HAMPTON — Seven city council candidates were pressed Wednesday night on how they would involve citizens in the city’s decision-making process.
The contestants answered questions at a forum sponsored by the Virginia School for Deaf, Blind & Multi-Disabled Community Advocate Group. About 70 residents attended the event at Third Baptist Church.
Five candidates are seeking election to three open seats on the board — incumbents James A. “Jimmy” Gray Jr. and Steven L. Brown; former state delegate and school board member Martha M. Mugler; U.S. Army contractor Marlin R. Manley; and former aircraft mechanic Christopher R. Mathews.
Also, Hope Harper, a property control specialist, and Randy Bowman Sr., a restaurant owner, face off in a special council election.
The Reverend John F. Kenney of the Third Baptist Church, who moderated the forum, told the Daily Press that over time many residents felt the city council had made decisions without community input. Many of the questions on the night aimed to see if the contestants intended to address this.
All underlined the need for better communication with the public so that citizens are adequately informed of what the council is doing. They also said they wanted to encourage citizen involvement.
Another hot topic on the minds of members of the public is a controversial redevelopment proposal to turn the site of a former school for deaf, blind and disabled students in Hampton into industrial warehouses. Many residents neighboring the property have vehemently opposed the project, citing concerns about traffic, noise and declining property values.
Kenney asked the candidates what they thought about the rezoning of properties in established residential communities for commercial development.
They said it is essential to have community participation when deciding such issues. Harper said the answer depends on how the project benefits the city and if there is a need.
Brown, who has served on the board for 2018, said when rezoning a neighborhood, it’s crucial to have residents who approve and “buy in” to the project. However, he also said it’s important for residents to do their research so they “know what they’re talking about” when they come to city council meetings.
Gray, the vice mayor, said Hampton is an almost fully developed town, so opportunities for new development are limited. With that in mind, he said council must assess with each proposal whether it is the best use of the property, whether there is a significant benefit to citizens and the city, and what it would cost the community. city to support development.
Manley said he wouldn’t kick people out of their homes.
“If it’s a household, if it’s a residential neighborhood, there’s no way I’m kicking you out for building some type of residence, some type of business opportunity or anything like that,” he said. -he declares. said. “You are a person; you are part of our community. You are one of my friends, my fellow citizens, my family. I’m not going to kick you out of the building.
Bowman said he could see favorable zoning changes that would help bring a grocery store to a residential area so people don’t have to travel as far. However, he said he was more hesitant to support those who would allow warehouses or factories and would like to hear from the citizens. He also said that creating hundreds of new jobs in an area is not good for the community if they are all at minimum wage.
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Mathews said he feels developers and the city council need to communicate better with residents when considering rezoning that directly impacts them.
Mugler said she does not believe in changing residential neighborhoods through eminent domain. But, she added, “we have to look at the highest and best project for a particular area.”
Kenney also asked the candidates how they would strive to achieve social equity.
Bowman said the city needs to attract businesses that “everyone” can enjoy. Manley called for more engagement with people of all generations. brown said it is essential to have conversations with people of different races, religions and backgrounds and to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities. Mugler said fairness means knowing that people have different needs and doing what is necessary to create a level playing field for all residents. Gray gave an anecdote of how he supported efforts to move a noise-inducing shooting range away from a residential neighborhood as an example of trying to achieve social equity.
Harper spoke of the need to have meaningful and sometimes uncomfortable conversations “because that’s the only way to learn to be together and to work together.” Mathews described equity as giving everyone the same opportunity.
Election day is November 8. In-person early voting is underway.
Josh Janey, [email protected]