A Harrisburg City Council debate on Wednesday night was short on fireworks, but long on hope for the future, as four candidates shared ideas and policies on a wide range of issues facing the city.
Much discussion centered around the city’s financial future, as well as economic development and the state of the city school system.
“I see improving our schools as the number-one issue in Harrisburg because it has so many implications for the rest of our city,” said challenger Christina Kostelecky, who was joined on stage by incumbents Dave Madsen, Westburn Majors and Danielle Bowers.
Challengers Dionna Reeves and Brianna Smith were not present. The event’s sponsor, the community group Friends of Midtown, said that they were invited.
The six Democratic candidates are vying for three, four-year seats on Harrisburg City Council. No Republicans are running in the May 21 primary election.
About 70 residents attended the two-hour event inside the House of Music, Arts & Culture (HMAC) in the debate moderated by Mark Hall of abc27.
While city government has little control over the struggling city school system, candidates still spent much of the debate weighing in on ways that council could assist students.
“A youth invasion,” said Bowers. “Youth can come in and see how the city operates. They can see how the departments operate and perhaps find some new career opportunities through that.”
Several candidates mentioned safety, both from crime and while crossing city streets, as one way to help public school students. Madsen advocated for greater vocational training, while Majors suggested that successful graduates could act as role models and mentors.
“Kids from Harrisburg can excel in this life and be productive citizens not only in Harrisburg but in the world,” Majors said. “[Students] need to connect with graduates who are doing productive things.”
The candidates were more split on the issue of the district possibly entering state receivership. Bowers and Kostelecky said that receivership may be needed as a last resort, while Majors said he’d prefer to avoid a state takeover of the district.
Madsen said that, before receivership, the state might consider something like the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), a state-appointed board that currently is overseeing the city’s finances and the implementation of a five-year financial plan.
The candidates also addressed the city’s ICA, generally viewing it as a positive step forward. They all hoped that the financial plan implemented under the ICA would restore Harrisburg’s long-term fiscal health. If not, they said, they might consider a Home Rule charter, which would free Harrisburg from the state’s strict 3rd class city code, giving it greater flexibility in taxation policies.
The candidates agreed that the biggest issue with Home Rule is its complexity, which would make a charter difficult for residents to understand, support and, eventually, approve.
“My concern with a Home Rule charter is that it’s fairly complicated,” Madsen said. “I’m always open to the conversation, but . . . a lot of charters are voted down because [residents] don’t understand them.”
The candidates returned several times to two issues that seem to be growing in significance in Harrisburg—community-building and the importance of small businesses.
Several times, candidates touted Harrisburg’s neighborhoods, growing community spirit and walkability. They also seemed to agree on the value of small, homegrown businesses as vital both for growing the economy and fostering sense of community.
“In terms of City Council, we should rework the [business] regulations that already exist,” said Kostelecky, who said she believes that some small businesses are harmed by the complexity and cost of existing city rules. “A lot of regulations have been on the books for a long time.”
Interestingly, two issues that have been hot topics for years were not stressed at the debate. Parking didn’t come up at all, while the issue of crime made only brief appearances, mostly after an audience question about how to get guns off of city streets.
“The biggest thing we can do is get to a full complement in our police force,” Madsen said. “We have to get to a full complement and budget for that. Once we get more police on the street, it will reduce drugs and reduce the flow of guns.”
Hall asked the candidates to dream a little bit in a question about what they’d like the city to be like in 25 years.
“Our school system would be the premier school system in the state, which would encourage people to move here,” said Bowers, who, during the debate, also stressed the importance of an affordable housing policy in Harrisburg. “Our neighborhoods would be healthy, meaning they’re free of blight and litter. Our economy would be thriving.”
Majors said that he would like to see a city that has turned away from automobiles and embraced mass transit.
“I want to see Harrisburg be a more green city,” he said. “I want to see more connections from east to west in the city. . . as well as a top-notch education system.”
Madsen picked up on the themes of transportation and schools.
“I would love to see Harrisburg in 25 years with the best schools in the world,” he said. “Then I would like to see a bullet train that goes from D.C. to New York. That would make Harrisburg almost a suburb. That would be an economic boom that would take off—and a beautiful, green city.”
Kostelecky mentioned a block party she attended last year in her Midtown neighborhood, where neighbors met, shared stories and enjoyed food from city-based craft food producers and vendors.
“This is the Harrisburg that we deserve, a Harrisburg in which we all know our neighbors, we support local businesses,” she said. “We develop these close relationships, with every person incredibly proud to be in Harrisburg.”
Friends of Midtown will hold a debate for candidates for Harrisburg school board on Wednesday, May 8, at HMAC, 1110 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. Doors open at 5:30, and the debate begins at 6 p.m.