Apr 222010

A report from La Roca Methodist Church

NoC News

On Wednesday, April 14, eight of the nine candidates running for an at-large seat on the City Council met at La Roca Methodist Church on North Limestone. Joining incumbents Chuck Ellinger and Linda Gorton at the foot of the La Roca alter were former First District Council rep George Brown (now running for an at-large seat), Christopher Hignite, Kathy Plomin, Ralph Ruschell, Steve Kay and Don Pratt. Ismael Shalash was the only candidate not in attendance.e

The forum is one of several being held around Lexington before the May primaries, in which the field of nine candidates will be whittled down to six. Ultimately, Lexington voters will choose three at-large candidates to sit on the City Council.

The  La Roca forum featured current District One councilperson Andrea James as moderator. After a brief introduction by each person running for office, James asked a series of eight questions for which each candidate was allowed a 90 second response. Questions ranged from topics on urban sustainability and political cooperation to capital improvement (ie, big dollar) ideas and crime-reduction strategies. As one might expect with the relatively short time allotted for each question, the forum was long on platitudes and short on distinguishable ideas.

Affordable housing

With the exception of real-estate expert Ralph Ruschell, who claimed that housing had become more affordable in Lexington because we are in the midst of a depression, all of the candidates seemed to agree with Steve Kay’s assessment that affordable housing is “one of the things this community has not done well.” Kay’s assertion, contra Ruschell, is borne out in local figures: over one-third of Lexington renters devote more than 30% of their income to rent.

While all candidates but Ruschell noted that affordable housing was an issue needing serious attention in Lexington, each gave differing assessments. Along with Kaye, incumbent Linda Gorton explicitly noted her support for designating an affordable housing trust fund, though she did not attend last month’s affordable housing gathering where she could have gone on record to support the creation of a designated city trust fund for affordable housing.  Incumbent Ellinger, who also noted during the candidate forum that the city needs to deal with affordable housing, did attend that March meeting, but along with Mayor Newberry and mayoral candidate Jim Gray did not voice explicit support for designating city funds. Brown, who seemed to play up his insider status as a former council-member, called for working within city regulations that the council already has in place.

Candidates Christopher Hignite and Don Pratt offered two new ideas that seemed to question the ability of city government or social entrepreneurs to catalyze affordable housing. Hignite noted that eviction courts have been overloaded with cases, which has lead to citizens not receiving adequate counseling on their rights as renters and homeowners. (Hignite claims to have been kicked out of eviction courts as he has attempted to council people on their rights for a fair eviction trial.) He suggested that the city spend more time working to ensure that these people, the future evicted, are not taken advantage of by the court system—and, presumably, the banks and buy-low property shoppers who have made a killing on the north-side off flipping low-cost foreclosed homes and selling them back at above market prices.

Pratt, on the other hand, responded to the affordable housing question by making a simple observation. There is plenty of vacant property located downtown, he noted. The problem is that these spaces aren’t being used at all. Such empty and unused properties should start to be re-inhabited to meet the needs of affordable housing by creating small-living spaces for the homeless and marginally housed.

Thoughts on crime

Much like the affordability question, candidates responded to the question of crime reduction in a fairly uniform manner: all cited the need for more and better education.

Kay, who noted that poverty and lack of opportunity spur crime, suggested giving students more before and after school help in the form of tutoring and social activities as a crime reduction strategy. (In a different response, Kay cited the growth of school and community gardening initiatives as one potential outlet for school educational and social opportunities that could be offered—an idea echoed in the proposal by Pratt for re-focusing schools as neighborhood community centers.) Gorton called for re-emphasizing  vocational options within high school as a way to re-skill students from underserved communities—presumably as a less-costly alternative to receiving an increasingly expensive college degree.

Pratt took a different position on reducing crime. Implicitly recognizing Kay’s observation that crime is produced through poverty and lack of opportunity, Pratt suggested following the model of New Haven, Connecticut, in training police officers as social workers. One of the problems with high crime rates, Pratt noted, was that a large segment of the community views the police through the lens of crime enforcement. But police work should be as much about empowering communities and working to make them better places as it should be about law enforcement. In other words, Pratt called for less focus on the police as enforcers of crimes, and more focus on the other valuable work that they do informally as prime responders and creators of social cohesion within neighborhoods.

Pratt’s different focus on crime (and the police’s role in punishing crime) dovetailed with another of his campaign platforms: legalizing medical marijuana in Lexington, with the goal of decriminalizing it in the city. Pratt notes that much crime stems from the unequal criminalization and enforcement of low-level drugs that find more blacks and Hispanics locked up for marijuana violations. Freeing police from the burden of pursuing marijuana crimes has the potential to create less crime and allow cops to re-focus on their roles as community builders in concert with a neighborhood community that does not find the future of its sons and daughters locked away for non-violent crimes.

The at-large forum followed an hour-long question and answer session for first district candidates Chris Ford and Marty Clifford. We will cover more of the First District and at-large races in future issues.

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