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Council candidates debate at Tea Party forum

The four candidates running for the Charlottesville City Council distinguished themselves along party lines at a campaign forum Thursday sponsored by the Jefferson Area Tea Party.

“We believe that democracy is only as good as the quality of information available to voters,” said Terry Cooper, a member of the group’s executive committee who served as moderator.

Questions at the forum dealt with subjects of concern to the JATP. Candidates were first asked if they thought Charlottesville was heading in the right direction.

The Democratic candidates said yes, while the Republican candidates said no.

“The city works well for many people, but in many ways we’re not on the right track because large segments of the community are being left behind,” said Republican candidate Buddy Weber.

“We have people coming here from all over the nation,” said Democratic candidate Bob Fenwick. “To say we’re not [heading in the right direction] is like when a student gets an A and is told by the teacher to do better.”

Candidates were also asked how well the city handled the Occupy Charlottesville situation when a group of protestors camped out in Lee Park for several months before being arrested in November 2011.

At the time, JATP representatives had argued that the city gave protestors special treatment by allowing them to stay in the park without paying a fee.

“We have a Constitution in this country that I believe in, with a right to free assembly, a right to free speech,” said incumbent Democratic candidate Kristin Szakos. “Those were weighed with the right for people to feel comfortable.”

“We bent over backwards to allow them to express their displeasure and it went a little too far,” said Republican candidate Michael Farruggio, who at the time was a city police officer.

“While I appreciate the Constitution and right to assembly, there have always been time and place restrictions,” Weber said. “Anyone who wanted to use Lee Park for other purposes could not do it.”

“Those young people out there were verbalizing what many of us felt — a disconnect with our government,” Fenwick said. “I could have walked my dog somewhere else.”

Candidates were also asked if they felt there is a problem with excessive panhandling on the Downtown Mall.

Weber said the city’s panhandling ordinance is being challenged in court, but he felt it would be upheld as constitutional.

“What I’ve heard from businesses and residents is that a more enhanced police presence would be an appropriate response to the problem,” Weber said.

Farruggio said he was concerned panhandlers are coming from elsewhere in Virginia because other cities have cracked down.

“What I don’t want to see is a lot of police flooding the Downtown Mall because that is counterproductive to the image we want to project,” Fenwick said.

“We have come through a serious recession and cities across the country have seen an increase in people who have dropped out of the bottom of the economy,” Szakos said.

“There are problems, but it’s nothing we need to panic about.”

Candidates were asked if the City Council has a spending problem.

Both Republicans said yes. The Democrats said no.

Fenwick, Weber and Farruggio all said they would be opposed to any increase in the meals tax. Szakos said she would be open to discussing the possibility.

Both Republicans said they would repeal the stormwater utility fee the Council approved in February, but both Democrats said they would keep it.

None of the candidates said they would support a plan to remove statues of Confederate generals in city parks.

Both Democrats said they would support a living-wage ordinance, while the Republicans said they would not.

“When we try to artificially inflate wages, what we end up doing is hurting businesses,” Farruggio said.

After presstime Thursday, the JATP held a forum for three of the four Board of Supervisor races in Albemarle County. The party said it would not be making endorsements in any of the contests.