Affordable housing, safety, noise pollution and moving forward from ex-mayor Patrick Wojahn’s arrest took center stage at the College Park mayoral debate Wednesday night.
All four candidates — Mayor Pro Tem Denise Mitchell, District 1 city council members Fazlul Kabir and Kate Kennedy and political newcomer Bryan Haddad — were in attendance.
The special election comes after the March resignation and arrest of former mayor Patrick Wojahn. It will take place May 6 in the College Park City Hall. The last day to register to vote is April 18.
WTOP anchor Shawn Anderson served as moderator. Here’s what the candidates had to say on several key issues.
Candidates agreed there’s a great need for affordable housing options in the city.
Kennedy, who worked to create a housing trust that helps residents purchase a home in the city, said she wants to help students afford apartments and increase permanent homeownership across the city.
“We want to make sure that we’re building generational wealth in the city, so the variety is important,” Kennedy said.
Mitchell wants to give tax credits to seniors so they can better afford housing.
Haddad said the only option to solve the housing crisis is to increase supply. He also said levying taxes on empty apartments could lower prices.
Community members are concerned about noise levels in neighborhoods, especially with loud parties and noisy cars.
Kennedy and Mitchell stressed working with students and the university to cut down on the loudness of parties.
Kennedy supported the 2019 unruly social gathering ordinance, which aimed to deter students from hosting extremely loud parties without getting police involved.
Mitchell brought up the student code of conduct policy, which means students can be sanctioned by the university for noise violations.
For loud traffic, Haddad emphasized that the city should take action to increase code enforcement against people who modify their mufflers, instead of waiting for state government officials to act. The city council supported a state bill against modified mufflers this year, but it did not pass out of the legislature.
“Referencing state bills is hand waving on the part of the city government,” Haddad said. “We can make changes right now with city code enforcement.”
Less than half of the 502 College Park residents sampled in the 2022 College Park Community Survey Findings Report said they were satisfied with how the city was preventing crime.
Kennedy, Kabir and Mitchell expressed support for adding more police officers in the city. Kennedy would like to see more officers recruited to combat a countywide shortage.
Kabir highlighted his previous advocacy for adding more officers as a member of the council.
“This is the top priority thing our residents are asking for,” Kabir said.
Haddad, a single-issue candidate advocating to use code enforcement to discourage illegal vehicle modification, proposed that the city can use code enforcement in the future to remediate the understaffing.
In the community survey report, residents said they wanted more small businesses in the city, such as boutique-style shopping and restaurants, Anderson said.
Mitchell proposed initiatives such as a small business incubator program, as well as roundtable and visioning sessions, for College Park businesses to give people tools necessary to start and support businesses in the city.
Haddad — who is part owner of The Bamboo Eater, a smoke shop in north College Park — said he has first-hand knowledge of what small businesses in the city need.
While many new College Park developments have some retail space, many are geared towards corporate clients, Haddad added. In the future, the city should bolster having more small businesses occupy new spaces, he added.
Kabir said the city should prioritize bringing new businesses to College Park, which could increase the city’s tax base and prevent tax rate increases. With that extra revenue, the city could also role out more amenities and services, he added.
Candidates also discussed how they can help move the city forward after ex-mayor Patrick Wojahn was arrested and charged with dozens of child pornography distribution and possession charges.
Kennedy emphasized how important it is for council members and other community members to take care of their mental health in the wake of Wojahn’s arrest.
“I will start by modeling what I believe is healthy leadership and helping myself,” Kennedy said. “Then I will start working with the council.”
Kabir highlighted conversations he has had with College Park residents and resources he has shared with people struggling with the news, all while continuing to process his own emotions of shock, betrayal and anger.
Mitchell also stressed how city leadership can help the community recover and heal together.
“We do need to center ourselves but most importantly, we need to center on the city and the residents of the city,” Mitchell said. “You are the most important people to me right now, each and every one of you.”