Manassas City Council candidates took questions Tuesday at City Hall on topics ranging from the state of city schools to economic development and illegal immigration.
Sitting City Council members Jonathan L. Way (R) and Mark D. Wolfe (R) discussed those issues along with Republican newcomer Ian T. Lovejoy and the slate of candidates’ lone Democrat, Patricia E. Richie-Folks. The forum, which allowed audience members to submit questions on notecards and gave candidates equal time to answer, is the city’s last before the May 1 election.
Jerry M. Carman, a conservative independent, is also on the ballot May 1 but couldn’t attend the forum hosted by the Osbourn High School Parent Teacher and Student Association.
The five are running for three slots in the May 1 City Council election. Mayor Harry “Hal” Parrish II is running unopposed.
Seven candidates are also running for four slots in the city’s School Board election on May 1.
Way said the School Board’s decision this year to dip into its reserve fund to the tune of $4.8 million could spell trouble for next year. ”Where’s the money going to come from?” he asked, predicting a tight fiscal situation for the schools.
Way also wants city schools to move to pay teachers based on their performance.
Richie-Folks said teachers’ morale is “very low” among teachers and that they should receive more pay, closer to what those in other parts of Northern Virginia earn.
Wolfe said he has focused his campaign on improving city schools, which he has said threaten property values and could erode the business community’s confidence in the city.
He said he agreed with recent School Board decisions to reduce class sizes and is serving on the city’s Education Forward committee, a joint City Council-School Board committee charged with coming up with solutions.
The ability to bring in a new superintendent — the current Superintendent, Gail E. Pope, is stepping aside in June — was one important step, Wolfe said.
“Let’s be honest,’’ Wolfe said. “We needed a change at the top and that has happened.”
The candidates largely agreed on illegal immigration, saying that the city does well by participating in the federal 287 (g) program, which provides local police with training and the ability to transfer those arrested locally to federal immigration authorities.
Lovejoy said the city should look into ways to enforce overcrowded living conditions and could provide a way for communities to regulate street parking, which could lead to a crackdown of illegal immigrants.
However, sitting Council members Wolfe and Way said that the city’s last attempt to do so resulted in expensive litigation and that the city is doing what it can under the law.
Richie-Folks agreed. “It’s a federal issue and they need to fix it,” she said.
Overall, Richie-Folks said, she wants Manassas to more effectively market itself as a hub of economic development.
In one of the few points of dissension among the Republicans, Lovejoy said the city had not done a good job of implementing its long-term planning document, the strategic plan, especially when it comes to economic development.
“It exists in the binders,” Lovejoy said. “We can’t just talk about it and then not implement it.” He said one visible example is there isn’t a prominent city Web page for economic development that businesses can use a resource.
Way disagreed. “If you want to criticize something, you ought to really read it first,” he said.
Wolfe said he remembers the early 1990s, when “you could shoot a cannon balldown Center Street [the heart of Old Town Manassas] and not hit a car or a person.” The city now has a thriving business district, he said.
Way said the city has done an excellent job of retaining businesses during a down economy — about all a government can do when business is bad, he said.
Carman, in a telephone interview after the debate, said he had a work obligation and couldn't attend the forum. But he said he is focusing on “thoughtful conservatism” in his campaign, and making sure that residents stay involved. When it comes to the schools, he said teachers he has spoken to feel ignored and their input should be considered.
“If we don’t start turning the corner on the schools, none of this other stuff is going to matter,” Carman said.