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Westminster election: Council candidates talk public safety, economic development, proposed bag ban at forum

Westminster election: Council candidates talk public safety, economic development, proposed bag ban at forum
The six candidates for Westminster Common Council, clockwise from top left, Kate Carter, Steven Colella, Kevin Earl Dayhoff, Ann Thomas Gilbert, Jessica M. Laird and Greg Pecoraro, participated in a candidate forum Wednesday night. (Courtesy photos)

Public safety, economic development and the proposed plastic bag ban were hot topics at a Wednesday forum for candidates vying for seats on the Westminster Common Council.

The forum was held less than a week before the May 14 election for three seats on the city’s council. City residents can vote in person Tuesday between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Residents living west of Md. 31 will vote at the Community Building, at 325 Royer Road, and those living east of Md. 31 will vote at John Street Quarters, at 28 John St.

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The six candidates are Kate Carter, Steven Colella, Kevin Earl Dayhoff, Ann Thomas Gilbert, Jessica M. Laird and Greg Pecoraro.

Charles Harrison, president of the Board of Directors for the Community Media Center, introduced the forum and Bob Blubaugh, editor of the Carroll County Times, moderated. All six candidates talked about public safety as one of the most pressing things facing the city of Westminster.

Public safety

Colella said it was not just the actual crime statistics, but “perception and the way that contributes to the story we tell when businesses and residents ask about Westminster.” He supports the idea of a trained public information officer for the police department.

Dayhoff pointed to the concepts of community policing, which aims to solve underlying community problems rather than being reactive.

Gilbert said creative problem-solving is the way forward for public safety in issues surrounding homelessness, drug abuse and mental health treatment.

“All are intertwined,” she said.

Laird said that addressing water issues and promoting downtown economic development would have positive effects on concerns about safety issues both real and perceived.

“Less crime happens when more people are around,” she said.

Carter said that public safety is a huge issue and an accumulation of things — not just one solution is what is needed.

All had praise for steps that police Chief Ledwell, who was appointed last year, has taken. Gilbert and Pecoraro also highlighted the importance of local fire companies and the role that firefighters and emergency medical providers play in public safety.

Economic development and downtown

Pecoraro is the sole incumbent running for re-election in this race. When talking about priorities, he said, “There’s no one thing that you get to focus your time and energy on. You need to be able to multitask.”

In addition to public safety, water will be one of the biggest issues for council members, he said.

“We’re constantly looking for new sources, and we’ve done about all of that that we can do,” he said.

The key now is “Managing our supply to make sure that the right kind of development is happening in Westminster,” he said.

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Tied to water, economic development was another hot topic at the forum.

Dayhoff laid out tenets of what he said was a comprehensive strategy. Frequent, viable projects and events can help change attitudes and habits, he said.

The city has a strong restaurant base that traces back to horse-and-carriage days, he said, and that is one of the assets the city should capitalize on.

Gilbert called for a new position in the town staff focused on economic development and marketing.

Carter agreed that a downtown development and communications position would be valuable. She also spoke about revitalizing the Greater Westminster Development Corporation, a group that had been active in the mid-’90s but no longer meets.

From talking to business owners in the city, Laird said, their voices need to be heard, even if some cannot vote in Westminster because they live outside the city. A listing of all local businesses on the town website would be a good place to start, she said.

Colella said that the Main Street approach to economic development is one that has proven effective in many other communities.

The first thing needed is “a common and unified vision for what we want downtown to look like.” Once the vision has been identified, public engagement is critical, he said. It’s important to have people who can manage volunteer talent and help volunteers apply skills to particular elements and projects.

Pecoraro said, “I think the real solution … is critical mass of people living and working downtown.”

One path was encouraging development of multiuse properties on Main Street that include residences in the upper floors and offices and businesses on the lower levels, he said. Carter agreed, saying those kinds of properties give spice and life to a community.

Pecoraro said the city should also continue to ramp up code enforcement on properties downtown. He wanted to see people living on Main Street with the ability to live a “Main Street lifestyle” where they can walk to businesses and restaurants.

He is interested in modest growth because “Communities that don’t continue to grow start to die.”

Colella said another key element of growth and encouraging families to live in the city is making sure that there is housing that people in their late 20s and 30s can afford.

Carter wants to make sure that growth is carefully regulated to prevent overcrowding.

“We don’t want to become a Howard County or a Baltimore County or a Baltimore City,” she said.

While Laird didn’t oppose mult-iuse properties, she said she would like to see areas downtown with several rental units in one home converted back to single-family residences.

Single-use plastic bag ordinance

The candidates all weighed in one of the issues that the current council is expected to vote on at its Monday meeting. The legislation, depending on its final wording, could ban businesses from distributing single-use plastic bags, with exceptions for small businesses and essential uses.

Five of the candidates supported the proposed ban, including Pecoraro, who is a co-sponsor of the ordinance.

Colella was the sole voice of dissent against the ban in its current form.

“I am 100% in agreement about my support for environmental conservation and stewardship,” Colella said. He claimed that bans of plastic bags in one area can cause “leakage,” meaning that a decrease in the use of single plastic bags could be tempered by a resulting increase in the use of larger plastic garbage bags. He also said there could be an increase in food-bourne illness if single-use plastic bags are not used in situations where food is handled.

Pecoraro said that more than 400 communities nationwide have already adopted similar policies, and that the policy was modest, with a long lead-up time and exceptions for small business. The ban would not go into effect until the summer of 2020.

Gilbert, Laird and Carter said the legislation should be written in a way that takes the community into account and doesn’t hinder small business. Carter called on the city to look at other forms of litter like cigarette butts and plastic airplane liquor bottles.

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Dayhoff is in support of the ban and said that they will inevitably be put into effect everywhere. The former dairy farmer said he was not a fan of pulling littered bags out of hay bales.

“Cows do not like plastic bags and I like cows,” he said.

With nine questions total, plus opening and closing statements, the candidates also discussed issues including the future of the Wakefield Valley property, taxes and historic preservation.

The entirety of the two-hour forum, sponsored by the Community Media Center and the Times, will be aired on local channels 19, 23 and 1086, and at the media center’s website, www.carrollmediacenter.org.

“Get informed, stay involved, and most of all, be certain to remember to vote,” Harrison said at the conclusion of the forum.

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