On Thursday evening, the UPUA held a public forum with four candidates competing for the Democratic nomination to the State College Borough Council. The candidates present were Penn State freshman Rylie Cooper, graduate student Marina Cotarelo, Penn State administrator Dan Murphy, and incumbent Council Member Evan Myers. The two other candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, incumbent Council member Theresa Lafer and State College resident Steve Mower, were not present.
The forum was moderated by former Penn State College Democrat and Republican Presidents Veronica Weyhrauch and Michael Straw. The candidates were asked five questions, and given the opportunity to give open and closing statements.
The first question asked the candidates to comment on what they believed the largest issue facing State College is.
Penn State freshman Rylie Cooper answered first, arguing that State College’s largest issue was safety. “Safety is one of the biggest issues…. [the Borough] needs to make sure that [students are] taken care of. We arrest those who drink underage, we give them citations… and that makes people afraid to call [the police] in the first place.” In this comment, Cooper was referencing the recent death of Penn State student and Beta Theta Pi fraternity member Timothy Piazza; she hopes that a more safety-centered, rather than punishment-centered, policing policy will prevent deaths like this from re-occurring in the future.
Cooper also referenced one of her campaign platform initiatives that would expand the use of auxiliary police forces dedicated solely to ensuring the safety of students downtown, which would enable the normal police force to “focus on violent defenders.” She also commented on the fact that she was the only non-incumbent candidate to meet with the Chief of Police to ensure the viability and need for these initiatives.
Evan Myers argued that the Council needed to focus most on making State College an inclusive environment: “We need to make sure that we have an inclusive and welcoming community. State College has a bunch of different and important issues” limiting this inclusion. Myers pointed to the current zoning code, which limits the “availability of affordable and inclusive housing” as one important example.
However, Myers also stated that until State College deals with its “revenue crisis,” the ability of the Council to adopt more inclusive policies, such as a new zoning code, would be severely limited. “We need to look at other ways to raise revenue,” while also realizing that the State of Pennsylvania limits the ability to levy the taxes or implement the price controls necessary to change certain policies.
Marina Cotarelo stated that “The biggest and most important issue is our identity. There’s a lot of misconceptions going around about the identity of State College… we’re doing a huge disservice when we make the distinction between students and long-term residents…[because] students are residents!” Cotarelo believes that once we acknowledge and resolve these perceived divisions, we will be in a much better position to collectively address the other problems that candidates were pointing out. “Bridging that inter-generational gap [is essential] to solving the other issues in the Borough.”
Dan Murphy took a more holistic approach to the question, believing that “The biggest challenge facing State College is bigger, more basic… we need to talk about how we treat each other and interact each other.” Murphy stated that one of the biggest catalysts pushing him to run for Borough Council was the caustic political climate that surrounded, and remained after the completion of, the November Presidential elections.
However, he is confident that State College can overcome these national divisions, and believes he is the candidate most qualified and able to help it do so: “I’ve lived in College towns…[they] have this amazing resilience to national trends. Part of that is the energy in the community and those who make up a college town. We need to be better [at] listening to each other. I can do that, I can provide that.”
The second question asked candidates what makes them the most qualified to hold this position?
Myers referenced his long-standing involvement in the Penn State and State College community. “I was on student government for a number of years. I also got involved (after graduating) in… the Downtown Vision and Strategic Plan Committee, the Consolidation Study Commission” and the State College Planning Commission. He also referenced his involvement in the State College business community.
Although his background clearly shows his dedication to State College, he still felt that “The most important thing is… really you. We’re here to serve you folks. There’s a lot of pressures, a lot of problems that we’ll have to face… and we need to understand what your concerns are.” In this segment of his answer, he referenced how, as a Borough Council member, he has and will continue to fight against federal government initiatives, such as the recently-announced federal budget, that could have an adverse effect on the State College community.
Cotarelo highlighted her experiences as a graduate student: “First and foremost, I’m a graduate assistant in the graduate school. My duties include writing polices, advising policies, collaborating with different stakeholders on polices. I’ve learned that folks that are involved with policies don’t know how to [properly] define a policy,” which her background has enabled her to actually do. “I think having that foundation that… makes me qualified [to] determine policies for State College.”
She also referenced her status as a first generation American and college graduate, which gives her the background required speak to and effectively represent diverse portions of the State College community.
Murphy talked about the lessons he has learned from his experience as an on-campus administrator. “What I bring most from my role on campus… I’m positioned to deliver a program. It requires you to get your ego out of the way. It requires you to do what’s best for everyone.”
Cooper did not shy from the obvious fact regarding her relatively meager resume. “I obviously don’t have such an established resume as everyone else,” but stll believes her platform, her willingness to listen, and her communication skills will make up for any perceived lack of experience.
The third question asked candidates to express their views regarding the current relationship between the University and the Borough.
