One goal of a VOICE accountability session is to get candidates for office on record when it comes to how they approach important issues, and that’s exactly what happened as OKC City Council candidates faced an audience at a packed First Unitarian Church on Sunday afternoon.
The 75-minute session featured 10 of the 12 candidates running in the Feb. 12 OKC election. Only Ward 2 candidate Tracey Halley-Terrell and Ward 8 incumbent Mark Stonecipher did not attend the forum organized by VOICE, a coalition of more than two dozen churches, nonprofits and other organizations.
Sunday’s OKC City Council session began with questions to candidates on how they would approach improving Oklahoma City’s sidewalks and bus stops, the city’s social services budget, MAPS 4 and what kind of leader they would like to see to replace outgoing OKC Police Chief Bill Citty. Each candidate received one minute to answer each question.
Ward 2 candidate James Cooper said Oklahoma City’s next chief should hire officers who live within the community they police.
“Community policing,” Cooper said. “We need more officers who live in inner-city neighborhoods and who know the people in their community.”
OKC City Council Ward 5 incumbent David Greenwell said the next chief should emulate Citty.
“When there was racial unrest around the country a few years ago, we didn’t have that in Oklahoma City because of the work of Chief Citty,” Greenwell said.
The state of the city’s bus service also drew attention.
Ward 2 candidate Mike Dover said the majority of Oklahoma City’s bus stops lack shelters and that not enough are accessible to those with physical handicaps.
“It would cost about $13 million to improve all the stops,” Dover said.
Cooper, who serves on Oklahoma City’s transportation board, said the city has just 49 buses in its fleet and needs more to improve service frequency.
Sidewalks ‘need to be where people actually walk’
Ward 6 candidate Nathaniel Harding said sidewalks were among the top issues he hears about while campaigning.
“As I knock on doors, people have great things to say about the improvements in sidewalks, but they also want more,” he said.
Harding said he would like to see more sidewalks near places where people access social services and near schools and grocery stores.
OKC City Council Ward 2 candidate Suzanne Broadbent said more sidewalks are needed, but wonders if some of the choices for locations so far make sense.
“They need to be where people actually walk,” she said. “It’s a chicken and an egg thing. We have some that have been put in that people simply don’t use.”
The city’s social services budget also drew attention Sunday. Currently, the city spends only about $200,000 on social services, a number that is supplemented by federal funds.
“I think that should be a top priority,” Ward 8 candidate Lauren Durmus said. “We see how mental health has a cascading effect that impacts many other issues.”
Ward 6 candidate Jim Holman said funding needs to be increased.
“The $200,000 is inadequate,” he said. “We need more money to do the things we need to do.”
OKC City Council candidates share MAPS ideas
Discussion of the city’s potential MAPS 4 effort focused mostly on how money would be used for projects. Most candidates said voters want fewer large-capital projects like arenas and streetcars and more projects that impact them directly. Several candidates called for the expansion of senior centers.
“People want better parks and their roads fixed,” Ward 5 candidate Kristina Hull said. “They don’t want big projects that they will never use.”
Ward 6 candidate JoBeth Hamon echoed that theme.
“They want projects that will improve their own neighborhood,” Hamon said. “The want projects that will affect them.”
Ward 2 candidate Marilyn Davidson said future MAPS money should be used to improve quality of life in all parts of Oklahoma City.
“It’s parks and sidewalks but also public safety,” she said. “We need to find money we can invest in public safety officers.”
Sunday’s session concluded with a lighting round. Each candidate was asked to respond either yes or no to a set of questions. All of the candidates agreed to work to improve the city’s bus stops.
But Greenwell said he did not agree with the other nine candidates on two issues, including a proposal to require contractors hired by the city to pay their employees a $15 minimum wage.
“We can’t enforce that,” Greenwell said.
Greenwell also differed with the other nine candidates on the city’s controversial panhandling ordinance passed in 2015, which prohibits panhandling from many of the city’s traffic medians. In December, a federal judge ruled the ordinance is constitutional despite objections from the ACLU, among other organizations. The ruling is being appealed.
Greenwell said he would not be in favor of the city dropping its fight to keep the ordinance in place.