All six candidates for the Athens City Council at-large seats gathered in the Athens Community Center Thursday night to introduce themselves and answer questions posed by voters and the media.
The incumbent candidates included Peter Kotses (D-At-Large), Sarah Grace (D-At-Large) and Patrick McGee (I-At-Large). The three challengers were Ellie Hamrick, a Socialist, Chris Monday, an Independent, and Beth Clodfelter, a Democrat.
The event was hosted by the League of Women Voters and was moderated by Ellsworth Holden, the secretary of the league. Each candidate was given the opportunity to have an opening and closing statement and respond to each question proposed by local media or the audience.
The questions were diverse in subject and were based around local issues or current events in Athens. When there was disagreement, it came from third-party candidates Hamrick, McGee and Monday to the three Democrats.
Besides jokingly announcing he was running for president and touting his mustache, McGee said in his opening statement that his job as a city council member is to be a watchdog on the rest of the city and the mayor’s administration.
“I’m supposed to take care of your money, watch your money and make sure it's not spent foolishly and wasted. I’ve tried to do that, and I’ve pointed it out to City Council on numerous occasions,” McGee said.
Early in the night, candidates were asked to react and respond to recent news in the city of Athens surrounding the relocation of the farmer’s market, the Athens Police Department’s arrest of a black man on Court Street last week and an unsubstantiated report of an active shooter in Bromley Hall on Thursday morning.
“I believe that our administration and our chief of police would not condone any type of singling out, any type of racism or harsh treatment during a situation like that,” Kotses said. “For the best as I know being a white male, racism exists in the foundation of our society, and we have to always work to do better.”
Most of the candidates expressed concern over the arrest of University of Cincinnati student Ty Bealer by APD, but they were split on how they thought the city should respond.
While Hamrick called on the city to be more transparent and hold the officers responsible accountable for what she deemed as a “clearly racist incident,” other candidates want to see more evidence before they come to a conclusion on what happened.
Clodfelter agreed with Hamrick that racism should be investigated in this incident but said she has complete confidence in APD Chief Tom Pyle.
Monday responded to a question on gun control by expressing his concern over the problems of the outside world Athens finally coming to the city. He described what he termed as the “general anxiety of America” around issues of class, gun control and safety.
“This bubble that we live in is being popped. It’s being infiltrated,” Monday said.
Though there was a wide variety of questions, the subjects of rental housing, affordable housing and enforcing city code were continually brought up by Hamrick. The socialist candidate has centered her campaign around “Operation Slumlord Smackdown,” a plan she helped create with Damon Krane, an Athens mayoral candidate.
“The wages that we make in Athens are not enough to live on,” Hamrick said.
Hamrick said she sees so many people living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how they will make rent the next month. Rent control is a key part of her and Krane’s plan, and she said the city administration is ignoring these issues.
Monday was on Hamrick’s side for most of these issues and brought up concerns of his own regarding regulating commercial landlords from pricing out small businesses, while disagreeing with her that business owners and capitalism are the problem.
“Business owners in this town are paying extremely high rent just like the tenants. We need to let them be able to pay their students $15 an hour,” Monday said.
Grace said the city needs to listen to small business owners and what they need and communicate with the university to build a sustainable “symbiotic relationship” to encourage students to shop local.
“I was shocked. I was blown away that (students) were really oblivious to all of the locally-owned, locally-sourced healthy food options near to where they live,” Grace said.
Grace also spent a lot of her night talking about bringing environmental sustainability and city safety to Athens while balancing it with fiscal responsibility. All the candidates opposed raising taxes in Athens except Hamrick, who wants to tax the rich.
Monday, Clodfelter and Hamrick had a tough hurdle to overcome all night by trying to introduce themselves to an audience that may not be as familiar with them as the incumbents.
While Monday and Hamrick hammered home issues of class and rental housing reform, Clodfelter tried to establish herself as a flexible candidate who has put in the work to become the most qualified new candidate on stage.
“For years I’ve been trying to improve our community on certain issues as a volunteer, and I worked really hard at that, but now at this point in my life, I’m ready for the next step to try and help everyone in Athens,” Clotfelter said.
Clodfelter, who is a former Ohio University employee and a member of numerous nonprofits, demonstrated her willingness to work with Hamrick, Monday and McGee on issues throughout the night by agreeing with statements they made but stressing that many of their ideas can’t be done. The Democratic challenger opted to side with her incumbent party allies on most answers.
The incumbent candidates spent the night pulling from their accomplishment as city council members while also responding to legislation they wished to get done. For Kotses, a key project included the Complete Streets policy.
Kotses, who is the chair of the Athens City Council transportation committee, said that keeping the city’s infrastructure up to date is the best way to keep the citizens safe.
“The most dangerous thing that we do every day is go out on our public streets and get from place to place. Anything we can do to keep our speeds lower and encourage additional transportation whether its buses or anything else is always a good look,” Kotses said.
When talking about infrastructure and city safety, many City Council candidates brought up lighting, and some proposed buying the streetlights from American Electric Power, or AEP, so they can have more control and make the city brighter.
McGee was the only one who dissented on this issue citing concerns for people who watch the stars.
This candidate forum was the last scheduled forum for the candidates in the city of Athens, but the League of Women Voters is hosting others for offices outside the city, including mayor of Albany and city auditor of Nelsonville.
When voters go to fill out their ballot either on Election Day or during early voting, they will be able to choose their top three candidates out of the six who are running. The candidates with the most votes will go on to be the at-large city representatives at the start of the next term.
The last day to register to vote is Oct. 7.