Staff photo by Allison Potter
Wilmington city council candidates Skip Watkins, from left, Earl Sheridan, Charlie Rivenbark, Kevin O’Grady and Derek Bickel answer questions at a forum held by the Downtown Business Alliance on Monday, Sept. 23 at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside.
The issue of public safety set off heated discussion during the first two public forums held for this year’s city council hopefuls.
At the Hilton Riverside’s ballroom, the Downtown Business Alliance held a Sept. 23 forum that covered economic development issues focusing on the city’s central business district. Mayor Bill Saffo, along with five of the six city council candidates were in attendance: incumbent councilmembers Kevin O’Grady, Charlie Rivenbark and Mayor Pro Tem Earl Sheridan were joined by candidates Derek Bickel and Skip Watkins.
With all of the candidates in agreement that the CBD’s special tax fund is a positive as long as the downtown business owners are able to control the funds, the discussion turned to the administration of the fund.
Watkins recommended a cooperative effort of organizations, adding that city council should have a seat at the table.
O’Grady and Rivenbark held to Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s handling of the fund, for which a CEO is currently being sought by council, with Rivenbark adding that a lack of control by those being taxed was “causing a lot of the heartache” around the issue.
Public safety took center stage for the last question, with O’Grady and Watkins providing the closest exchange to a verbal confrontation of the night.
After Watkins charged the current council with allowing crime to increase in the city by citing online crime ratings from www.neighborhoodscout.com and www.cityranking.com, O’Grady responded by saying “that is a misuse of crime statistics,” and cited an FBI report’s recommendation that such sources were unreliable.
“This really angers me when I hear our city being denigrated when we’re doing so well,” O’Grady said.
The following night, the local NAACP chapter held a forum at the St. Stephen’s AME church, where the same five city council candidates were seated shoulder-to-shoulder beneath a large wooden cross after an opening question-and-answer session with Saffo.
The crime issue again surfaced several times, with most of the candidates agreeing that more needs to be done to direct youth toward neighborhood programs and organizations to keep them from joining gangs.
Rivenbark focused his remarks on the city’s success in finding ways to provide assets for the WPD.
“Whenever they need something, they get it,” Rivenbark said.
Sheridan emphasized the need to “be sure the relationship between the police and our community is a good relationship,” followed by O’Grady, who said, “We can’t arrest our way out of the crime problem.”
Watkins recommended more public-private partnerships for improved jobs and quality of life, while Bickel focused on the need to “start as young as possible” to get at-risk youth enrolled in programs to keep them out of gangs.