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Lee statue hot topic at Democratic council forum

The three Democratic candidates for two party nominations for Charlottesville’s City Council addressed the future of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue Wednesday at a campaign forum.

Earlier this month, Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore granted an injunction preventing the city from removing the statue for at least six months pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

“I think recontextualization of the park should happen no matter what happens with the lawsuit,” said Amy Laufer, a current member of the city School Board. She said the city should work with the University of Virginia to tell the story of how slavery affected the lives of generations.

“Equality is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Heather Hill. “What we need to do most is engage the communities that are affected most by the statue.”

Incumbent Bob Fenwick, who voted to sell the statue, critiqued the city’s argument against the lawsuit.

“The city’s case was that the monument was not a war memorial,” Fenwick said. “He’s on this big horse in a military uniform … there is a good chance that the monument will be there, and that’s going to be problematic.”

The Lee statue was just one of several topics discussed at the forum, which was held at CitySpace and sponsored by Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress. About three dozen people attended.

The three candidates are on the ballot for the June 13 primary and the top two vote-getters will face five independents in the Nov. 7 general election. The independent candidates are Nancy Carpenter, Kenneth Jackson, Paul Long, Nikuyah Walker and Dale Woodson.

Candidates were asked to weigh in on current disputes between Albemarle County and Charlottesville, including a lawsuit over whether the city has authority to open some trails at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area to cyclists. The City Council voted 3-2 in December to allow cyclists despite a request from Albemarle supervisors to wait. The natural area is located in the county.

“I really wish we could have figured that out in a different way,” Laufer said. “The determination of that lawsuit is going to affect all of [our] relationships.”

Hill said the issue comes down to whether the process was handled collaboratively.

“I’d like to be more proactive so that we can have meaningful conversations as partners and not be so divisive,” Hill said.

Fenwick voted against opening the trails to cyclists and said his colleagues on the council showed a lack of respect.

“If the chair of the Board of Supervisors asks for a delay, then that community should get the delay,” Fenwick said, adding that too much is at stake, including whether Albemarle decides to move its courts out of downtown Charlottesville into the county.

In March, the Planning and Coordination Council discussed UVa’s goal to increase academic research spending from $350 million a year to $500 million. The candidates were asked whether the city was prepared for the growth that could result.

“I feel that as we have an opportunity as UVa changes its leadership to demand more of a voice,” Hill said. “UVa’s ability to attract talented students from across the world is increased by amenities of our city.”

Hill said the city should support workforce development initiatives to provide opportunities for low-income residents.

Fenwick said the increase would be good for both Charlottesville and Albemarle, but warned the city can go too far in imposing its will on UVa.

“They are not too happy with what’s been happening on West Main,” Fenwick said, referring to the $31 million streetscape project under development. “They had to hire their own consultant to counter the city’s consultant.”

Fenwick said the city needs to plan carefully if UVa does continue to grow.

Laufer said UVa currently plays a large role in local education.

“They are intensely integrated into the school system and I think that is a good thing for all of us,” Laufer said. “This is a good thing for Charlottesville to bring in knowledge-based jobs.”

Laufer agreed with Hill that this could be an opportunity to provide jobs for people in workforce development programs.

Later this summer, the city will roll out new parking meters in an area around the Downtown Mall as part of a six-month pilot project.

Fenwick was the lone vote against the idea when the council voted in April 2016 to move forward.

“Leaders [in the past] were concerned that the Downtown Mall was dying,” Fenwick said. “They took the parking meters away and it worked … I would leave it as it is.”

Laufer also does not support the parking meters.

“Businesses feel if parking is not free, it will dissuade people from coming,” she said. “We have a lot of employees who get paid less than a living wage.”

Laufer suggested working with private entities, such as nearby churches, to create satellite parking lots for people who work downtown.

Hill pointed out that two previous studies recommended parking meters and said she could support continuing the program after the pilot period if the data show it was effective.

“We need to be more strategic in our parking,” Hill said. “We need to be servicing employees with different solutions.”

The five independent candidates met at another forum held concurrently by Equity and Progress in Charlottesville.

“We will hold another forum in the fall for all the candidates running for council,” said moderator Brian Wheeler, executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow.

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