SCHENECTADY – How the city should use its $58 million in federal pandemic relief, feedback on the mandated police reform plan that was recently sent to the governor, and how to put neighborhood improvement on par with downtown revitalization were some of the topics addressed during Wednesday’s candidates forum in advance of the June 22 Democratic primary.
Three incumbents – Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, Marion Porterfield and John Mootooveren – and Damonni Farley are vying for three available four-year terms on the City Council.
In another council race, Doreen Ditoro, Haileab Samuel and Carl Williams are competing for two vacated seats with two years remaining.
Also, Brendan Savage and Omar Sterling McGill went head-to-head during the forum for the Schenectady County District 1 legislative seat.
At the GE Theatre in Proctors, the candidates discussed questions posed by Daily Gazette Editor Miles Reed through forum co-sponsors, the Schenectady branch of the NAACP and Schenectady United Neighborhoods.
Candidates for council seats were asked a multi-layered question about whether there’s a need for further police reform, such as the elimination of officers being allowed to use their knee to control subjects, whether they wanted a more diverse police force and if the department should use social workers.
The full forum:
Zalewski-Wildzunas said the recently completed collaboration on reforming the Police Department was a good document that remains “living and breathing,” meaning the city would continue to have conversations about additional training for officers and advocating for mental health specialists.
The incumbent said use of force is necessary in certain instances, and she credited Police Chief Eric Clifford for putting the department in “a much better state of mind” in reference to using force. She also said she advocate for social workers.
Porterfield said that after a controversial use of force incident last year in which an officer placed his knee on the head area of a suspect, there was a press conference where the mayor, commissioner of public safety and chief said the city would no longer use knee holds. She said she supported that initial stance, although it has since been revealed during the reform process that officers may continue to use their knee to control a suspect when the officer is in a life-and-death struggle.
Porterfield said she does not support knee holds to the neck and head area, as it could result in a poor outcome. She suggested retraining officers responding to violent and dangerous situations.
Porterfield also said community policing and a more diversity on police force were necessities.
Mootooveren said the Police Department had come a long way. The council president pointed out that the reform plan already recommends a task force to help diversify the department, and he also noted that the plan is to be revisited.
Farley said police officers shouldn’t be expected to act as a mental health professionals, especially walking into a crisis situation. He suggested more work is needed to create a culture that can prevent an officer who isn’t at his best on a particular day from “really horrible outcomes that we’ve seen across the country.”
Ditoro said she supports the reform plan that the city carried out because it was thorough and included members from all the neighborhoods.
“However, with that being said, the report is just the beginning, not the end,” she said. “Community meetings will continue.”
The candidate also said she favors fully staffing the Police Department, creating a community engagement unit that would “be instrumental in bridging and building trust between the police and the community,” and embedding a mental health professional within the department for each shift to handle nonviolent mental health calls.
To a question about the perceived lack of investment in neighborhoods, in the face of significant investment in downtown in recent years:
Samuel said the downtown revitalization effort was necessary because 15 years ago it was “almost a ghost land.”
“Now most of us we walk around very proud to say we live in Schenectady,” he said.
Unfortunately, that same level of effort hasn’t been issued into the neighborhoods that have deteriorated over the years, Samuel said, adding that he would like programs to help residents update to their homes, including siding, new windows, piping and infrastructure.
Williams said there has to be a complete buy-in to revitalizing neighborhoods, rather than talking about it only during political cycles. He said that he would call for conversations and help institute collaborative channels, because, at 31 years old, “I don’t know everything. However, I know that when you bring more decision makers to the table the solutions you come up with have a momentous effect.”
Regarding the city’s $58 million in coronavirus recovery funding this year, Mootooveren said some of it should be used to balance the city budget and pay off debt, and examine its aging infrastructure, fill vacancies, especially in the Police and Fire departments. Some money could also be spent on neighborhoods, he said.
Farley asserted that no one in the forum was qualified to answer, because, rather than make decisions for people, the city should include residents in those conversation.
Residents have to be at table, he said. The candidate recommended establishing an task force that taps people in communities, “and not just the usual suspects at the table.”
Zalewski-Wildzunas said she believed the city would come back stronger from the pandemic. She noted there are rules around use of the federal money.
But the incumbent called for the need to listen to constituents, some of whom have told her of their concerns about aging roads, sidewalks, and water and sewer systems. The city also needs to update parks and install lighting throughout them, Zalewski-Wildzunas said. Samuel noted that the city is still learning the impact of COVID-19. As such, it shouldn’t be so quick to start spending the federal money, he said, calling for a comprehensive study to first understand the impact of COVID-19 long term.
At the same time, Samuel said he wants to address the city’s high unemployment rate, with job training to get people back into the workforce and to use some of the funding to create jobs within the city.
Samuel also said there are many children struggling because of COVID-19. He said some money could be used to make healthcare professionals available to families.
In the county legislative forum, Savage pointed to his work on President Biden’s campaign last year as his proudest accomplishment. He said the president’s plan that provides the city and county with $88 million in combined funding will give the city the opportunity to “build back better.”
Savage said he wanted to build on the county government’s spearheading of Schenectady’s revitalization downtown, and to make further improvements in neighborhoods.
He touted his five-point plan to fix roads, repair and revitalize vacant housing, reduce litter, improve trash pickup, make streets safer through community policing and his desire to bring a grocery store to District 1 because it’s a food desert and the only district in the county without a supermarket.
McGill, who has worked in government, spoke of an unprecedented time in which there are environmental, economic, racial and justice crisis.
McGill said it is important to him to make sure county government is doing its best by the people when it comes to their tax dollars and the services the County Legislature provides.
McGill ended his remarks by saying he would hold town hall-style meetings to hear and understand what constituents of the district want.