CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As Election Day draws closer, three candidates for the mayorship of Charleston took part in a forum Thursday on the issue of public safety.
Republican JB Akers, Democrat Amy Schuler Goodwin and independent Andy Backus spoke to a full crowd at the Charleston Civic Center about their planks on safety and what they would like to see done if elected in November.
The three answered questions for around an hour regarding safety concerns in West Virginia’s capital city, including on the issues of dilapidated structures, illegal drug use and the pathway toward recovery.
Akers, who serves as Charleston City Clerk, took multiple swipes during the event at the Kanawha Charleston Health Department’s suspended needle exchange program.
“I was the only mayoral candidate who came out against the health department’s needle exchange while it was still in operation and called for closure,” he said. “About one percent of the folks who were participating were allegedly being referred (to treatment,) which is a horrible return rate. It was a program that was drawing people here from outside of West Virginia, so we had a criminal transient population that we can’t deny was coming here.”
According to Akers, calls to the Charleston Police Department and abandoned structure fires rose after the needle exchange’s opening in 2015.
“These folks pray upon the local homeless, so the question is how do you help the local homeless?” he asked. “You make sure you minimize the criminal transient population because the local homeless suffer disproportionately from these folks.”
Akers said the city should support programs that help individuals with addiction, adding he has been pushing for building an addiction treatment facility in Charleston for two years.
Goodwin, the former state Tourism Commissioner, said the law needs to be enforced as needed in regards to criminals, but resources to people with addiction as well as the general homeless must also be a discussed option.
“We are falling short as a community and as a state. We’ve been asking for help and the state and the federal government have not helped us to the degree that, I think, they need to. We’re in a state of crisis,” she said.
Goodwin pinned the city’s crime and drug problems on a struggling economy and continuing drug epidemic. She said improvements in the city must involve coordination and cooperation between the local government and social organizations.
“I remember Charleston in a different time. When downtown was thriving, when people felt safe to walk their dogs at night in their neighborhood. I want that back. I want that sense of community back,” she said. “It’s been a really hard five or six years for the city of Charleston, and I think we can do better.”
“I just don’t want people leaving here today thinking that if you can rid one program or rid one policy, it makes it better. It may make it better for a while, but we really have to start taking deep dives into what’s causing this and it’s addiction,” she added.
Backus, an instructor at Garnet Career Center, said the city has to balance fully enforcing legal options and services for addiction recovery and homeless residents.
“If you don’t want help, we’re going to push hard. We’re going to push hard until you want help or leave,” he said. “If you want help, we’re going to push you toward an area of our city where we can partner with the county, we can partner with nonprofits and churches, and we’re going to have a walk-in place where you can get the help that you need.”
Backus used his experience as an instructor to urge fostering relationships between the city and local organizations.
“My classroom had four people in it today. It can accommodate 25 more people,” he said. “The more people we bring in, the more funds we can get from the state and federal government, and the more education we can provide.”
There were agreements among the three candidates; all believe social organizations play a role in helping the city with issues such as drug addiction and the homeless, although Akers said there also needs to be accountability.
Akers pointed to the health department’s needle exchange, which had participants from more than 200 ZIP codes before its suspension. Kanawha County has 79 ZIP codes.
“It has to be well-designed, accountable and safe for the entire community,” he said.
All three candidates also agreed on the importance of addressing dilapidated structures in the city, as well as encouraging economic development in an effort to reverse current trends.