Virginia Organizing held the first candidate forum Thursday the Charlottesville City Council election. Six candidates are seeking two open seats on the five member Council.
"Virginia Organizing is a non-partisan statewide grassroots organization that works on a variety of issues," said Jay James of WINA News Radio 1070 and the Bridge Ministries substance abuse program. "Virginia Organizing's goal is to enhance civic participation throughout the Commonwealth."
The candidates introduced themselves in alphabetical order. Each had two minutes to make an opening statement.
"I really do care about people in Charlottesville," said independent John Edward Hall. "I am passionate about running for office and making it fun and I expect to be successful. I expect to speak up and have a say in Council business."
Democrat Heather Hill went next and said many are disappointed in how city leaders handled the July 8 visit by the Ku Klux Klan, the August 12 Unite the Right rally and the fall-out after both.
"No conversation can happen this evening without recognizing the acts that have taken place in our city of terror in recent months," Hill said. "Our community is hurting and all of us are seeking answers. Transparency and accountability in how our city is managed has always been a top priority of mine and could not be more important now."
Independent Kenneth Jackson "who ran as a Republican in 2004 said he has also been a Democrat in the past. He said he is liberal in some ways and conservative in others.
"I don't want to be about party," Jackson said. "I want to be about people. This city is hurting and I know. My family was born and raised here. Both of my great-grandfathers were slaves here. When people start knocking Charlottesville, we were a beautiful city and got along."
Democrat Amy Laufer has been a member of the Charlottesville School Board since 2011 and said leadership is crucial for the community to overcome its many problems.
"The tragic events this summer, which I witnessed firsthand, and many of you witnessed firsthand, are completely traumatizing and for us those scenes of terror were played out in familiar places, places we go almost every day," Laufer said. "On top of all of that, we don't feel like we've heard much information from our community leaders, either leading up to it or even now. This only adds to the trauma we're all feeling."
Independent Paul Long has run twice before in 2009 and 2011 but this time wants to remind people why the American system of government exists.
"The American Constitution and the preamble ensuring domestic tranquility is one of the reasons we set up the national government," Long said. "That means protecting citizens and our government completely broke down in the last four or five months and did not provide protection for the citizens."
Long called on all five current City Council members to resign and called for more programs for the homeless.
Independent Nikuyah Walker said she deliberately decided not to run as a Democrat in the June 13 primary.
"I chose to run as an independent to force conversations that I thought and know that we needed to have way before the events of July 8, August 11 and August 12," Walker said. "My campaign slogan of 'Unmasking the Illusion' back in March when I launched, people thought I was being a little dramatic."
Walker said she is running to address what she said is the suffering of a lot of families who have always felt unsafe in the community even before the events of this summer.
Questions from the forum included whether employers should pay a 'living wage', what Council should do to increase affordable housing and how to pass legislation in the General Assembly to support Charlottesville.
Participants were also asked if they thought the city does enough to engage the public on decisions that come before Council.
"We definitely need to expand citizen engagement and we need to look at how to make sure people who are generally not in meetings and do not know what's going until it's affecting them are engaged," Walker said. "That primarily takes trust."
Hall said the three minutes people get to speak before Council is not enough, but a balance must be struck.
"I wish there could be more time alloted but if more time were alloted you wouldn't have much time to get the town's business taken care of," Hall said.
Hill said she met many people while campaigning for the primary who she said should be more involved in the process but it isn't convenient for them.
"Not everybody wants to sit at 7 p.m. and listen to a powerpoint presentation," Hill said. "Not everyone is comfortable in a room such as this and coming and having their voices heard in this type of setting."
Hill said Council chambers has become a more intimidating place over the past few months and everyone should feel welcome to attend and speak. She suggested holding regular meetings elsewhere in the community on a regular basis.
Jackson agreed with the idea that some people are staying away from Council meetings.
"There's no way for them to talk and get their point across," Jackson said, adding that the yelling and shouting is inappropriate. "We have to have some dignity and respect for one another."
Laufer said Chambers itself is in need of an upgrade.
"This is a very uncomfortable space," Laufer said. "Those seats feel like they were made in the 1940's. Nobody's comfortable. I feel like I'm in my basement. The fact that we're all sitting up so high. This doesn't equate for actual dialogue."
Laufer said Council should be holding more meetings especially in the aftermath of this summer.
Long echoed the idea of more meetings in more locations.
"I believe that City Council should meet once a week, maybe once or twice a month we should be having City Council meetings in various neighborhoods," Long said, adding he would like to extend the three-minute time limit during public comment even if it meant meetings lasting well into the morning.
The candidates will next meet at a Sept. 27 forum to be held by the Fry's Spring Neighborhood Association and the Johnson Village Neighborhood Association at Johnson Elementary School from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
James said the deadline to register to vote or update registration is Monday, Oct. 16. Election Day is Nov. 7.
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
01:00 - Introduction from Jay James of the Bridge Ministries substance abuse program and WINA News Radio 1070
04:50 - Opening statement from John Edward Hall (I)
05:55 - Opening statement from Heather Hill (D)
08:00 - Opening statement from Kenneth Jackson (I)
10:10 - Opening statement from Amy Laufer (D)
12:10 - Opening statement from Paul Long (I)
14:20 - Opening statement from Nikuyah Walker (I)
16:45 - Question 1: Do you believe all employers should pay a living wage, why or why not?
27:10 - Question 2: Charlottesville needs more affordable housing, what are two things City Council should do to address it?
39:00 - Question 3: What are your goals and plans to deal with structural racism in Charlottesville?
50:10 - Question 4: What systems of police accountability should we have in Charlottesville?
59:30 - Question 5: Do you believe the current methods of citizen participation are effective in the government process?
01:12:00 - Question 6: How do you plan to get city, county and UVA to work together on our priorities?
01:26:15 - Question 7: If you had the opportunity to spend 2 minutes to convince state legislators to do something to support Charlottesville, what would you say?
01:36:45 - Question 8: How will you take action to make Charlottesville a more environmentally friendly city?
01:47:15 - Closing statement from Nikuyah Walker
01:49:30 - Closing statement from Paul Long
01:51:00 - Closing statement from Amy Laufer
01:53:15 - Closing statement from Kenneth Jackson
01:55:30 - Closing statement from Heather Hill
01:57:45 - Closing statement from John Edward Hall