In the most contested mayoral race in College Park history, four candidates vie for one of the city’s top positions. After Tuesday’s election, one will be declared the winner.
The College Park mayoral candidates gathered in a packed room in their city hall on Wednesday for their fourth and final debate before the election on Nov. 7. The debate covered topics such as noncitizen voting, the relationship between the city government and the University of Maryland, and policing throughout the city.
Shawn Anderson, a WTOP anchor and College Park resident, moderated the debate, which was sponsored by District 3 civic associations.
The candidates, incumbent mayor Patrick Wojahn, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Cook, and residents Tom Chen and Lalzarliani Malsawma, have engaged in one of the most contested races in College Park history.
Anderson first asked the candidates about the proposed charter amendment that would have given noncitizen residents the ability to vote in municipal elections. While the measure seemed to pass with enough votes in a September meeting, the council later announced that it had in fact failed due to a different amendment that necessitated the proposal receive a supermajority. City officials recently announced that a legal review showed the supermajority requirement violated state law. The voting amendment still did not pass because it had not received a majority. Anderson asked the candidates who was accountable for this oversight.
“As a city, we’re all accountable,” Wojahn said. “I accepted my share of responsibility for what happened, acknowledged it was an oversight on the city government’s part, the city council’s part, my own part.”
He said the city government has begun establishing “procedural safeguards” to prevent similar situations from arising again. Cook agreed that the city government shared responsibility for the event.
“That was a rather horrendous thing that happened,” she said and added, “That particular topic should never have been brought up in the first place.” She said the next mayor, whoever it is, “will do their due diligence in the future and make sure these things will not occur again.”
Chen provided further criticism of the event and said the people involved with the noncitizen voting amendment “should all be fired.”
Malsawma said the issue should have been put to a referendum rather than made into a charter amendment.
“It undermined the trust that citizens have in their elected representatives. It’s a subject that should never have come up,” she said, and added that she believes voting is a right that should be reserved for citizens.
Anderson asked the candidates to answer yes or no as to whether they would want “this being brought up in the next term.” Every candidate responded no.
The candidates also addressed the current relationship between the city government and the University of Maryland.
Cook said the “university has too much sway over us…we need as a city, as a government, to take back our city.” She said the new Terrapin Development Corporation, which is owned by the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, gives the college additional power over “what will be going on in Route 1 and other parts of the city.”
She described the university as a “shadow government.” And Malsawma agreed that the university has too much power over the municipal government.
“The city is being subsumed by the university,” she said.
She hopes to see a “true partnership” of “two partners of equal standing” develop between the city government and the university in the future.
Wojahn said the city and its residents have benefitted from the college’s presence. He mentioned the construction of arts and entertainment venues, a new hotel, and “high-end” restaurants in the city, which he credits to “working strongly and closely together with the University of Maryland.”
He said, “the hallmark of a great college town is a town where the resources of the university are leveraged and utilized to benefit the residents and benefit the community around it,” and that “we can better utilize those resources.”
Chen proposed moving the city hall — which is near the college —t o the northern part of the city to spur economic development there and create a “new image for the city.” He also suggested establishing an education fund to allow residents to attend the university at reduced cost.
Government regulated rental housings and how to navigate the tensions between landlords, students, and families who live near the students was another hot topic during the debate.
“I believe the city takes advantage (of and) discriminates against the students,” Chen said.
He said that instead of “punishing” students and giving them tickets for every violation, “we need to guideline them, (ask them to) turn their music down, for example. We don’t need to punish them every single time and harder and harder. That’s a problem. It sows (division). We need to work together to get a solution.”
Malsawma said there is an “attitude problem” with some students and suggested that the university could implement a policy that requires freshmen to live on campus so that the students who live in rental housing are more responsible.
“This is where the city-university partnership could really work well,” she said.
Wojahn acknowledged it has been a particularly challenging school year in some neighborhoods around the city due to student parties. He said he has been working with city manager Scott Summers “to figure out how we can increase our resources to address these problems…to really respond to those and crack down.” He also spoke about developing partnerships with the university to create “win-win” situations.
Cook noted not all rental homes are rented to students and sometimes other people also have parties that cause disturbances in their neighborhoods.
“So it’s not just the students,” she said. “Some students do a great job and they’re very responsible, and some others don’t do such a great job…We’ve work very closely with (the Prince George’s Property Owners Association) to correct some of the situations here.”
The candidates disagreed on the status of the current policing arrangement in College Park and whether the city should develop its own police force rather than relying on the county police.
“We need more police, absolutely,” Chen said. “I live in District 3 and we don’t need co-enforcement 24/7, but a five-days-a-week arrangement could work.”
He said it’s “not acceptable we keep seeing gunfire, killing somebody, getting robbed all the time in District 3 and never get improvement,” which he said puts the students in danger.
Malsawma talked about the effectiveness of the neighborhood watch program, which she would like to see cultivated more throughout the city. She also said before the city develops their own force, they “need to revamp the contract police force in such a way that we have patrols going through our neighborhoods regularly.”
Cook said she looks forward to seeing the results of the police study coming out in November before making any judgments.
“It’s possible that it may be worth our dollars to have a police force or a police department,” she said, noting that police are not equitably distributed throughout the city, and she has had to call or email the police force to ensure officers go by her neighborhood.
Wojahn, on the other hand, said that police should not be equitably distributed throughout the city because they should focus on areas where crime is more frequent. The current mayor said he is also looking forward to results from the study, but believes “that we get a lot for the money that we spend on the contract police force.”
Elections in College Park will be held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7