Cotarelo took a mostly pro-University stance: “Penn State brings the residents to the Borough… Penn State is the heartbeat of State College. It’s the economic driver. If students weren’t here, SC wouldn’t be as vibrant.”Thus, in her view, “State College needs to learn from the University.
Murphy argued that the current relationship between the two entities was not necessarily as good as it could be, and severely limited the Borough’s ability to attract and maintain young professionals. To solve this problem, Murphy believes that State College must build up those industries and sectors, besides higher education, that graduating Penn State students are looking to enter into and start a career.
Cooper took a relatively neutral stance on the question: “One can’t exist without the other. Penn State contributes a lot to the Borough, but the borough contributes a lot to Penn State. Together, they create this beautiful community that we need to keep and need to grow.” However, students don’t feel like they have a seat at the table. The best way to (change that)… is to have students run. By electing me, [students] will have their seat at the table. I hope your exercise your right to vote, and give yourself a seat at the table on May 16.”
Myers argued that the administration needs to realize that some of their recent actions have prevented a better relationship from developing. “The relationship between Penn State and State College has to get better… it’s broken.” He believes that the University “often times likes to have things both ways” and referenced the recent controversy surrounding fraternities as a prime example: the administration often takes the stance that the burden is on the Borough to change and regulate the behaviors of fraternities, but also often features Greek Life as a prime reason to attend Penn State in its advertising material.
Question four asked candidates how they view efforts to expand and improve State College’s skyline by installing new apartment complexes.
Murphy: “I think we’re [already] there. When I think about the towers that [have been] built… I love what it represents, and what it means, I would love to live there. If I could afford to live there, which I cannot.” Murphy argued that we first think about the cost and affordability of such efforts, rather than their visual appeal.
In line with his platform initiatives to make State College more attractive for young professionals, he also believes that growth initiatives need to focus beyond just downtown: “I do want to go beyond downtown though… there’s a lot of space that could be personally, and intentionally, and thoughtfully developed” to attract and retain the young professionals that will be essential to the sustained growth of State College.
Cooper expressed similar sentiments: “A lot of the high rises that we do have downtown are extremely expensive. For a student… that’s a little ridiculous. Especially if you need to pay off your student loans after you get out of college.” To address this, “We need to look at comprehensive rezoning… the more leeway we give a developer,” the more expensive it will be. “We should be giving our students and community members more places to live” before we think about building up the skyline.
Myers also referenced the affordability of these and other pro-growth initiatives: “The first thing we need to do is provide affordable and inclusionary housing. One of the things I’ve worked on in housing… is requiring [an inclusionary housing code]. This can certainly get around the [rent] controls that the state [currently prohibits].”
In line with his answer to question three, Myers argued that the University is not doing enough to help alleviate these problems: “The University doesn’t provide enough housing for students, it’s clear. All that burden falls on the town and the surrounding areas. We need to promote more student-living space” and have it be more affordable.
Like Murphy, Cotarelo believes that pro-growth initiatives need to be focused on young professionals: “Developers need to meet the needs of the community. We should be focusing on [retaining] our recent graduates and young professionals in the Borough. There hasn’t been any tangible steps [taken] to address that goal. The [current] definition for student housing is not inclusive. I think it [limits] graduate and professional students to areas in the borough that are not as desirable as” they could be. She argues that this strategy would also make any growth initiatives ultimately more sustainable.
Question five asked the candidates specifically how they would increase safety and inclusion for students in the Borough.
Cooper again referenced her policy that would expand the auxiliary police presence in the Borough. “That is a great way to make people feel safer and welcome in this environment.” She continued, stating that “One of the great things that the current council has done is… the passage of a resolution that helped out many of our immigrants here [after Trump’s travel ban was passed]. Diversity makes everything better… we need to be inclusive with everyone, including housing, safety, and everything else the Borough passes.”
Myers reaffirmed his view that “We really need to treat all members of the community with equity and respect” and referenced his participation in the efforts to diversify Penn State in the 1960’s as evidence that he was dedicated to doing so.
Myers also argued that the Borough Council was not necessarily able to deal with the racially-toxic political climate that exists on the federal level, but could still pass resolutions that express the Borough’s symbolic commitment to inclusion. Myers has “sponsored a number of resolutions on council to protect voting rights [and] to protect immigrants. We really need to take a strong stance, often times there’s not much we can do, but there are things we can do by making statements.”
Cotarelo called on the Borough to take a more active role in building relationships with on-campus groups, by “inviting people to come to Council meetings.”
Murphy took the view that “A key to safety is ensuring that we have adequate access to mental health services… so that [residents are] feeling healthy, and have access to” the outlets that emotional stress can be appropriately dealt with.
The Democratic primary for the Borough Council general elections is being held on May 16; students that will not be in State College on the election date must request an absentee ballot to vote
Photo Credit: Adriana Lacy