Community Group Asks Candidates: Are You Going Our Way?

October 11, 2006

After numerous in-home meetings and “one-on-ones” to decide which course to take on the issues that matter to them, members of the interfaith group PATH asked the county’s political candidates a straightforward question: Are you with us or not?
Candidates for County Executive and the County Council explained their stances on the issues of affordable housing, transportation and youth at an Oct. 8 meeting at Oakland Mills High School, attended by several hundred members of about 35 churches and a mosque. (The group is currently in conversation with four synagogues.)

Before the meeting, PATH asked all candidates to make a “public pledge” to improve affordable housing by expanding the county’s MIHU (Moderate Income Housing Units) requirements to all residential-zoned areas and increasing the minimum number of required MIHU by 25 percent; buying tracts of land in specific areas for mixed-income developments; and dedicating $30 million annually for a county Housing Trust Fund.

It also asked them to improve public transportation by cutting waiting time for buses and expanding morning and evening service, to commit to a summit on youth issues, and commit to meeting with PATH three times a year to work on those issues. Unlike a traditional forum, candidates received the questions in advance and were only required to answer yes or no, although many explained their answers.

“The purpose of this evening is to clarify where the candidates stand; do we have their support or not?” noted Christiane Howey, one of PATH’s lay co-chairs and a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Highland. “Today we will hold our candidates accountable. … That [pledge] will be there, in season and out, to remind them of commitments they made.” Most candidates answered “yes” to more general questions, such as those on transportation and youth, but expressed concern about the specifics of PATH’s proposals on affordable housing.

County Executive hopefuls Ken Ulman (D) and Chris Merdon (R) both agreed to purchase land for mixed-income development, improve transit and hold a youth summit, but said no to raising MIHU requirements to 25 percent and creating a Housing Trust Fund. Merdon explained that he believed in providing structured activities for all county youth, but said he could not commit to a higher MIHU requirement.

“The county has a tremendous amount of commitments,” he said, explaining that elected officials have to consider the views of all residents, not just those in PATH. “I always talked about having a shared vision for Howard County.” Ulman said he would answer “no to the specifics, yes to the goals” of the MIHU question, adding that New Town Columbia currently has no MIHU requirement and he would provide one. On the transportation issue, he qualified his ‘yes’ answer by explaining that funding for transit has increased by about $3 million in recent years, despite cuts in state funds. “We have had some tough times in our funding,” he said. “The answer is absolutely ‘yes,’ but it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t want anyone to sugarcoat it.”

Tony Salazar (R) of District 1 and Calvin Ball (D) of District 2 also said they had reservations about the affordable housing pledge. Ball’s opponent, Gina Ellrich (R), was not at the event. Some candidates, including District 1 candidate Courtney Watson (D) and District 4 candidate Mary Kay Sigaty (D), answered “yes” to all the questions. (County Executive candidate Steve Wallis (I), who did not attend the event, had answered “yes” to everything.) “I don’t think 25 percent MIHU is outrageous. In fact, I would like to see even more,” said Sigaty. Her opponent, Tom D’Asto (R), did not attend.

Watson also qualified her “yes” answers by noting she pledged to work with PATH on all the issues, adding that she was not sure if the MIHU requirement and the Trust Fund were realistic initiatives. Some PATH leaders seemed unsatisfied with the vagueness of the responses. Alvin Thomas of Columbia’s St. John the Evangelist United Methodist-Presbyterian Church, who moderated the discussion, frequently demanded more straightforward answers by saying, “It’s a simple question: yes or no?” The Rev. Carletta Allen, a PATH clergy co-chair and pastor of Columbia’s Locust United Methodist Church, also urged candidates to make a stronger commitment and take the group’s proposals seriously.

“We want you to remember that this is not arbitrary. This has been the result of a lot of … house meetings,” Allen said. “We hear when you say you ‘generally’ agree with our goals, but that family waiting for a bus at four in the morning does not want [a ‘general’ commitment].”











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People Acting Together in Howard