Giving The Public An Education

At Forum, Hopefuls Say Keeping Residents Informed Vital

Posted: October 3, 2012

LEFT TO RIGHT: Candidates for City Council Deb Fitzgerald, a Democrat, and Abe Shearer, an independent, listen to Democratic Councilman Kai Degner with Republican Rodney Eagle looking on during a candidates forum at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall on Tuesday. (Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG — With a month left before the election, candidates for City Council participated in their last scheduled public forum in front of about 150 people Tuesday night.

Eight candidates seek three spots on council Nov. 6. The same four groups that sponsored a forum about two weeks ago — the Northend Greenway, Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, Downtown Dining Alliance and Harrisonburg-Rockingham Green Network — hosted Tuesday’s event at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall.

The Fairfield Center, a Harrisonburg mediation business, moderated the forum.

In a format change from the first event, the candidates were not given all the questions posed to them in advance. In several of their answers, they spoke of how important it was for City Council to educate the public.

For example, on the issue of a perceived lack of parking downtown, some residents just need to adjust their mindset on what constitutes a “good” parking spot, several candidates say.

“If you can’t park in front of where you’re going,” Republican and former Mayor Rodney Eagle said, “you think it’s not right.”

Independent Abe Shearer said, “We have to get used to walking a little more.”

Shearer, a math teacher at Skyline Middle School, is one of two candidates already in the education business. Democrat Deb Fitzgerald teaches economics at Blue Ridge Community College.

Also on the ballot are incumbents Mayor Richard Baugh and Councilman Kai Degner, both Democrats; Anthony Bailey and Christine Johnson as Republicans; and former city manager Roger Baker as an independent.

Bailey, the senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, said empty parking spots at the Roses department store on North Mason Street could be used for downtown. Fitzgerald, a Harrisonburg Planning Commission member, said parking issues cannot be considered without thinking of the “big picture,” such as proposals to add a conference center and park downtown.

Two downtown parking decks are older, Baugh said, but he wondered where cars would go while a deck is knocked down and replaced.

Often, the mayor said, residents are unaware of the various plans Harrisonburg already has adopted that address their concerns, such as increasing the number of bicycle lanes. All new roads will have bike lanes and sidewalks, he added.

City government has improved its relationship with the public in the last four years through social media, said Degner, who, like Baugh, is in his first four-year term on council. Publishing a newsletter would further help, Degner said.

The city’s “biggest impediment” to spreading news, Degner said, was that the Daily News-Record’s website has a pay wall and doesn’t allow access to news for free. As mayor in 2010, Degner shared the same concerns, which led to his creation of the Harrisonburg Times, a now-defunct website that was to be an alternative information source.

Baker and Bailey said they were willing to offer regular office hours to be accessible to residents, if elected. Bailey suggested a weekly radio spot for a city government representative. Degner responded by saying that already exists with WSVA.

Educating city drivers and bicyclists on sharing the roads was also discussed. Fitzgerald said Harrisonburg is in the midst of a culture change in which cars are no longer “kings.”

Johnson, who owns University Outpost, said the city must better market itself as a biking community, particularly highlighting its Safe Routes to Schools program. Eagle said he’s most concerned with bicyclists who wear dark clothing.

However, unsafe areas to bike and walk are not so much an issue of education as it is infrastructure, Shearer said. He notes the area around Harrisonburg Crossing on Reservoir Street as one trouble spot, particularly for Holly Court residents and JMU students.

Contact Preston Knight 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com



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