A town hall: City candidates gather to share thoughts on issues

Mike Wolanin | The Republic City Council district candidates Kent Anderson, from left, Jerone Wood, Eric Riddle, Keegan Hill, Nick Slabaugh and Elaine Hilber take part in the Put People First Town Hall by the local chapter of Hoosier Action at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ind., Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. Members of the public listened to and engaged with candidates for city council and mayor about issues facing people living in Columbus.

Candidates for city office in the Nov. 7 election talked about their views on affordable housing, substance abuse, homelessness, well-paying jobs and transparency.

The Bartholomew County chapter of Hoosier Action hosted a town hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Monday night, with a dozen local candidates and about 100 community members attending.

Independent Sean Burton was the only mayoral candidate at the event.

“What opportunities do you see to lead Columbus forward into a direction that puts people first?” asked co-moderator Michaela Wischmeier.

Burton replied that the city has several issues that need to be addressed, including some that are often connected, such as rising housing costs, the mental health crisis, substance abuse and homelessness.

“When we talk about homelessness, we talk about building nice places for them to go and giving the resources that they need to recover, not acknowledging that some of them may not want to recover,” he said. “Some of them may be on a different path. Maybe they’ve found their happiness in the path they’re on or in the place they’re in. So what we need to do as a city is make sure that we’re helping the people who want the help and not incentivizing the homelessness issue to continue.”

The key is to address the contributing factors, Burton said.

While Republican mayoral candidate Mary Ferdon was not present at the event, organizers said that she provided a written statement apologizing for her absence and sharing her thoughts on some of the issues at hand.

“Over the past eight years, city staff and leaders have spent a lot of time, resources and funding addressing substance abuse and mental health issues and creating teams who are working on those challenges,” Ferdon wrote. “We’ve seen impact, but not enough, so this work will continue going forward. Housing and good jobs are interconnected, have also been priorities, and will continue to be going forward.”

Housing was also one of the topics discussed by Columbus City Council candidates during the forum.

Candidates Jerone Wood (District 3, Democrat), Keegan Hill (District 4, Democrat) and Eric Riddle (District 5, Democrat) each expressed concern about high-end developments, such as The Taylor apartment complex and another mixed-use development that was proposed by the same developer, Flaherty & Collins, at Sixth and Washington streets. The three men felt that the city’s focus should instead be on affordable housing.

“The government solves the problem or no one does,” said Nick Slabaugh, a Democrat running for District 1. “We can wait around for wealthy people like me, like my opponent, to come around and be developers and target low-income housing. Great. It still doesn’t get you there. I’m a developer. I can’t build housing that a person making $15 an hour could afford.”

The city needs to have a good variety of housing, said Kent Anderson (District 5, Republican). He added that it’s also important to take a look at transportation.

District 2 incumbent Elaine Hilber (Democrat) said that, in her experience on council, it has been difficult to bring developers into Columbus. One route the city has gone is to designate Economic Development Target Areas and Economic Revitalization Areas in the community so that developers can receive tax credits from the federal government to be able to develop housing in existing buildings.

“Those projects haven’t always been successful,” she said. “And so I do agree with Nick to an extent, that the things we need to look at are not just increasing supply but also increasing the different types of housing that we have here and kind of thinking outside the box.”

Housing was also discussed by at-large council candidates in response to a question about addressing homelessness in Columbus.

Republican Christopher Rutan emphasized the need for 24/7 services. Democrat Paul Hoffman likewise said that more resources are needed, including “permanent supportive housing.”

Republican Alex Engelbert said that the city should address the homelessness issue by using its own funds to build affordable, government-owned housing.

“Where we spend our money is where we put our values as a people,” he said.

On the other hand, Democratic incumbent Tom Dell said that he doesn’t think homelessness is always just a housing problem, and government-run housing “never seems to be able to work very well in any major city.”

“I think government can be a leader,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be the solution. I think it can be the leader in trying to get everybody working together — developers, nonprofits and churches and congregations and the community — in order to try to solve more of this issue of trying to get people help.”

He also emphasized the need for more mental health services.

Grace Kestler, also a Democrat incumbent, said that it’s important to look at whether the city is incentivizing “mixed income housing developments” so that people from different income levels are able to live in the same area.

In addition to posing questions to local candidates, Hoosier Action organizers spoke on the importance of civic engagement not just during the election, but year-round. They also asked candidates, if they are elected, to consider attending a Dec. 7 dinner to keep the conversation going.

“We want to keep working with you and every local decision maker moving forward,” said co-moderator Zack Patchett. “If you are elected, we would ask our candidates here to join us for a post-elections dinner to celebrate, share a meal, talk about priorities for next year.”