The South Albany High School speech and debate team agrees on one thing: They're loud. And on Thursday night, in cooperation with the League of Women Voters, the group brought some noise to the Albany mayor's race.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, traditional forums and events for political candidates have been adjusted, and on Thursday, the race for mayor landed on Zoom.
Candidates Sharon Konopa, the incumbent mayor, and Alex Johnson II, an Albany city councilor, appeared on screen together and answered questions in turn.
Debate team leader Rena Howard, an SAHS senior, moderated the event, asking questions collected from students for the first half of the hourlong forum before pivoting to questions emailed in by the community at large.
Looking into the future of their community, students' questions revolved around housing, diversity and what each candidate would do with $1 million.
On the future of the Albany Human Relations Commission:
Johnson said the commission, which has been paused by the City Council, would continue in 2021. "In my heart of hearts, it's one of the most necessary commissions we have."
Konopa agreed, noting the group's outreach to the community at events like Festival Latino. "It will continue," she said. "I guarantee the HRC will continue."
On diversity in general:
Konopa cited several racist incidents, including racist literature distributed at a past Veterans Day Parade and, more recently, hate crimes that saw personal property damaged.
"We can't demand somebody stop those sorts of thoughts because it's freedom of speech," she said, noting that in 12 years of speaking to groups as mayor, she stresses that the community is welcoming and respectful of everyone. She also cited a citizens academy sponsored by the local police department as a place to begin having discussions surrounding diversity in the community.
Johnson mentioned the July rally in opposition of police brutality against people of color. Since the rally, Johnson said he has spoken to hundreds of people, has been invited to churches and planned a barbecue event for people of color to meet with local police out of uniform — a plan thwarted by COVID-19.
"Race is always going to be a hard, hard conversation, but I think Albany is ready to have conversations about race."
On defunding the police:
Johnson said the language was a poor choice of words, and rather the issue should be framed as reimagining policing.
"Nobody wants to short our police and fire departments," he said, noting that he would like to see the local department demilitarized.
"I want our police department connected to our community, attending events and games out of uniform," he said. "Taking money directly from our police departments would be a misuse of public safety funds."
Konopa said she didn't think it was fair for national events that see police engaging in illegal or inappropriate behavior to reflect on the local department.
"If we reduce funding any more," she said, "we're going to lose so much. If you're going to defund police and reduce services, it will increase crime."
On the possibility of a monthly utility fee:
Konopa, who introduced the idea of a utility fee during the last budget cycle, said the council is not required to take the fee to the voters. A campaign to roll out the tax to voters, she said, would take time and resources, and if voters reject the tax, it would leave the city with few options to fund services.
Johnson said he would want the tax to go to voters but would support public hearings to explain to the public why the city needed the additional revenue.
On how to improve blight without forcing low-income residents from neighborhoods:
Konopa said she would like to sit with students and hear their ideas, noting that the urban renewal district had been used to clean up blight in the past. She also said the city works to address blight issues as they arise.
Johnson said the city could empower people to take care of the community and spend money in neighborhoods. He also advocated for a housing task force.
"If we don't do something about housing now," he said, "in five years, you won't have a place to live in Albany because right now a two-bedroom apartment runs about $1,300. If young people cannot afford to live here, Albany will be a ghost town in 20 years."
On the most important issue to address once elected:
Konopa said re-establishing the HRC was a priority as well as the budget and the waterfront project that will see the sunsetting of the city's urban renewal district.
"We have been laying off a lot of staff the last few years. It's going to be hitting our public safety, our parks department and libraries, so we'll probably be spending a lot of time in 2021 dealing with our budget."
Johnson said his biggest concern was COVID-19.
"The biggest concern I have right now is surviving this pandemic with the least amount of life (lost) as possible," he said. "We have to develop creative ideas to move forward."
Johnson also said he was concerned with housing.
"Right now housing is $191 a square foot in Albany. We're pricing our young people out of the city," he said. He also spoke directly to students, telling them that the City Council makes decisions that will impact their grandchildren.
"I want you involved," he said.
The full forum, including the candidates' views on homelessness, can be viewed here.
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