Tonight I attended a mayoral candidate forum with 4 candidates running to be the leader of Camden. The Democratic party pretty much runs Camden and has selected its candidate, Dana Redd. The other 3 are running independently or at least not as Democrats. Only one actually identified as an independent. The 90 minute event was headed by CCOP as an informational forum for voters to hear these candidates answer questions. The candidates had the questions ahead of time (I believe that is usually the CCOP practice) and each had a minute and a half to answer each question. There were timekeepers to keep them to schedule. The questions were very thoughtful and pointed. The candidates answered some directly and some not so directly. I give a rundown below (CCOP will have a full summaries out soon). This is my take on the evening and I am not a reporter :)
Candidates: Angel Cordero, Roberto Feliz, Danna Redd and Mujima Parker
Notable characteristics and ideas -
Cordero: passionate about residents, respect, education, and "getting the job done." His biggest idea is to have block captains throughout the city to be eyes and ears on neighborhood services. There weren't too many other specifics, but he is committed to the people.
Feliz: he is a former director of Public Works in Camden and is running on his track record. Apparently at one time the PW department ran well? He brings his experience and administrative experience. He will get better contracts for the city.
Redd: current city council member AND state Senator. She was crisp and knew her facts and figures. However, she didn't really have many specific solutions or actions to take beyond traditional political platitudes.
Parker: running on her expertise as a former state administrator in Economic Development and her training as a public administrator. Her responses reflected an administrative approach to city hall that is more fitting for a City Manager than a Mayor. But since we don't have a Manager, we must rely on the mayor- except that in Camden we have a COO appointed by the Governor.
It was quite interesting to note that only Redd clearly stated that the Mayor should be in charge (Feliz said the mayor should have more oversight). Given that Redd is the odds on favorite, one has to wonder if Corzine is elected if he will end the COO arrangement early, or appoint a titular COO but give the Mayor much more power.
It should go without saying that Camden needs jobs, public safety, public services, education, businesses, tax ratable property, and housing revitalization. When you have only 90 seconds to answer a question, stating the obvious is nothing but filler. We heard a lot of filler.
Cordero had the most interesting idea of the night that was out of the norm. He suggests having block captains throughout the city and to demand a better level of respect of citizens by city employees. Block captains would monitor city services and report info to City Hall, holding the city accountable. They also would be neighborhood watch to ensure that the guilty are caught and punished, rather than the innocent - whom he claimed are too often snatched up by the Police. He also called several times for community policing and community development corporations to be in every neighborhood. No one else said that. For the most part, though, he was more passion than ideas.
Feliz mentioned several times that the city should have a building inventory and assessment to get a handle on conditions and property. He also stressed several times the need to have better city contracts that are competitive and give better results for the money to the city. Trash hauling and street sweeping were mentioned. He also had an idea echoed by others, that the city should stop landbanking property and holding it too long (until the property rots). He was the only candidate to step up and admit that the city had a $56million deficit this year. Though he did not have a particularly strong plan to eliminate it. He did state several times that service at city hall should be the focus and that city hall employees must do a better job of customer service. Others echoed this. He primarily saw the mayor's position through the lens of his former job as Public Works director.
Parker put an emphasis several times on "marketing" Camden to business and potential residents because the city is so well situated on the East coast. In its current condition, I'm not sure if location, location, location will be persuasive. She did make a point that she wants to empower the residents. To do what, she did not say. A crowd pleaser statement, echoed by the other candidates was that city hall department heads must be held accountable. Parker went a step further and said, if a lateral move is not sufficient, an employee should be terminated. Those may be fighting words in Camden. She highlighted her state level experience and contacts she has along with her report reading skills and review skills. It sounded terribly bureaucratic. Like Redd, she knew something about specific programs, legislative opportunities, and sources of potential partnerships and grant funds. However, when she said, "I have grant writing skills" I wondered if she was really going to be that hands on!
