City Council candidates at Oct. 25 Jefferson School African American Heritage Center forum Credit: Credit: Tim Dodson, Cavalier Daily

At the final City Council candidate forum for the 2017 general election, the six candidates for two open seats were asked for their views on whether Charlottesville is a place where everyone is able to be successful.

“A strong community is one where all sectors are thriving,” said Andi Copeland-Whitsett, the moderator for the event held Wednesday at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

Copeland-Whitsett asked the candidates what their plans are to support and build the African-American and Hispanic middle class in Charlottesville.

Independent Kenneth Jackson said the question was loaded and said Councilors cannot take actions to address one racial demographic over others.

“If you were to ask me what I would do for poor people, we would put programs like we had before into effect like the Wheels to Work program and job training,” Jackson said. “That helps pick the lower-income people up.”

Democrat Heather Hill said the city should invest in child-care programs to help the youngest community members to have a place to go so their parents can work. Investing in education is also important.

“I think every three and four-year old in our preschool system should have access to a free education starting at those ages and working up through our public education system,” Hill said. “For our minority communities we need to make sure we are supporting them with mentoring that can happen in the middle-schools and into high school.”

Independent Nikuyah Walker said decisions need to be made by more diverse groups and existing policies need to be challenged.

“There isn’t a system in Charlottesville that isn’t broken in terms of making sure the needs of black and Hispanic families are met,” Walker said.

Walker said the city needs a citizen police advisory board with enforcement powers and there needs to be reform in the Commonwealth’s Attorney office to stop the targeting of African-Americans.

Independent Paul Long called for more government programs to address poverty.

“The black community needs special attention because it’s been systematically oppressed,” Long said. “But numerically nationwide there are more poor white people than there are black people so trying to uplift people out of poverty should be to lift up everybody.”

Long said both the University of Virginia and Charlottesville businesses should be forced to pay employees more. He called upon people to picket outside of fast-food restaurants. 

Democrat Amy Laufer, a member of the city school board, said the number of pre-school seats has been increased to 260 seats and city tax dollars have gone to extend that to three-year olds.

“This has been a very effective way of helping families to access great services,” Laufer said. “There are organizations like ReadyKids. There are things happening that we should strengthen such as City of Promise.”

Laufer said she would like to expand the city’s Growing Opportunities workforce program which she said has trained bus drivers and electricians.

Independent John Edward Hall sounded a similar note.

“Job training is good no matter what the color of your skin,” Hall said. “Employers need to be considered in the answer. Money from city council subsidies could help employers provide good jobs with a living wage.”

Copeland-Whitsett took aim at whether Charlottesville’s central core was truly a place for everyone.

“For downtown and midtown to thrive, there must be accessibility to workers and consumers alike,” she said. “What is your plan to guarantee affordable access to all?”

Hill said the city needs to do more in this area.

“I think both our public transit system is falling short within the city and within the region, and I feel like we don’t have safe paths for people to take alternative forms of transportation whether they want to walk or bike,” Hill said. “I also feel like we have to create an environment that they want to be invited to. There is not diversity in our downtown area that reflects the broader community. We have to unlock and understand why.”

Walker agreed there is a lack of diversity on the Downtown Mall and on West Main Street but there shouldn’t be.

“You have a community like Friendship Court which is right downtown and within walking distance and you do not see representation of that community being that close to the Downtown Mall area,” Walker said. “It’s also about who is working in those spaces and who is able to create employment options.”

Walker said she is concerned redevelopment of Friendship Court by adding market-rate units will change the diversity of the community.  Later in the forum, she said she would try to halt development on West Main Street because it is not benefiting the entire community.   

Long said an improved public transit would bring more people downtown to shop but the current stores cater to the rich.

“The stores in the Downtown Mall area are boutique stores and if you’re making over $200,000 a year some of those stores may be of interest to you,” Long said. “There needs to be a greater diversity in the types of businesses down there. We need businesses owned by African-Americans.”

Laufer agreed that the Downtown Mall is mostly boutique stores but the CVS is always crowded.

“I though a great addition was the Market Street Market because that actually has groceries that people need,” Laufer said. “A lot of what is offered [on the Mall] is geared for tourism. There should be a wider variety of businesses.”

Hall said the city’s sidewalks and streetlights need to be repaired.

Jackson said the city’s “master plan” needs to be updated.

“The city’s master plan only has the boutiques and the little upscale shops where most of us don’t even eat and shop in,” Jackson said, adding things were better in the 1970’s before all of the department stores left for shopping centers. 

Jackson said Downtown establishments such as the Paramount are too expensive for people who live in Garrett Square, referring to the old name for Friendship Court.

Closing statements

While there will be campaign events up until Election Day, candidates had one last opportunity to make a closing statement.

Laufer said campaigning has not been easy.

“It really makes you introspective in ways that you had no idea,” Laufer said. “I campaigned six years ago for the school board and the city really has changed a lot.  I knocked on a lot of the same doors and it is a lot different. We need to be aware of that and come up with policies and budgetary decisions that can help our community as it is changing to be the best it can be.”

Long thanked and lauded his fellow candidates, and encouraged more participation from voters.

“I’m not going to ask people to vote for me,” Long said. “I’m going to ask people to vote your conscience. I’ve been in this community long enough and you just don’t hear from me when elections come around. I’ve been in this community protesting and having demonstrations year-round.”

Walker asked for people to show up on Election Day.

“I posted on Facebook the other day ‘let’s have a rebellion at the polls’ and no matter who you vote for, make sure that you’re voting for the future where everyone can thrive in Charlottesville,” Walker said. “I have been doing this work for so long behind the scenes questioning, challenging and no matter who you elect, I’m going to continue to do the work I do.”

Hill said transparency is a major part of her campaign.

“That could not be more important now as we look at our local government and our national government,” Hill said. “More than ever we need strong leaders who are committed to taking responsibility and seeking the answers all of us are so desperately seeking.”

Jackson said he is not a perfect candidate and is a person just like everyone else.

“I don’t hold my color up because I know my color does not define me,” Jackson said. “It is who I am inside and the education I get… I am proud of who I am and I want everyone in Charlottesville to be proud of who they are. We are all role models, each and every one of us.”

Hall said he has been excited to participate in the forums.

“If elected to City Council on Nov. 7, I will help fellow Councilors as a freshman team player,” Hall said. “Because of the events stemming from the plan to remove the Lee and Jackson statues, the good work of the City Council has been delayed by public demonstrations.”