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Annapolis mayoral candidates debate public safety, climate change, pandemic response

Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley and his Republican challenger Steven Strawn participate in a debate Tuesday at Kneseth Israel Congregation hosted by the League of Women Voter and NAACP Anne Arundel Chapter.
Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley and his Republican challenger Steven Strawn participate in a debate Tuesday at Kneseth Israel Congregation hosted by the League of Women Voter and NAACP Anne Arundel Chapter. (Brooks DuBose)

The candidates for Annapolis mayor met for a debate Tuesday night at Kneseth Israel Congregation, sparring over taxes, the city’s response to the pandemic, public safety and climate change.

It could be the last time incumbent Democratic Mayor Gavin Buckley and Republican challenger Steven Strawn share a stage before the Nov. 2 general election. They answered a range of audience-generated questions in the one-hour event hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Anne Arundel County Branch of the NAACP.

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In the first question of the evening, moderator Josh Kurtz, founding editor of the nonprofit news organization Maryland Matters, asked each candidate to evaluate the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In his opening statement, Buckley acknowledged that when he ran for office in 2017, he knew very little about the job but had worked to improve the environment, the economy and equity in Annapolis over the last four years. And in the nearly two years since the pandemic reached the U.S. in March 2020, Buckley said he was proud of his administration’s response.

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He cited coordination with leaders from Anne Arundel County and the State of Maryland on implementing closures, mask mandates to establishing testing and vaccination infrastructure to help keep residents safe and sustain the local economy. Bolstering vaccination and health equity efforts in underserved communities has also been a point of pride, he said.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve always brought resources to people who need them,” he said.

Strawn, the former chair of the Annapolis Republican Central Committee introduced himself as a native of Washington, D.C., who spent most of his life selling horses in Prince George’s County before moving to Annapolis, working at the Bay Theatre, coaching local sports and getting into city politics.

He called the city’s response to COVID-19, “perfect.”

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“The vaccinations were great, the masking was great,” said Strawn who had previously criticized the state for not reopening businesses more quickly early in the pandemic. He then pivoted into an explanation on why he has not yet been vaccinated, which he called a “personal decision” based on advice from his doctor.

The candidates, who were advised not to address each other, broke that rule several times.

In one of a few contentious moments, Buckley asked Strawn the last time he had been tested. Strawn replied, 48 hours ago.

Later, during a discussion about public safety, the candidates disagreed about the direction the city is headed in fighting violent crime. The city recently suffered its fifth homicide of the year. Several incidents of shots being fired have also been reported.

Crime is up because of a shortage of officers, which needs to be addressed, Strawn said. Fewer officers on the street have emboldened criminals who “know we don’t have a lot of police,” he said, adding that the department needs additional funding.

“We don’t have the big police presence where they should be,” he said. Criminals are “so brazen now that instead of breaking into the back door, they’re coming through the front.”

Buckley pushed back saying data shows national and local crime is down.

He added the department is fully funded — the budget increased by about 4% in the current fiscal year — and detectives have successfully solved several high-profile murders and will continue to do so under his leadership. He agreed that the shortage of officers was an issue and something many cities across the country are dealing with.

“We advertise for police officer all the time. We’d love for people to step forward,” Buckley said, noting that he recently swore in two new police officers. “We are slowly adding police force but it’s hard to fill those positions.”

In response to a related question about the city recently opening police substations in Robinwood and Harbour House, Buckley said his administration has opted to call the reconfigured public housing units resource centers instead because of the range of programs that operate out of them, including social workers, drug addiction specialists, and record expungement programs.

“We think it’s been a great addition but our ultimate goal is to get reinvestment in those properties,” he said

Earlier this year, the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis broke ground on a new Newtowne 20. More redevelopment is expected to follow in the coming years.

Strawn said the question was meant for “someone who had been in office for a while.” It was one of several times he demurred on answering a question because he didn’t have the experience of being in office.

During another line of questioning about a potential structural deficit in the city’s operating budget in future years, Buckley said a combination of coronavirus pandemic recovery funding from the federal government and a strong housing market, from which the city derives 70% of its taxes, will help shore up any gaps between revenue and expenditures.

Buckley also promised he would not raise taxes in a second term.

In response, Strawn said Buckley promised to not raise taxes as a candidate and did anyway.

During his first budget cycle in 2018, Buckley raised property taxes, a necessary move, he said, after his administration reviewed the city’s finances and found accounting issues.

“It wasn’t just the last mayor,” Buckley said referring to his predecessor Mike Pantelides. “It was mayors before that.”

He also touted a recent announcement that the city’s bond score was upgraded to Aa1, the second-highest possible score and a sign of the city’s improved financial health.

“He’s flim-flamming you whenever he tells you this is a rating of how good management is. It’s not,” Strawn said. “It’s how well he taxes you.”

Strawn said he would not raise taxes if elected.

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On how well the city’s prepared for the impacts of climate change, as with most questions, Buckley leaned on his record. The proposed infrastructure projects at Hillman Garage and City Dock will help protect the city’s 17 miles of coastline, he said. Those kinds of projects are ones he hopes will cement his legacy as mayor.

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“We are all aiming to decarbonize our city by 2040. We would like to get more aggressive than that — 2030, 2035, so that means electrifying our fleet, one-to-one tree replacement and our stormwater management control,” Buckley said.

Strawn called the rebuilding of Hillman a “very bad plan” because the agreement gives away the land rights for 30 years, claiming the deal could cost millions more than is estimated.

“When have you heard that it costs the taxpayers absolutely nothing and that wasn’t a lie?” he said.

Buckley countered that the city will still receive parking revenue from the deal and will control parking rates. The county and city have established a joint financing authority responsible for issuing bonds to pay for projects.

A final yes or no question posed to the candidates asked if they supported the city moving to nonpartisan elections, one of several recommendations recently floated by the 2021 Charter Revision Commission.

“Yes I do,” Strawn said.

After previously supporting such a plan, Buckley said he no longer did.

Polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.

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