Ohio University Student Senate hosted a town hall for 2021 At-large Athens City Council candidates Thursday night.
The two candidates in attendance were independents Damon Krane, a longtime Athens activist, and Iris Virjee, a recent OU graduate and employee at the Smiling Skull Saloon. The three incumbent At-large Democratic candidates — Micah McCarey, Ben Ziff and Sarah Grace — were unable to attend the town hall.
Krane and Virjee largely emphasized the same issues affecting the Athens area, focusing on wealth inequality, housing accessibility and affordability, and social issues such as racial inequity.
Krane expressed his firm belief that many problems affecting the Athens area are rooted in economic inequality and unequal distribution of wealth, focusing on renter and homeowner status and its implications for residents. He indicated that creating insulation and weatherization requirements for rental properties could shrink the city’s carbon footprint, while improving health and reducing financial implications for citizens.
Virjee echoed Krane’s concerns about the treatment of Athens tenants, advocating for further transparency in communication about potential ordinances affecting housing. She also hopes to expand tenant rights and amend current policies, restructuring the housing market to avoid unequal or discriminatory housing processes.
“Transparency in communication about what ordinances are being discussed, what your rights are, being able to access those through different types of mediums and being able to respond and have input through different types of mediums … is one of the biggest hurdles that go beyond just passing those ordinances themselves,” Virjee said.
Krane voiced his concerns with the lack of diversity within city government and governmental action, citing a historically racially homogeneous council body, which he believes negatively influences city policy.
“The key to moving beyond these kinds of performative public relations … is to really confront power imbalances and correct them,” Krane said.
Virjee expressed her hopes to establish specialized response teams equipped to address specific mental health or behavioral crises where police intervention may not be best suited. Having individuals trained in de-escalation and interpersonal conflict resolution would help decrease instances of excessive force and help the city be more compassionate in its response to the needs of its citizens, Virjee said.
“I think that addressing those things on an interpersonal level and understanding how they affect different populations is the key to actually, genuinely, meaningfully approaching inclusion, rather than just a phrase,” Virjee said.
Krane similarly expressed frustration with policing in Athens, particularly racially discriminatory practices. He cited his experience as a founding member of Athens County Cop Watch, a citizen group which analyzed Athens Police Department arrest data for race-related trends, and condemned what he believes to be solely performative action by current council members.
Both candidates have targeted students as a key voting base in the city, hoping to mobilize a historically politically inactive base.
“We live in a city that is roughly 80% OU students, and student voting in city elections is virtually non-existent,” Krane said. “That has a huge impact on the quality of local government. … So when you take students out of the equation, it's not only that students aren't representative. And then there are policies that affect them negatively in terms of rental housing, in terms of parking regulations, et cetera.”
Virjee agreed, relating to students as a recent graduate who used to feel she should not have a say in local government.
“One of the things that held me back from getting involved in local politics was feeling that I didn't have a right to speak for the local population. And I think that, you know, now that I've learned more, I don't believe that's true,” Virjee said. “I think that with the proper education and acknowledgement of the history and current circumstances of this area, you can absolutely help to make important decisions … and help to uplift the voices of the local population.”