Home City Key takeaways from the Athens mayoral and council debate

Key takeaways from the Athens mayoral and council debate

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Athens mayoral candidates Damon Krane (left) and Steve Patterson debate at Bentley Hall. Photo by Tim Zelina

Candidates for Athens mayor and city council discussed and debated issues ranging from income inequality, to police brutality, to unlit pathways on the west side. Here’s the highlights of the three hour debate.

Both mayoral candidates — incumbent Democratic Mayor Steve Patterson and Independent, self-described socialist and community organizer Damon Krane — participated in the debate. Afterward, City Council candidates Sarah Grace, Pat McGee, Elie Hamrick, Chris Monday, Beth Clodfelter and Peter Kotses had a City Council debate. 

The debate, hosted by Ohio University Student Senate and Graduate Student Senate, saw modest turnout with some 50 students and locals attending the debate. Attendance dropped steeply following the conclusion of the mayoral debate. 

MAYORAL DEBATE

Tension between candidates:

The long-standing tension between the two mayoral candidates was on full display tonight, with Patterson and Krane both sitting stone-faced as the other spoke.

Krane began his opening statement by noting Patterson’s association with landlords and President Donald Trump donors. He ended his statement by motioning to Patterson and saying, “I give you the Republican candidate for mayor, Democrat Steve Patterson.”

Patterson’s opening statement ignored Krane, focusing instead on what he said is his record as a community builder and proactive mayor. As the debate continued, Patterson rarely acknowledged Krane. At one point, after Krane made attacks on Patterson’s record, Patterson declined to offer a rebuttal.

When asked what they admired about each other, neither had a full answer. Patterson noted Krane was a small business owner and how difficult the daily grind of a small business owner can be.

“Running a small business is no easy task. I did that too with my sustainable organic farming with my wife,” Patterson said.

Krane spoke softly about Patterson’s snappy dress, then pivoted to disputing his professed admiration for small business. Krane claimed Patterson’s failure to institute rent control has led to an exodus of Court Street businesses, which cannot afford the high rates charged by landlords.

Two worldviews, one office:

Krane and Patterson may be seeking the same office but both have distinct visions of their role in the office and how to win it.

Patterson highlighted his role as a unifying figure within the community. He promoted his influential relationship with the university and noted how his administration has been prolific in establishing committees and programs to encourage discourse between the city government, the university, students and residents. He said he prides himself on being open to his constituents.

“I get out and about, and so often what should normally take me ten minutes to go from the city building to the Baker Center takes me half an hour,” he said.

Krane focused on his background as a community organizer. He spoke of his arrest in the early 2000s, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and condemned what he perceives as Patterson’s eagerness to work with landlords and Athens’ establishment over focusing on the community.

He also claimed Patterson’s openness is a facade to make citizens feel heard without committing to action. If Patterson were so malleable, Krane argued, he wouldn’t need to run.

“Why have a debate if you can just go get coffee with Mayor Steve?” Krane asked.

Patterson rejected this view, saying he works with all Athens community members to further his administration’s goals.

“I think what you saw tonight was a real contrast between strong leadership and community building and just tearing things down,” Patterson said.

Different plans, different goals:

Krane and Patterson disagreed dramatically on the problems — and potential solutions — that the Athens community is facing.

Krane highlighted his “Operation Slumlord Smackdown” proposal, a four-point plan that seeks to combat the perceived rental crisis by instituting rent control, doubling rental housing protections, digitizing rental inspection records and strengthening the rental code. 

To Krane, rent control is a key aspect of his plan to avoid landlords passing off costs of rental improvement to their tenants.

“The money that slumlords should have been investing in property maintenance, they instead have been putting in their pocket,” Krane said.

Patterson did not place importance on landlord impropriety. Instead, he focused on highlighting his past achievements and offering to expand on them.

He claimed that while the West Side in particular needs improvement, that Court Street is also in need of a beautification project, and that his positive relationships with business owners can be leveraged to achieve that. 

“Property owners want to invest to beautify Court Street,” he said.

He also proposed a plan to improve broadband internet connection. He wants to crowdsource data demonstrating the lack of internet access by encouraging usage of a broadband test app. Then, he said, he could take this data to the Federal Communications Commission and prove internet accessibility is below the federal standard.

