a local business owner and that she’s pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
• Kotses said he’s a lifelong resident of Athens who has lived in three of the four wards in the city limits. He touted his experience as a local business owner for 20 years, as well as an advocate for multi-modal transportation in Athens.
• McGee, who has been in Athens since roughly 1970, said the current system of one-party (Democratic) rule in Athens is not representative of all views in Athens, and argued that he’s the one to advocate for those without a voice.
• Smedley said she’s been in Athens since early elementary school, and cited her experience working in social services as well as her time serving on City Council so far, during which she’s been on the city’s city and safety services and transportation committees
• Trembly said he’s been a resident of Athens for 10 years, initially working as an artist, then as an advocate at the state level for issues relating to SGDs (speech-generating devices, which he uses). He said that more recently he’s worked to advocate for improved accessibility in Athens.
TREMBLY SAID THE TWO MAIN issues facing the city are “housing and jobs.” The city needs more affordable housing, he said, arguing for a greater variety of housing options for low-income people and people with disabilities.
Smedley said aging infrastructure is a big challenge, especially with the city losing roughly $3.5 million in state local-government funding since 2009. McGee said a lack of affordable housing and living-wage jobs are the main challenge facing the city, adding that the city needs more affordable housing for permanent resident families (Smedley agreed with him).
Kotses said the reduction of local government funding from the state is one of the biggest issues facing the city, specifically with relation to its need to repair and rebuild aging infrastructure (he mentioned Athens Police and Fire departments needing new buildings).
Grace said that aging infrastructure is the biggest issue in her mind, making sure that residents have well-maintained waterlines and sewer lines (she added that elected officials should petition at the state level for more local-government funding to address these issues).
THE CANDIDATES WERE ASKED about the Athens City School District’s facilities planning process, which could lead to construction of new school buildings in the area (and demolition of old ones).
Grace said she’d “love to see neighborhood schools” (currently West and East elementaries) remain a part of Athens, but said the divisiveness of the issue in the school district has been upsetting.
Kotses said that City Council doesn’t have the jurisdiction to answer that question, although he did offer his own personal opinion that he believes a single campus of buildings would be a better idea in order to address issues of equity.
McGee said he is “unequivocally” in favor of neighborhood schools remaining in Athens, and disagreed with Kotses, arguing that it is City Council’s place to have “some kind of input on this.”
Smedley, who said she does not have a preference, promised to go along with whatever the Athens City School Board ends up deciding, as long as they address issues in the district relating to integrating students from different economic backgrounds and improving services for students with disabilities.
Trembly said he has mixed feelings about the debate, but noted that, as a person living with a disability, one campus of buildings could provide better resources for children with such needs.
THE CANDIDATES ALSO responded to a question about The Athens Taco Cannabis Ordinance (TACO), a proposal on the ballot this year seeking to substantially reduce penalties for marijuana crimes in the city of Athens.
Kotses said he’s worried that the proposal “muddies the waters” because it only affects the city, whereas OU’s campus is regulated by Ohio Revised Code. He said he’s worried that students could lose their scholarships or otherwise face career repercussions if they get caught and are charged with a marijuana crime on campus.
Grace shared Kotses’ concerns, noting that in all of 2016 and the first part of 2017, only five marijuana cases were charged through Athens County Municipal Court under Athens city code, which is the only thing that the TACO ordinance changes. The potential for harm is “greater than the benefit of a symbolic statement,” she said.
Trembly said that he supports legalization of marijuana, but said he still thinks people should be punished if they get caught with it currently in Ohio since it’s still illegal. He does support the city’s efforts to lower most charges for first-time offenders to disorderly conduct, however, he added.
McGee said marijuana should have been legalized 20 years ago, and said he “absolutely” supports TACO. It’s a symbolic step that could help get the point across to other Ohio municipalities and the Ohio Legislature that the state is ready for marijuana legalization, he said.
Smedley said she would support TACO if it did not have the potential to have a “negative impact on students,” citing similar concerns as Grace and Kotses.
For more coverage of Tuesday’s election forum, see the next edition of The Athens NEWS.