Akron mayoral candidates discuss public safety, immigration at ASIA Inc. forum
Asian Services in Action, or ASIA Inc., an organization which serves the health and human services needs of Northeast Ohio's AAPI community, hosted its second Akron mayoral forum on Saturday. The event aimed to introduce immigrants and new voters to the candidates and the democratic system and encourage them to vote in the upcoming election.
"This forum, it's intended for a connection with the community," ASIA CEO Elaine Tso said. "Most of the time the community that Asian Services in Action serves, they come to us when we help them to register to vote, and a lot of times they'll say, 'Why would I register to vote? I don't know who to vote for.' And so this forum is designed to provide education and information for the community about what the candidates stand for, what their plans are for the future of Akron and also to simultaneously encourage community members to vote."
Six of the seven candidates running for mayor participated in the forum: Mark Greer, Akron City Councilmember Shammas Malik, Keith Mills, Akron City Councilmember Tara Mosley, Deputy Mayor Marco Sommerville and Summit County Councilmember Jeff Wilhite. The seventh candidate, Joshua Schaffer, was unable to attend at the last minute due to work. Instead, his prerecorded opening and closing statements were played.
"I think it's important to have a working person that represents you," Schaffer said in his opening statement. "Look, the reason I can't get off because of a problem that a lot of us have: that I can't get my boss to let me off of work, and I can't afford to get fired."
The candidates discussed a host of topics, including public safety, housing and mental health.
Affordable housing vs public safety
Tso, who moderated the event, first asked candidates what their top priority would be if elected mayor. The candidates' priorities mainly revolved either around housing or public safety.
"With almost half of the city being rental property, we are never going to grow our population with that situation," Wilhite said, continuing that bringing affordable housing into the city would be top of mind for him. One of his solutions is Boxabl, a company that builds affordable housing. "They bring the house to a vacant lot. They drop it on the lot, and within a few hours, they open it up. And there's a home. It's a beautiful home."
Housing was also Sommerville's top priority. "Homeownership is very important, because once people own their own property, they tend to keep it up better, they tend to vote in the community and they tend to participate," he said. "So that's why it's so important to have homeownership in the community." He added that he's worked in the mayor's office to build new, affordable housing in the city.
However, Greer, Malik and Mosley cited public safety as their top priority, noting that people won't want to buy homes in Akron if they doesn't feel safe.
"We can talk about rebuilding our housing stock and hoping that our population will increase, but until we deal with public safety in these neighborhoods where people feel safe, we will continue to have this issue," Mosley said. "We can't expect people to buy homes in our neighborhoods if they look at us as a crime index, as a red zone."
Public safety is the number one concern of Mosley's constituents, she said.
"When I have residents who are in their 90s calling me because of gunfire in the middle of the day in their neighborhood on the floor and nobody is coming, not even police, our number one issue is public safety," Mosley said.
Safety needs to be rebuilt in the city before anything else can happen, Malik said. "It's the most essential thing, and it's the biggest reason why we see people moving out of Akron for decades," he said. Malik called for more community engagement from the police department and for more mental health outreach. "It starts with building trust."
Justice is a key part of public safety, Greer argued. "Justice is not a bad word, but in order for our community to have the trust in our law enforcement, we're going to have to see justice happen," he said, referencing the police killing of Jayland Walker last summer. "And we're going to have to see our community and law enforcement be on the same page, so we can ensure that every community and every neighborhood is safe."
Mills cited trust and transparency as his top priorities. "Then we'll start progressively fixing the housing and the safety and everything else, because I need input," he said. "I need the community to tell me what I can do for them, not what I'm going to do for you. That comes afterwards."
Supporting international community
The candidates had many ideas on how Akron can become more welcoming towards refugees and immigrants.
Mosley advocated for signs in the city to be in multiple languages and for more support for older immigrants who may not speak English. Greer agreed signs should be in multiple languages and said he wants to close gaps in the community. "Make sure that we promote our agencies that are in our neighborhood and actually make sure that people know these services are available to you," Mills said.
Malik agreed that city services need to be more accessible. "It means that everything from dealing with police to things as boring as zoning forms are available in different languages," he said, "and again the onus is on the city government to make sure that accessibility is very clear."
Greer wants to capitalize on North High School's large number of international students to make it an international center for diversity, equity and inclusion. "In this center, we are going to have wraparound services, resources and training so that when our international community comes into Akron, they will be able to find everything they need in one place," he said, adding that the city needs to be a better job of being accessible to the international community.
Sommerville said he would have a liaison in his office from the immigrant community to help him address their needs.
Solutions to homelessness
Homelessness continues to be a crisis in the city and top of mind for many individuals. Resident and homelessness activist Sage Lewis asked candidates how they would address the issue, noting that the only men's shelter in the city is Christian based and often kicks people out for not following rules around prayer.
"Haven of Rest is an organization that works for some people but does not work for a lot of other people," Malik said, "and for many people it's their only option." The city's current system to address homelessness isn't working, he said, and he supported Wilhite's idea to utilize companies like Boxabl to bring more affordable housing to the city. Mental health services are also vital to address homelessness, he said. "We have to be willing to do things a little bit differently."
One of the main issues stopping solutions to homelessness is stigma, Greer said. "We have to make sure in order to address this issue, we start to be proactive and prevent homelessness from happening by support services like Rapid Rehousing," he said. "The best way to stop homelessness is stopping people from becoming homeless." Greer called for more shelters to be built in the city but also for more affordable housing options to be made available. "My administration seeks to create new pathways to homeownership, and again, by allowing people in the unhoused community, rather than becoming homeless, we are going to provide a new pathway," Greer said. "So they can control their own destiny and their future."
Wilhite agreed there's a stigma around homelessness. Mental health services need to be provided to the unhoused population, Sommerville said.
Mosley said homelessness is one of her top priorities. She'd like to see tiny houses or houses like Boxabl be used in Akron to solve the crisis.
The discussion remained civil between candidates, as they laid out their policy plans and priorities. The forum comes days after Sommerville said he misspoke during a forum on social justice and police reform on March 16. When proposing a plan for police to track suspects to their houses, Sommerville said police would then "move in for the kill." The audience was audibly surprised by his comment, but Greer was the only candidate to acknowledge it, stating, "That is not the language that is going to move this community forward."
The candidates will face off in the May 2 Democratic primary. There are no Republican candidates on the ballot for the primary.
The forum was hosted in partnership with Urban Vision.
March 19, 2023, 3:21 p.m. This story has been updated.