CITY COUNCIL DEBATE

The rent is too darn high!

The proposition of rent control by council candidates Elie Hamrick and Chris Monday triggered a lively debate, with incumbent Councilmembers Sarah Grace and Peter Kotses opposing the measure.

Kotses made the argument that the relationship between landlords and tenants is private business and is ultimately out of the city’s hand. He also expressed displeasure with the rhetoric painting landlords as slumlords.

“It’s unfortunate we want to take the whole population and throw them into one box,” Kotses said.

Grace agreed, stating that she became a landlord to help pay for her children’s education and has felt villainized by the slumlord label. She also noted that the city has made progress in coding enforcement beyond what many similarly sized communities have done, but ultimately it is in the tenant’s court to deal with an unsavory landlord.

“Renters can choose where to live with their dollars,” Grace said.

Hamrick and Monday disagreed sharply with Kotses and Grace. They said the public needed to take action collectively on rent prices. 

Hamrick spoke of a testimonial she heard from an elderly woman whose landlord failed to fix a broken step. The woman tripped and injured her leg. Hamrick used the story to note that the city’s inaction on landlords is impacting safety.

“The idea we can vote for our dollars to make a difference — it isn’t happening,” Hamrick said. 

Clodfelter and McGee did not comment on rent control but agreed with the assertion rent is out of control and action must be taken.

Clodfelter expressed enthusiasm for a tenant’s union noted by Krane earlier in the night. She said while this was beyond the purview of city council, a tenant’s union would be an ideal solution to resisting illegal or unethical behavior by landlords.

No light, no light:

Poor lighting on the West Side has been a common complaint by residents, and the City Council candidates agree. 

All six candidates found consensus on the need for the city to expand lighting, especially on the West Side.

Grace said she understands the city’s desire to avoid light pollution, but claims it’s endangering citizens. “I love it when we can look up at night and see the stars, but we need to keep people from tripping in the dark,” she said. 

Monday proposed solar powered mini-lamps in people’s yards. This could allow walkways to be illuminated without investment in obtrusive streetlights, he said. 

Income Inequality

The impoverishment and inequality present in Athens was a major concern to the City Council candidates. 

Clodfelter proposed clearing the Armory of asbestos to transition the building into serving as a cheap center for small business offices. She said this would allow small business owners to alleviate the immense cost of purchasing or renting a location.

“I think we should enable people to start their own businesses,” she said.

Kotses concurred, noting that “outside dollars” were the best way to grow Athens’ economy.

Monday and Hamrick claimed the solution lies in a change of wealth distribution. 

“Not only do we need to freeze rent, but we need to mandating lowering rent,” Monday said.

Hamrick agreed, but she also proposed redistributing police funding to anti-poverty measures. 

Grace said her past experience studying the roots of poverty in graduate school empowered her with insight toward combating poverty in Athens County, but added there’s no easy answer to ending impoverishment.

Instead, she said the city must invest in creating opportunities. She said the socialists’ proposition to redistribute wealth is not a solution.

“We can’t just cycle money,” Grace said. “If we want to change the structure of things in the county, we need to bring jobs here.” 

Question of excessive force:

Kotses referenced a recent video that circulated on Twitter, depicting a young black man who was arrested by Athens City Police Department officers in a way that some characterized as excessive. Kotses said that a short video should not lead community members to jump to conclusions. 

“I still want more information out of this whole situation,” he said.

McGee agreed the lack of information made making a judgement call difficult. He noted that as an incumbent city councilmember, he was unable to offer commentary on the incident without opening the city to lawsuits. 

Hamrick said this incident was reflective of a racist culture she says is ingrained in policing. As part of her plan to end police violence, she said Athens must disarm its police.

Monday did not endorse Hamrick’s plan but said it had its merits. He referenced the case of Tatiana Jefferson, an African American woman in Texas shot dead by police who mistook her for an intruder in her own home.

“Tatiana would still be alive if that man did not have a gun,” Monday said.

Clodfelter disagreed with disarming the police. She said such a move would endanger victims of abuse and assault, as well as open Athens to risks of mass shootings.

“If someone hears a bump in the night, then they want to know their police have the tools to act,” Clodfelter said. 

 

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