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City Council Election Debate - District 4

Crime and "affordable housing" are major issues
Warwick Jones, Editor

We won't try and determine the winner of last night's Candidates Forum. There were five speakers at the meeting organized by the League of Women Voters. Each candidate spoke well and credibly about the problems of the District and their plans should they be elected. In total, there are seven candidates for the seat that is presently held by Kwadjo Campbell but who has chosen not to run again. Two of the candidates were not present last night because of personal reasons.

Of all the candidates, Mr. Robert Mitchell was the most polished. He was a member of City Council for the term beginning in 1997 but his seat was eliminated by a restructuring. He ran against Council member Campbell in 2001 but was defeated. Understandably, Mr. Mitchell is familiar with the workings of the City and was at ease in discussing its problems. Personally, we liked the views of Mr. Marvin Stewart most. He emphasized the need for education and claimed that better education was the key to solving most of the District's problems. Thurston Smith was also eloquent and demonstrated a good understanding of the City's problems with good ideas for solutions. Messrs Joseph Watson and George Powell also had strong feelings about the district's problems and the need to action. But their comments were longer on emotion than concrete plans for action. In some cases, solutions suggested by Mr. Powell were simply not feasible though they sounded good. "Take back the money given to Saks Fifth Avenue and put it into affordable housing."

All candidates have long association with East Side
Each speaker was given an opportunity to make an opening statement. Mr. Mitchell was the first to speak. He noted his experience on City Council and his association with the community. He said the major issues facing the District were crime, truly "affordable housing", the quality of life, and drainage. None of the other speakers were so concise but all noted their long involvement with the community and their strong desire for improvements. Mr. Powell talked about making the police more accountable for their actions and make authorities more respectful in dealing with citizens. Mr. Smith talked of the complexity and interrelationship of the problems. He said that more people and groups in the District should be involved in seeking to better the quality of life. He also spoke of the need of economic development to provide more jobs. Mr. Stewart, also spoke of the complexity of issues and how they changed within the District. On the East Side, the major issues were crime and "affordable housing", in Wraggsborough it was the homeless, at Dockside, it was the development of Ansonborough Field. Mr. Watson, similar to Mr. Smith spoke of the need to involve the whole community in seeking solutions. He referred to the need to improve education and the quality of life.

The major issues
As is common on the League debates, each candidate was asked to list the major problems confronting the District. Considering the District encompasses the major part of the East side, it was not surprising that combating crime was a common element. But associated with this were issues dealing with the quality of life and the need for "affordable housing", but with an emphasis on "affordable", and for folk earning less than the median income. Mr. Mitchell had already named these issues in his opening statement. Mssrs. Powell and Stewart added the need for education as a major issue while Mr. Watson added the need for more jobs. In addressing crime, Mssrs. Smith and Stewart called for more initiatives in police protection in relation to drug dealing, and the creation of drug free zones. Mr. Stewart suggested there were too many police in buildings and not enough on the street, that the police force was too top heavy. He also called for better street lighting.

Other question and answers were:
Plans to reduce drug trafficking?
Mitchell: Supports the plans of Council member Gilliard. Solution will take a long time and will involve all levels of authority. Need to find those that are bringing drugs into the community and to take harsh action.
Powell: Need to do a better job of educating youth and providing education and opportunities for those that are incarcerated on drug related activities. The community also needs to get more involved in dealing with problem.
Smith: An area of his expertise. No simple solution for a problem which is nationwide. Again we need to get more people involved and need to deal with the supply, the dealing, and the treatment of drug users.
Stewart: Let's be realistic, young folk turn to drugs on the East Side because they have nothing to do and don't have jobs. Address these two problems and there will be a big improvement. He called for more after-school programs and more City-provided education and recreational programs. He also noted the students of the College of Charleston are major customers of drug dealers.
Watson: Need more action from local groups and residents. Confront the dealers and inform police of drug dealing. Get rid of the blighted houses and vacant lots on the East Side where drug dealing flourishes. Better educate the young.

Buildings of historic significance that are decaying on the East Side by neglect?
Mitchell: Need new ordinance. If blighted, let's tear down and replace with housing, preferably "affordable housing". Restrictions placed by City are sometimes too onerous and people cannot afford to fix according to regulations.
Powell: Get back funds that the City spent on other areas such as Daniel Island and Saks Fifth Avenue and deploy in housing. Use Federal funds and get the community involved.
Smith: Agrees with other panel members. Board up those houses that are eye sores and which attract drug dealing and use. Get the non-profit "affordable housing" providers involved such as Pastors Inc and Habitat for Humanity.
Stewart: Need to enforce existing laws better to make owners comply with standards. Have to address problems of absentee landowners, many of whom are speculating on rising values. Should try block-by-block approach to redevelopment.
Watson: It is important to maintain the old and historic houses. City has been tardy in enforcement. There needs to be more cooperation between the City and home-owners.

View of City contract to provide two police officers to Santee District?
Mitchell: Against, we need the police in Charleston
Powell: Against, we need the police in Charleston. But they need to have a better attitude in dealing with citizens.
Smith: Against. There is no evidence that secondment to Santee has cut drug flow into Charleston.
Stewart: Against. It is a waste of money, and political grandstanding by Mayor Riley.
Watson: Agrees. Better to intercept drugs before they get to Charleston.

Affordable Housing?
Mitchell. Need to make housing that is really affordable, for people earning less than $30,000 a year. Need to turn to providers like Habitat for Humanity that can build units for about $75,000.
Powell: Need to get more federal funds, and claim back money spent on Daniel Island.
Smith: Large section of community unaware of gentrification trend. Need to educate community about the funds for, and non profits that provide, "affordable housing".
Stewart: Again let's be realistic. 41% of black folk are below poverty level in Charleston. They cannot afford a home. We need to get jobs for people and better educate them so they can procure higher paying jobs.
Watson: Need to bring housing cost to below $100,000 a unit. Get the community and more non-profits involved. Seek help from stores likes Lowes and Home Depot to get big reduction on building material prices. Utilize volunteer local labor.

How can you do a better job than your predecessor?
Mitchell. Council member Campbell did things his way and he made no criticism. But more involvement with the community, City Council and other authorities was needed.
Powell: Was born on East Side and knows it problems.
Smith: Would not attempt a comparison with Councilmember Campbell. He would get more involved with people in the community and help develop school and other programs. He would connect with people.
Stewart: Long time resident of community and involved with School Board (Chairman). Again, community has to be involved in issues and the Council member has to be very accessible.
Watson: Long time resident of the community and a long history of working on community affairs. This is meaningful experience that will serve him well as a Council member.

Has worked with neighborhood youth?
Mitchell. Yes, involved with a church program that has helped over 400 youths. City needs to do more through PRC and other programs.
Powell: Presently does a lot of mentoring and providing help for parents
Smith: Has worked in a professional capacity with inmates of prison and detention centers in rehabilitation. He has also mentored and counseled children.
Stewart: Has been a mentor at Rivers Middle School and a regular contributor of books to the school.
Watson: Yes.

Plans for the area recovered with the demolition of the old bridges?
Mitchell. Need to see plans, get neighborhood involved, make provision for children's needs.
Powell: Build homes but not condominiums. Look to some sport facilities, maybe a bowling alley.
Smith: Involve the community and give it what it wants.
Stewart: Plans have already been drawn up that incorporate greenspace and "affordable housing". We need to watch and make sure that the plan is implemented.
Watson: Same as Stewart.