COLUMBIA — Firing questions and criticisms, even standing up and pointing, residents aimed their frustrations at two First Ward City Council candidates during a forum Monday.
Only two of the four candidates were present for the informal question-and-answer session at St. Paul A.M.E. Church that was sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Coalition. Incumbent Almeta Crayton and neighborhood and community activist John Clark answered the crowd of about 25 people who said they wanted an accountable council member who could see the big picture as well as smaller community issues.
True/False Film Festival co-founder Paul Sturtz and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association Karen Baxter are the two candidates who were unable to attend. Baxter had to work at Candlelight Lodge, a retirement home, and it was Sturtz’s son’s birthday.
The structure of the forum was different from the norm. There was no time limit to answer questions, which promoted more discussion between the candidates and members of the audience who felt free to criticize and debate.
Crayton supporters voiced their frustration about what they perceived as Clark’s focus on policies instead of people.
“Too much has not changed,” Clark said. “I’m offended by the same things that Almeta and the people are offended by. I’m running for office on a record of 15 years of experience.”
Crayton emphasized the importance of uniting the First Ward to bring about change, and she cited her history of helping individuals.
“It’s about bringing people together. We have not come together to solve our problems,” Crayton said. “If you don’t elect me, that’s fine, too. When you need some help, you’ll see who’s coming and who’s already been there.”
Wynna Faye Elbert, a Crayton supporter, said Crayton is a presence in the neighborhood.
“She makes herself available,” Elbert said. “If there’s a fight going on, she’s involved. And she doesn’t just work for the black community; she works for everybody.”
Many people in attendance seemed to support Crayton and questioned Clark about his ability to represent social issues. When asked directly what he could do for the community, Clark said he was in favor of community policing, a program that would get police officers out of their cars and interacting with the neighborhoods.
“I want more officers not in cars, walking around, getting out and meeting people,” Clark said after the meeting. “It’s not about law enforcement; it’s communicating in a more direct way. The neighborhood then has a more direct way in setting the goals of the police department.”
Clark said he wants more officers that can create a trust between the community and the police department.
Residents present said City Council members need more community support and political power for positive change to occur. Elbert said Crayton doesn’t wield enough political power to change the situation in the First Ward.
“She can’t do it by herself,” Elbert said. “You got to be concerned and want to see some change. A lot of people don’t see the problems.”
Kenny Freeman, a First Ward resident, said Crayton has done as much as she can for the First Ward with the resources and power that the city allots the council.
“There is a political machine that has been in place for decades,” Freeman said. “That machine has not looked at this ward as being significant. Mr. Clark says Almeta has not done anything, but she has; some things are not in her realm. It’s the city manager’s office that promotes change and the same people in office are doing the same thing.”
Freeman asked Clark if he would campaign to change the people in the city manager’s office. Clark responded that when he ran for mayor in 2004, he campaigned against then-City Manager Ray Beck. Clark said government offices should not be dominated by one person for too many years.