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Candidates share views at mayoral forum

The four candidates for Suffolk mayor touched on myriad topics, including broadband, water and real estate tax bills, growth and redistricting, education, COVID-19 and race, during a forum Sept. 19 at Living Waters Christian Center.

Incumbent Mayor Linda Johnson, Councilman Mike Duman, Brian Bass and Vanessa Harris took questions from Suffolk Public Schools’ attorney Wendall Waller, who served as moderator for the event, for just over an hour.

Johnson, who calls herself a cheerleader for the city, has been mayor since 2006, when she was appointed to the position, becoming the first woman to serve as the city’s mayor. Two years later, she was elected to the position and became the city’s first directly-elected mayor, having been reelected twice.

“I will say to you that being the mayor, it’s not a title, it’s not about control, it’s not about power, it’s about service,” Johnson said. “And I believe, truly, that is what I have done since 2006.”

Duman was elected to the Chuckatuck Borough council seat in 2010 and did not have any opposition in winning reelection in 2014 and 2018. He said he would bring a new era of transparency and inclusiveness to the position.

“We can talk about the issues, but right now the issues are having means for our citizens and concerned parties, all our stakeholders,” Duman said, “to communicate directly with our elected officials as they formulate their policies.”

Bass, who ran for mayor in 2016, said he has worked in local government as a stormwater and construction inspector, noting his interactions with multiple departments in the city.
“I feel I am more than experienced and understand the networking and the accomplishments that you have to do to be a leader in local government,” Bass said.

Harris, who ran for the Whaleyville Borough seat on City Council in 2016, said that though she has not held elected office, she has run funeral and music production businesses while being a leader in the city’s civic league. She also noted community work she has done all over Hampton Roads. She said she owed it to the city to put her experience to work as mayor.

“So I do have experience, but you can’t have experience in a position that you’ve never been in before,” Harris said, “because anybody who goes into any position, or any job, you have to get there and see what’s going on before you can get the experience.”

Addressing a question about redistricting, Duman noted that the city has hired an outside consulting firm to help it through the process and provide an objective look. He said in his first term, he questioned why there were not more redistricting plans offered. He said there should be public input before any redistricting decision is made.

“Anyone who knows me knows after 40 years of being in this business, knows that discrimination is not in my vocabulary,” Duman said. “So I would look at redistricting the same  way I would any other issue to provide equality for all.”

Johnson vowed there would be no discrimination in the redistricting process and said the consulting firm would include public input.

On broadband, Harris said the city needs to expand it into rural areas.

“Being an educator, I am very interested in getting broadband service so our students don’t have to be late for their homework assignments,” Harris said.

She said the city should use its unused buildings to allow students to study and have teachers work with them twice a month. Harris said there needs to be things to do for children in the urban areas of the city.

“In the urban parts of Suffolk, we need things for people to attend, like our children, our students. They have nowhere to go,” Harris said. “And they always say that the kids are getting in trouble, the teenagers are doing this, but what else do they have to do?”

Harris said the city should look for companies to help bring broadband into the city.

Johnson said broadband access needs to improve across the city. She cited a recent city grant application for rural broadband in partnership with Charter Communications as one avenue being used to expand access.

She also noted that things like movie theaters are brought in by private companies, “and when that happens, the numbers have to be there, and the numbers have to work, so as we get more people, we will get all of these pieces together, and we will get them.”

On water and real estate rates, Duman said he has a strategic plan to keep water rates down, and added that real estate tax rates need to be kept low. The city, he said, should continue to encourage economic development to generate revenue there instead of raising the real estate tax rate.

“Obviously, if we don’t have that revenue, and there are services, core services that need to be financed, then you have no choice than to raise real estate taxes,” Duman said.

Bass said he doesn’t agree with raising real estate tax rates, and said on water, the city installed a water line to Isle of Wight County, saying there had been previous talk of that being able to help lower water bills in the city.

“If I’m elected mayor, it’s going to happen,” Bass said.

Johnson said the city is growing and will continue to do so, but “if education is on the plate, and it takes a little more money to do it, I’m going to do it.”

Harris said Suffolk Public Schools needs more money, and that extra money should go to special education to provide proper training to prepare them for the workforce.

On transportation, Bass said public transportation is not at the level needed, and that future development needs to be slowed to ease pressure on roads.

Asked about consolidating school services with the city, Johnson noted that the city provides funding to the school division, and it decides what to do with it. She said if the city and school division join services in any way, it has to be a joint decision.

Bass said a consolidation of services between the school division and the city could be beneficial as a way to save money.

“We don’t need to tell the School Board what to do, but as a parent, I feel like the School Board works for me, and they do a good job,” Bass said. “They listen, and when something needs to be addressed, it happens.”

Duman suggested that the city could partner with the school division on things such as insurance, maintenance, HVAC and capital improvement projects. He said there needs to be a focus on how to put more money into the classroom and pay teachers “and not spend it on things that we don’t have to.”

The city and school division, he said, need to work together to do what’s best for the city in a fiscally responsible way to help educate students.

Harris said city council and staff need to visit schools and learn what is happening in them.

“We don’t have enough funding in the school system, and that’s a fact,” Harris said.

Bass said the city should help ensure the school division is using its money to get what it needs, rather than it giving it back to the city. Duman noted that money not used by the school division is the taxpayer’s money, and the city has a responsibility to ask what it wants to do with it. He said he has never voted not to reappropriate money back to the school division.

Discussing race relations and in particular, white privilege, Johnson cited her reading of the book, “White Fragility,”, and said she has benefited from white privilege, though as a woman, she said she hasn’t benefited as much as others.

She said that while her son has been stopped by police before, she has not had to worry about his interactions with them. Johnson called for people to be more civil with one another and speaking to one another.

Bass cited an example of white privilege. When he was about 25, he went into a store with a friend of his who was brown-skinned, he said. While Bass went unimpeded, his friend was nudged by a security guard.

“We just need to work together on every issue and work it out,” Bass said.

Duman said he would not rule out civilian review boards as a way to check police and the “small, small number” of police who don’t behave, but he wants to know how it would work, who would make up the board.

Bass said there needs to be transparency and accountability for officers, while Harris said she has lived with racism in the city.