SCHENECTADY – The organizers of a candidates forum to be held next week have invited nine candidates for City Council and County Legislature who are seeking the Democratic Party and Working Families Party nominations later this month.
The Schenectady NAACP and Schenectady United Neighborhoods are sponsoring the forum scheduled for 6 p.m. June 9 at Proctors Theatre.
Four City Council candidates – Damonni Farley and incumbents Marion Porterfield, John Mootooveren and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas – are on the ballot for three full terms.
Another three candidates – Carl Williams, Haileab Samuel and Doreen M. Ditoro – are competing for two City Council seats that were vacated.
Omar Sterling McGill and Brendan Savage are in a battle for the County Legislature District 1 seat.
The primary is June 22.
Most of the candidates responded to questions posed by the League of Women Voters of Schenectady County in collaboration with Schenectady United Neighborhoods.
The organizations asked, among other questions, whether candidates want to continue with an at-large elected body or transition to district or ward representation.
Also, their positions on police reform were sought.
Porterfield said Schenectady should consider wards or a hybrid combination of at-large, district system. She noted that 80% of current council members reside north of Union Street, within two miles of each other.
Adopting a district system similar to county government would give voters the opportunity to choose leadership they feel would best represent their neighborhood interests, and a specific person to whom they can voice concerns, Porterfield said.
Porterfield said she supports most of the recommendations in the city’s police reform collaborative. But she said she favors adding a curriculum, beginning in middle school, that would get young people contemplating careers in public service, including firefighting and law enforcement. This effort could increase women and minorities in those professions, the councilwoman suggested.
Porterfield also said the city should address what she said is a lack of trust and communication between police and certain communities.
Mootooveren, the council president, did not provide answers to the League of Women Voters.
Zalewski-Wildzunas said the council should remain at large. She said it’s important each member has knowledge of each area of the city. Also, the city isn’t that large, and it has good neighborhood groups that bring concerns to the entire council, she said.
Zalewski-Wildzunas said she recommends the police reform collaborative as “an exceptionally good report” that has already instituted recommendations such as a civilian interview process for new police hires.
Farley did not provide responses to the organization.
Williams said he supports establishing wards and districts, but electing more black, indigenous and people of color would “go a long way toward making sure that the rich diversity that exists in Schenectady is fully engaged.”
Williams said he’s grateful for the time and effort community members and leaders invested in the police collaborative report, and he’s committed to a strong community policing model that includes creation of a special community police unit and a community police substation.
As a member of the Schenectady Police Department Hiring Advisory Panel, Williams suggested that thoughtful inclusive discussions must continue around creating an environment of understanding, awareness and acceptance where examples of implicit bias, de-escalation, appropriate use of force, and addressing needs of individuals in a mental health crisis can be addressed.
Samuel said he favors district and ward representation because it would increase accountability of the council throughout the city. A single council member who’s responsible for a distinct district, he said, prevents the ability of the council to “hide and avoid conversations with concerned residents when they have issues to discuss.”
The candidate said police need to be trained and equipped to evaluate and handle the wide variety of calls to which it responds.
“We need to make sure the large number of calls where mental health issues may be driving the underlying problems can be diverted to appropriate service providers,” he said.
Ditoro said there could be benefits to district representation, but she said it’s the duty of all council members to advocate on behalf of all city residents.
Should a council member’s view be narrowed to their assigned district, she said, there’s a risk in a community-wide resolution being overlooked.
The candidate said she favors the police reform collaborative and suggests the city is in a crucial moment in history with an opportunity to genuinely assess current practices to improve the department.
“I am eager to observe the development of the new policies and approaches of the department as implementation progresses,” she said, adding the city is on the right path with police reform.
The two legislative candidates spoke of their priorities, if elected.
McGill, who works in the state Legislature, said economic revitalization presents a challenge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said it’s important that local government develops initiatives and assistance to help small businesses and the workforce to get back on their feet.
McGill said the county and city should work together to look for opportunities to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and efficiently. The candidate said his first priority will be investing in people.
“Any investments of state and federal dollars the county makes should benefit those that work, live and utilize the services of the county,” he said, adding he would work to direct funding to areas of the county that continue to not receive the same investment as others.
Savage has penned a five-point plan targeting neighborhood revitalization, fixing roads, reducing litter in the streets, bringing a grocery store downtown, and community policing.
The candidate said that the county has done a terrific job spurring downtown revitalization.
In the meantime, he said, many other neighborhoods haven’t seen benefits. Savage said he would have the county play a larger role in revitalizing Mont Pleasant, Goose Hill and Eastern Avenue neighborhoods.
Savage said he would have the county fund a position to coordinate vacant properties, and the hire would use a recently passed abandonment law to gain site control over abandoned properties, transferring them to new taxpaying property owners who will invest in neighborhoods.
Savage also said he would have the county partner with Schenectady in an aggressive repaving program for deteriorating city streets, investing in longer lasting materials.
This particular district, Savage said, is the only one in the county without a major grocery store, with many areas designated as food deserts by the federal government.
Savage said he would work with Metroplex Development Authority, Schenectady, the county, and the Capital Region Land Bank to develop a site and aggressively recruit a major grocery store to downtown.
Savage said his focus toward law enforcement would be increased accountability, training, community policing, and mental health and drug services.
The forum will be streamed live from Proctors Theater on Open Stage Media.
The sponsors decided it would be best to not have a live audience.
During planning for the event, some Schenectady United Neighborhoods members were not entirely comfortable with the COVID-19 situation, said Tom Carey, president of Schenectady United Neighborhoods.