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Akron mayoral candidates discuss immigration, social justice priorities at forum

The seven candidates for mayor of Akron discussed social justice topics in a community forum on March 16, 2023. (From L to R: Mark Greer, Shammas Malik, Keith Mills, Tara Mosley, Joshua Schaffer, Marco Sommerville, Jeff Wilhite.)
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
The seven Akron mayoral candidates discussed social justice topics during a community forum on March 16, 2023. (From left to right: Mark Greer, Shammas Malik, Keith Mills, Tara Mosley, Joshua Schaffer, Marco Sommerville, Jeff Wilhite.)

The seven candidates running for mayor of Akron have a variety of ideas on how to prioritize social justice in the city.

With less than two months until the primary election, the candidates discussed housing, economic development, immigration and policing during a community forum Thursday night at the Garfield Community Learning Center.

Six of the seven candidates saidpublic safety is the number one social justice-relatedtopic they are hearing about from voters. Mark Greer, former Small Business Program Grant manager for the city, said his top priority was getting justice for Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old Black man fatally shot by police last summer.

Candidates welcome immigration, call Akron a “sanctuary city”

Moderator Cynthia Peeples, a board member of the League of Women Voters and founder of Honesty for Ohio Education, which advocates for the inclusion of diversity in education, asked candidates how their administration would support immigrants and refugees.

Akron is home to a large immigrant community, particularly in the North Hill neighborhood on the city's northeast side.

Several of the candidates, including current city councilmembers Tara Mosley and Shammas Malik, said they would advocate for Akron to become a “sanctuary city.”

Sanctuary policies vary, but in many "sanctuary cities," local law enforcement does not report people's immigration status to federal authorities, according to the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Mosley, who represents parts of the east and north sides of the city, said she’d support initiatives that assist immigrants in becoming U.S. citizens.

“A lot of them are undocumented, but they’re here doing work. They’re paying taxes," Mosley said. "We need to make sure that we pave the pathway to citizenship for them."

Keith Mills, a teacher, said he’d also like Akron to be a "sanctuary city."

Summit County Councilman Jeff Wilhite said he'd work to improve communication to make sure the immigrant community is kept in the loop on city services and projects.

Malik, the current city councilman for Ward 8 on the city’s northwest side, has been talking with immigrants about their concerns, he said. He is hearing about illegal gambling in stores in the Bhutanese community, he said. He’d work to address that as mayor, he said, as well as make sure Akron remains a welcoming city.

“If Ron DeSantis, or someone else who dehumanizes people and ships them around like things, becomes president, we are absolutely going to push back on anyone who tries to dehumanize the amazing people who are enriching our city as immigrants,” Malik said.

Mark Greer said he would like to see more wraparound services at North High School, where many immigrant children attend school.

Marco Sommerville, a deputy mayor, would like the city to continue to work with ASIA Inc., a nonprofit that supports Akron’s Asian American and Pacific-Islander populations. Joshua Schaffer, a cell phone store manager, said he’d encourage families to settle in Akron and make sure the city was welcoming.

All seven candidates will attend a forum hosted by ASIA Inc. on Saturday.

Getting residents more involved

Candidates were also asked how they would prioritize getting citizens engaged in city government.

Mosley proposed giving each ward its own budget. Wilhite said he’s already talked with some foundations and proposed giving each ward its own endowment to use for community projects.

“Then each ward can grow that endowment as large as they want. The earnings from that endowment [stay] right in that ward,” Wilhie said. “You now have a resource, free of the city administration what they think you should have in your neighborhood, but the neighborhoods tell us what they need.”

Sommerville encouraged residents to come to budget meetings and give input.

“We’re having budget hearings right now, and how many people have been going to those budget hearings? Not very many,” Sommerville said. “Really and truly, the opportunity to participate is there, but people have to attend the meetings and find out what’s going on.”

He added that he’d support an online service where residents could provide feedback.

The budget process should be designed to include community engagement, said Malik, who added it’s not enough to ask people to come to meetings. He’d advocate for participatory budgeting if elected mayor, he said.

Greer said city officials can’t wait for citizens to come to them, and if mayor, he would get out into the community at events like the forum and hear what residents thought.

“We have to understand that our communities have been marginalized and not heard for so long, that our calls have been falling on deaf ears,” Greer said. “We have to ensure that going forward, we put our communities first and make their priorities our priorities at the city.”

Mills said he’d make sure council members go out in the community and understand what residents want.

Schaffer said he’d have open office hours for residents to share their feedback.

“My office door will be open and available, and you can hold me to that," Schaffer said. "That’s how we’re going to get the community involved — by getting the mayor involved with the community."

Diversity in city contracts

Candidates were also asked how they would make sure construction projects in the city are conducted by a diversity of contractors.

Greer said too often, projects have been given to the same contractors for decades, and he’d work to change that.

Mosley would advocate for more local businesses to be involved in housing repair projects, many of which are funded by American Rescue Plan Act funds, she said.

The city hired a minority compliance officer but she left in January, Malik said. He’d prioritize getting that position filled to increase contracts in minority communities, he added.

Sommerville said he’d advocate for more projects like one in Summit Lake, which will add more than 290 new homes in that neighborhood. Current residents being displaced by the project will have the first pick of the new homes once they are completed, Sommerville said.

Mills said he would partner with trade programs to encourage young people to get into these projects, he said.

“I want to use those programs to help repair elderly houses, and I want to, instead of handing out $60,000 for a consult, I want to hire someone who can actually go out and train some of our young folk to actually have different options in life,” Mills said.

Thursday’s forum was held by several social justice-focused organizations including the local chapter of the NAACP, The Freedom BLOC, Akron Interfaith Social Justice Group, Akron Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the League of Women Voters of the Akron Area.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.