Newark government candidates debate city’s relationships and development

2019 Mayor and City Council Debate Sunset
Jacob Baumgart /THE REVIEW
Candidates for contested city government positions took the debate stage Tuesday night and answered questions about pertinent local issues from residents.

BY Associate News Editor

Tuesday’s sunset cast an orange glow on campaign signs planted in the lawn outside the Newark Senior Center. Inside the center’s auditorium, about 200 city residents questioned candidates for city government positions in an open forum.

Residents’ questions during the forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of New Castle County (LWVNCC), focused on the relationship between the university and Newark, the rate of the city’s growth and the town’s cost of living. Candidates for the contested City Council seats took the stage for the first round of questioning, and the evening concluded with a debate between the mayoral candidates.

When LWVNCC’s moderator, Carole Walsh, asked the mayoral candidates whether they supported the council’s recently passed the “Unruly Social Gatherings Ordinance,” a murmur fell over the crowd while the locals awaited the potential mayors’ thoughts on the matter of contention between university students and city residents.

The ordinance defines an unruly social gathering as a civil violation wherein four or more people present at a Newark residence are committing illegal activities outlined in a list of “unruly” social behaviors.

All four mayoral candidates — Jerry Clifton, Kasai Guthrie, Catherine Ciferni and Brandon Farzad — said they understood the intentions of the ordinance, but their opinions beyond that differed.

Clifton, the sitting council member for District 2, voted for the ordinance, but he said there was a misunderstanding that police will enforce the law too literally. He proposed revisiting the law’s form over time to clarify any of these discrepancies.

“There is an immense amount of misinformation out there,” Clifton said. “So far this weekend, St. Patrick’s Day weekend, one of the worst weekends we have, the police are reporting we had very few incidences. But as I said at the council meeting, this is about respect, and respect goes both ways.”

Ciferni, a tutor at the university’s English Language Institute, said she was concerned about how the bill defined having alcohol available to minors, which is one of the “unruly” behaviors.

“So if my parents are having a party and there is a pitcher of sangria, is that access?” Ciferni asked. “I agree with Council that it should be used as a tool kit to see how it progresses and that if it needs to be changed, it can be done so. However, I do think that there should be more outreach to students and consultation on a regular basis.”

Guthrie, a 21-year-old entrepreneurship student at the university, said that the bill served as a Band-Aid to what he said was the larger problem of Newark lacking alternative nightlife options for students. He cited a Newark zoning law that prohibits alcohol-selling businesses from having dance floors. Another concern of his was that the university lacked a traditional “frat row” that separated houses that hosted parties from the city’s residential areas.

Farzad said that he too enjoys having peace in the neighborhoods, but he also understands that students want to party. Nonetheless, partying in the neighborhoods is not the answer he seeks for students.

2019 Mayor and City Council  Debate Mayoral Candidates 2 Jacob Baumgart /THE REVIEW
The open forum concluded with a debate between the mayoral candidates.

Like Guthrie, Farzad, himself an engineer for Northrop Grumman, said he believes loosening the restrictions on Main Street’s nightlife would help encourage moving parties out of residential communities. He did not, however, express support for a “frat row.” Despite his concerns with the wording of the new law, Farzad said he still would have voted for it.

Locals were also concerned with the relationship between the growth of the university and its lack of tax contribution. The university is legally exempt from taxes and has the power to claim eminent domain over local properties, per state law. Residents worried how the university would contribute to the local economy as it grew if it legally does not have to pay taxes on the properties it acquires.

The locals then questioned whether it was possible to lower the cost of utilities, which the university has to pay its share of, and also lower taxes. Every candidate expressed concern with the current system of earning government income through utilities fees. They all also agreed, however, that they currently saw the system as a temporary necessity during the search for a long-term solution.

“As of right now, utility transfers are still necessary, with the exception of waste water collection,” Farzad said. “I think if we stick to our guns with that, we are going to have to be doing it a lot more in order to prepare for STAR Campus and a lot of the other construction projects that are coming.”

Clifton added that the lowering the cost of utilities without raising taxes would be difficult since he said utilities account for half the city’s income.

Regarding the development of the city and its finances, the candidates debated whether they would vote to approve the pending plans for a hotel on Main Street.

Farzad was the only candidate who supported the hotel’s construction outright.

“Something like a hotel is actually perfect because it creates a lot of revenue,” Farzad said, referencing the lodging tax that hotels generate for the city. “People around town … were telling me that they were concerned about increased traffic, foot traffic, car traffic, parking, with there being a hotel. My answer to them is I’ve seen these hotels in the middle of college towns and for 48 weeks of the year, there is no one in there. It’s only busy on Parents Weekend, Homecoming, you know all the big weekends.”

Ciferni said she thought the hotel was like “calorie-free chocolate” in its promise to bring so much to the community without seeming feasible.

The potential economic impact was a draw for Guthrie, but he said that he would vote against the hotel because he thinks it is not the best time to start a large-scale construction project on Main Street.

“I just felt like the timing of it is really off, especially with the Main Street construction,” Guthrie said. “The other cons are the traffic and parking, so I think first we need to take care of the cons.”

Clifton declined the opportunity to comment on the project because he said it felt unethical to do so while being a sitting member on the City Council that has not yet formally heard the developer’s proposal.

The debate gave the audience many factors to consider, and some residents left the forum without knowing which mayoral candidate they would vote for.

Amani Thurman, a junior at the university who studies energy and environmental policy, attended the debate, but he has not yet decided who he will vote for.

“I don’t think there is any one candidate that sold me,” Thurman said.

Thurman said he would decide who to vote for after he did “a little bit more background research in terms of the candidates’ involvement in the community, the history of that [and] also potentially getting to meet them in person. I think that would be a completely different perspective than a forum.”

The forum for the four candidates running in contested City Council races focused on similar issues.

Incumbent Mark Morehead and Attorney James Horning, Jr. squared off in the race for District 1, while Realtor Maria Ruckle faced retired Mortgage Consultant Sharon Hughes in the battle for the second district’s seat.

Dael Norwood, a history professor at the university, said was unsure of which mayoral candidate he would vote for on April 9, but he knew which City Council candidate for District 1 he preferred.

“I think all the candidates are very thoughtful, both for City Council and for mayor,” Norwood, who moved to Newark for work last July, said. “This is a race that is about issues, in both races. I think there are very clear differences between the candidates … For City Council, I think Mr. Morehead has my vote.”

Council Member Chris Hamilton, the representative for District 4, is also up for reelection, but he is running unopposed. He attended the event but could not legally take part in the discussion because regulations for nonpartisan debates prohibit the participation of unopposed candidates.

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