Hours of debates last week gave Hyattsville residents a better look at their council candidates ahead of early-May elections.
In Hyattsville, more than a dozen City Council candidates participated in three hours of debates split over two nights. The first night, immediately following the debate between Hyattsville’s three mayoral candidates, focused on candidates in the city’s first and second wards. There was some campaign news, too, with Ward Two candidate Oliva Lopez dropping out of the race shortly before the debate began, leaving incumbent Robert Croslin the only active candidate running in Ward Two. Despite her withdrawal from the race, Lopez’s name is still on the ballot, which has already been mailed to every voter in the city.
In Ward One, Sam Denes, Mai Abdul Rahman, and Michael Brown are contesting for votes in a three-way race.
The first question asked candidates to “change one thing City Council has been doing recently.” For the most part, candidates seemed to agree with the direction of the current city council, however Abdul Rahman said she did not like what she described as negative campaigning she saw emanating from the mayoral races.
“I am truly surprised about all the hoopla that happened earlier,” said Abdul Rahman. “It seemed like something that was outside of what the council should be.
The next question focused on crimes related to cars, asking how candidates would deal with spates of thefts from or of automobiles. Croslin encouraged residents to report all crimes, but said more policing will not completely rid Hyattsville of auto-related crimes. Abdul Rahman pushed for increased police patrols, asserting “we can actually address them fairly quickly…we know where they are happening.” Brown, who kept many of his responses brief, also pushed for increased policing to prevent car thefts. Denes said the city should use its mobile cameras to monitor high-crime areas, but also said Hyattsville can’t tackle the issue on its own and needs to work closely with other law enforcement agencies on the issue.
Responses to a broad question about affordable housing were more varied.
Brown noted that many seniors struggle with housing costs, but he also suggested Hyattsville should somehow take action to prevent house “flippers” from buying, renovating and then quickly re-selling homes at a markup. How Hyattsville would do this is a bit of a question, at least from afar. The city is a small municipality with limited powers, including little input on zoning and no way to intervene in a private property sale. To change that would require an act of the state legislature.
Abdul Rahman’s response bemoaned the state of affordable housing and new housing development in the city. She noted that new homes in Hyattsville routinely sell for more than $400,000, a price she said was unaffordable for the average resident. But this was a problem the city could manage, Abdul Rahman said. How so was less clear. Abdul Rahman said the city has an “opportunity with all of our incentives to lower the asking price of these homes. But while Hyattsville has a newly-created incentive that cuts property taxes for developers of multifamily projects who promise to build affordably-priced units, the city does not have an incentive program structured to lower the price of the owner-occupied homes Abdul Rahman was speaking of.
Denes gave the most-thorough answer. He was the only Ward One candidate to note the City Council’s ongoing development of its Affordable Housing Action Agenda document, which is intended to be a long-term policy document to guide the city’s housing strategies. Denes said the city needs to carefully evaluate the proposals in the still-draft document. He also noted the conflicting goals inherent in the question: landowners want property values to increase, which increases housing costs and make it harder to find affordable housing in the city. In the end, he said the city needs to get comfortable with more-dense development in “appropriate” areas.
Croslin said he “totally” agreed with Denes, highlighting developer tax breaks and the city’s involvement in the planned sale of the affordably-priced Hamilton Manor apartment complex to an affordable housing provider.
Ward Three’s crowded debate
Almost all of the remaining candidates in Hyattsville’s third, fourth and fifth wards held two debates the next night, save for Ward Five candidate Patricia Page, who did not attend. The first debate of the evening focused on Ward Three, where six candidates faced off against each other, with Jimmy McClellan, Chuck Perry, Adam Alfano, James Wigley, Sherlyna Hanna, and Alexander Houck delivering responses.
The opening question came from Hyattsville University Christian Church Rev. Nathan Hill, who asked what the Ward Three candidates would address homelessness in the city.
Wigley suggested Hyattsville could build a facility for homeless residents, perhaps using “underutilized” spaces in existing developments, to house homeless people and provide them with services. Perry said he would cut 20 to 25 percent of the city police department’s budget and use it to create an agency focused on “dealing with the homeless problem.”
McClellan said the city should continue to work with nonprofits that serve the homeless, and said the city should explore alternatives to using traditional policing in interactions with homeless residents or those suffering from mental illnesses. Houck said he favored a “housing first” approach to homelessness, but said it wasn’t as simple as just putting a roof over the heads of homeless individuals, and said the city should create grants for residents experiencing housing crises.
Hanna commended efforts to improve mental health training for city police departments, and said she wants the city to review and recommend improvements in how different city departments “handle trauma.” Alfano noted that “mental illness” is a broad umbrella, saying “somebody that’s lost a job and is living in their car is very different than someone with adult onset schizophrenia,” and suggested Hyattsville partner with businesses to offer supportive services to homeless residents.
On pedestrian safety, the Ward Three candidates were mostly aligned, with most supportive of more-robust safety upgrades to streets, such as new traffic lights and traffic calming devices and increased enforcement of traffic laws.
Wrapping up with Wards Four and Five
The final debate of Hyattsville’s 2021 election cycle focused on the candidates in Wards Four and Five. Running un-opposed in Ward Four is incumbent City Councilor Edouard Haba. In Ward Five, Rommel Sandino, Sophie Gorman Oriani, Kurt Brintzenhofe, Daniel Amador took part in the debate.
Amador, explaining his candidacy, said he was running to address gaps between East Hyattsville and his district in West Hyattsville, which he said was lacking in attention and resources from the city. Britzenhofe said he’s running partly because he has the time to do so, “something a lot of people don’t.” Gorman Oriani said she wanted to run in part to try to ensure a woman was represented on City Council. Sandino, a former undocumented immigrant who became a citizen in 2011, emphasized the impact the pandemic has had on people of color in Hyattsville, noting Ward Five’s large hispanic population, and noted his work with local PTAs.
Responding to a question about engaging with the more-diverse communities of Wards Four and Five, Sandino said he wanted to improve accessibility of city services to Hyattsville’s Spanish-speaking population. Gorman Oriani said she wanted to continue programs like pop-up early voting booths to drive voter participation in her ward, and find new ways to engage “where people are.”
Brintzenhofe said Hyattsville needs to look into “new ways to interact with people,” and said he would produce a robust schedule of email updates to keep his constituents informed. Amador called for a data-driven approach to communicating with his diverse constituents, using Census data to better understand the languages spoken in ward.
Haba noted that not all residents in his Ward have access to digital tools needed to receive electronic communications, and said the city needs to make sure its reaching those people, too. He also called for the city to designate ambassadors from Hyattsville’s international community who would be used to help the city communicate with those residents.
A question about development – whether there was too much, just enough, or too little – elicited varying responses from the West Hyattsville candidates, though they all seemed to lack specific. Gorman-Oriani said she feared “random” development near West Hyattsville Metro, calling for comprehensive planning to guide development there. Sandino called for “responsible development” in Ward Five, and said he supported efforts to expand affordable housing opportunities in his ward. Amador also emphasized affordability and sustainability in his answer, and pushed for mixed-use development in West Hyattsville. Brintzenhofe said that while development planning was underway in West Hyattsville, but he criticized what he saw as high prices for new housing. Haba also pushed for “sustainable development” and said Hyattsville needs to attract a diverse range of housing types in the city.