Redd was the canidate to beat tonight, simply because she is the organized party candidate and odds on favorite to win. She stayed on message, but didn't say much. That was dissappointing. She did say that she would be a hands on mayor and she regularly drives the streets of Camden to see for herself what is going on. Cordero had the best comeback to that, stating the block captains - not one leader at city hall - should be the eyes and ears of the City. She did put a lot of energy and thought into the need to work with the school district and other educational providers to help kids. She was the only one who pointed out the "youngness" of Camden with 40% of the population under 25 (I think that was the figure). Overall, her answers were informed, but often cautious.
Two questions were of particular interest to me - Economic Development and Abandoned Property. Here are the responses that were on point to the question. I ommit the filler.
Economic Development - how will you handle the challenging fiscal time the city is in right now?
Redd: I am pragmatic. We need an honest dialogue with residents. We need a long term financial recovery plan. Need to keep and bring in business. Need efficient and effective use of city dollars so as not to cut services. City hall needs to be customer and business friendly.
Money quote: I will change the culture at city hall.
Parker: Use tax incentives. Effectively market the city and its location to bring in business. Promote homeownership to bring in tax revenue.
Cordero: I have faith and determination. Just get the work done. We will get dollars from the state and federal politicians (naming Obama). We will do whatever it takes.
My take: this was the most non-answered question from this candidate all night.
Feliz: Deficits increase in Camden every year and the city is currently at $56 million. We can do a better job with the dollars we have through better contracts, more efficiency, and better organization.
My take: it's a good idea, but for him, it was a one-trick pony
Abandoned Property - What would you do in your first year?
Parker: I would work with the city legal department and sell properties to individuals, nonprofits, and for-profit companies to rehab and build.
Cordero: Abandoned property is an opportunity to employ and train residents in the building trades. I would use the abandoned property act. I would work with the Housing Authority. I would create an amnesty program. [not sure if that is amnesty from taxes, code violations or what. I didn't get it down.]
Feliz: The city should stop landbanking because the city holds property for too long and lets it deteriorate to the point it can't be fixed or sold. Need a building assessment of all property. Need to collect taxes. Need to enforce codes, but not too much because too much enforcement leads to vacancies.
My take: he was on point with the landbank issue, but lost me with the vague enforcement idea.
Redd: Abandoned property is the #1 issue I have heard from groups such as CCOP and Camden United. The abandoned property act is available. The issue is funding, we don't have enough. DRPA should use some of the unspent prison razing funds to help the city with this issue.
My take: I wonder if Jeff Nash has heard this?
In the next question on abandoned property the candidates reiterated things they had already said. Redd, however, stepped up the game when she stated: I'll work with nonprofits, implement the Abandoned Property Act, use the Obama urban agenda to our advantage, and I will respect the neighborhood stakeholders in every neighborhood.
My take: this should be of interest to those who think she was on the wrong side of the Cherokee/Cramer Hill development issue.
The rest of questions had the candidates trotting out tried and true ideas - partnerships with the federal and state levels to get revenue for the city; work with business to bring jobs to Camden; better education and after school programs. Redd explicitly said keep the schools and community centers open after hours and on weekends to support kids and families. Cordero made strong points about education and job training for youth and need for community schools.
I have no doubt that all 4 of these candidates want this city to succeed. They each expressed strengths and showed weaknesses. What might be interesting is if whoever is elected (Redd) works to include the other candidates and their constituencies in their administration. You have two experienced adminstrators and all 4 candidates said there needs to be accountability for department heads at city hall. Two new department heads may have been in the room tonight. You have a strong community activist from the Latino community who emphasized respect of citizens, including citizens in a meaningful way with the city, and focus on education (and he has some experience in running or organizing an educational support program). Use these resources, Dana!! Let's not let it be business as usual and circle the wagons. Open up the campfire to EVERY CORNER of the city. That would be novel.
Watch for CCOP's summary of responses to each question. I tried to capture the highlights here.