College Park mayoral and City Council candidates discussed problems related to homeownership, transportation and representation on Thursday night at the University Bible Fellowship in College Park Woods.
All four mayoral and four District 4 council candidates were present at the forum, along with about 20 residents in the audience. The forum was hosted by the West College Park Civic Association, with civic association president Suchitra Balachandran leading the discussion.
The mayoral candidates — Mayor Patrick Wojahn, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Cook and city residents Zari Malsawma and Tom Chen — opened the forum explaining what made them best suited for mayor.
Wojahn said he wants College Park to realize its full potential, adding that the city has many great resources — such as the University of Maryland — but isn't taking full advantage of them.
The residents and city officials have a disconnect within College Park, Chen said, and he said he would help fix that by making the city safer and less congested with traffic.
Cook brought up her track record of fighting for small businesses and her ability to keep the College Park Woods Swim Club a community meeting space.
Malsawma said she moved to College Park from India and has never held a political position before.
"I am not a politician," Malsawma said, "but I do believe that God has been preparing me … to help College Park become a place where no evil can thrive, a place where God's name is hallowed, his kingdom comes, his will is done, a city like none that's ever been."
When the candidates were asked how they would reverse the trend of owner-occupied homes turning into rental properties in College Park Woods, Cook said the city would need to work with landlords, whom the city has "butted heads" with in the past.
"I don't want to say we don't like having our landlords here, because we have some very good landlords," Cook said.
In response, Chen, who is a landlord, said the city needs to be improved first before any families will want to move into the neighborhoods.
Candidates were also asked if they planned on expanding the city's bus service in West College Park, which currently has no bus access to the Metro, Balachandran said. Cook and Malsawma said carpooling could be used to help this problem while building a sense of community.
"I'm not inclined to pay for a bus or a shuttle," Wojahn said. "For many communities, it is actually cheaper to subsidize Uber rides for lower-income seniors than it is to provide an additional bus service."
Chen disagreed, saying it's important to have more bus access in the area.
"We want people [to] get home safely, because it's not safe out there, especially at night," Chen said. "For students, for older people, whatever, you need a bus running more."
Oscar Gregory, a District 4 council candidate, said the cost of expanding the bus route shouldn't be a concern to the city.
"If we could spend $7.7 million in profit to Bozzuto to build a development down there, we certainly have enough money," he said.
The candidates also discussed the issue of taking noncitizens voting to a non-binding referendum, and if they support non-binding referendums for all changes to the city charter.
Malsawma said she's in favor of this measure.
"I think as city council members or mayor, we are to represent our constituents," Malsawma said.
District 4 councilwoman Dustyn Kujawa and council candidate Denise Mitchell, who are campaigning together, both said it wasn't clear to the council what was being voted on so more time was needed to ask questions and get input from residents.
Holding more non-binding referendums would also get more people in the community to vote in the city for issues other than candidate elections, council candidate Alan Hew said.
Cook, who also supports the non-binding referendums, said the referendum issue was the "straw that broke the camel's back" and convinced her to run for mayor. Not enough people were able to express their opinions on the matter, she said.
Wojahn was the only candidate at the forum who opposed all amendments to the charter going to a non-binding referendum.
"It is our job as a council to look into the pros and cons of every single issue," Wojahn said. "I think it would really tie our hands to put every charter amendment to a non-binding referendum, and it would really defeat the idea of a representative democracy and the purpose of why we have it in place."
The council candidates were asked how they would solve the issue of safety, specifically if they supported a pedestrian bridge on Route 1. The highway has seen recent pedestrian collisions, including the death of Maria Fisher, a student at the University of Maryland.
An overpass on Route 1 is "absolutely needed," Gregory said. Hew, Mitchell and Kujawa all supported the idea of a pedestrian bridge as well, but raised concerns about the cost and feasibility of such a project.
"Safety, safety, safety," Kujawa said. "I know we're all tired of hearing about students getting hit."