Candidates running to represent the West Side on Charleston City Council say their priorities include activities for young people, programs to encourage homeownership and a general attitude change in city government.
In the upcoming primary election May 8, four Democrats are running to represent Ward 6 on Charleston City Council: incumbent Ed Talkington, Deanna McKinney, Robert Burton and Steven Romano. No Republicans are running in the Ward.
Two Democrats are running for Ward 7: Incumbent Rutha Chestnut and Jeffery Mace. The winner of the primary in Ward 7 race will face Republican Adam Knauff in the November general election.
Talkington, 57, a benefits counselor for Colonial Life, was first elected in 1999.
“I enjoy serving the people of the neighborhood,” Talkington said. “I like helping people and that’s what I’ve tried to do while in office. It’s been a privilege and honor to serve them.”
Talkington was one of 16 City Council members who voted to delay voting on an ordinance that would have effectively eliminated needle exchange programs in the city.
He said there are significant problems with how the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has run its needle exchange, but the program does its job — helping prevent the spread of disease.
The department can make changes to the program to make it better; if not, it might have to be shut down, he said.
Talkington, chairman of council’s environment and recycling committee, also voted for a recent increase in the city’s refuse fee from $15 to $18 a month. Talkington said he voted for the fee hike not so that the city could continue to buy and distribute trash bags to residents as it has since the 1970s, but because the fee hadn’t been raised for 15 years and has not kept up with inflation.
Talkington said the economy and a lack of jobs are the most pressing issue facing Charleston. Fewer businesses means less business and occupation tax, which could mean the possibility of cuts, he said.
He said the city can’t do much to improve the economy until the state’s economy improves.
Talkington said if re-elected, he wants to continue working on a loan program for West Side residents who want to fix up their houses. The program would be funded with $250,000 in Charleston Urban Renewal Authority money and the loans would possibly be forgivable, he said.
He said he will continue to fight to get the West Side its fair share of city services, to hold landlords accountable and to improve infrastructure on the West Side.
McKinney, whose son Tymel was shot to death on the family’s front porch in 2014, has since been outspoken about the need to end violence and has spoken against legislation to get rid of West Virginia’s concealed carry permit system. Each year since her son’s death, McKinney has held a neighborhood block party to celebrate his life. His death also led to McKinney starting The Gift Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to create programs and activities for youth in the community, according to its Facebook page.
McKinney said she wants the city to have more for its young people to do, especially those from low-income families.
“They don’t have activities,” she said. “We’re in a poverty area; they can’t afford to take kids to the movies, to Sky Zone. We need to make sure there’s something for these kids to do that’s not going to cost them anything.”
She said she sees both sides of the debate about the needle exchange program. She said the health department should limit the program to West Virginia residents.
McKinney said she wants the city’s budget to include improvements for the West Side from Tennessee Avenue to Patrick Street.
Steven Romano, a Charleston real estate agent, is the former director of the Main Streets organization on the West Side, and has worked with the Charleston Area Alliance.
Romano said he has mixed feelings about the needle exchange program and would like to have more information about it. He said there are too many needles that aren’t being returned to the health department and wondered how many of them end up in the river. He said he would like to see the health department have a higher exchange rate for needles.
Romano said population loss is one of the most pressing issues the city is facing. He said he’s seen city officials say they’re not concerned with a declining population, but they should be.
He said he’d like to see the city facilitate employee-sponsored incentive programs for people who buy houses on the West Side. For instance, new homeowners with a $500 per month mortgage could benefit from a $100 subsidy, and $1,200 per year wouldn’t be a big burden for a large company, he said.
He said he’d also like to see more police presence on the West Side.
Romano, 29, originally of Bluefield, moved to Charleston to 11 years ago to attend the University of Charleston. He said he’s excited to see several other young people run for City Council.
Robert Burton, the fourth candidate in Ward 6, could not be reached for an interview.
In Ward 7, Rutha Chestnut is running to keep the seat she’s had since her husband, former councilman Archie Chestnut, died in December 2016.
Chestnut, who is retired from Verizon and was a real estate broker, also voted to delay deciding on the needle exchange bill for 60 days.
She said West Virginia Health Right is doing a good job at its harm-reduction program. She said the health department should be able to keep doing a needle exchange program if it can do it like the Health Right program, which expels patients from the program is they don’t return all of their needles.
Chestnut said she supports the city distributing trash bags to residents because it’s cleaner than residents throwing their garbage into the cans without bags.
She said the most important problem the city is facing are people who are addicted to drugs who refuse shelter and choose to live on the streets. She said the city has shelters for those homeless people who want it, but some don’t want shelter. She suggested solving the problem by providing residents a place to have their encampments rather than the woods or the downtown area.
“If we just had the institutions to put these people in — and we don’t since we can’t afford to build institutions and put doctors and nurses and other helpers in there — maybe we can buy a big piece of land and tell folks, ‘Here’s this land pitch your tent here.’ ”
Chestnut’s opponent in the primary is Jeffery Mace, 36. Mace said he wanted to run because he thinks the city can benefit from his background in law and business. He has degrees in accounting, business management and business technology from West Virginia University Institute of Technology and studied for a while at West Virginia University’s law school, he said.
Mace said with Mayor Danny Jones not running this year, this election is a chance for major change in the city. Although the mayor has done some things well and some poorly, Mace said, the general feeling people have about Jones’ administration is that it’s combative.
“Almost everyone I’ve talked to say there needs to be an attitude change at least,” Mace said.
Mace said the needle exchange program issue is complicated, but the program seems to meet its primary objective, which is to prevent the spread of disease.
Mace said he would favor a safe injection site, where people are allowed to do intravenous drugs in a medically supervised environment.
He said he wants the city to move to more inclusive zoning, perhaps a hierarchy zoning system that would allow for easier development. He said he’d also like to the city to implement more of the Imagine Charleston plan, for instance creating two-way traffic on streets on the West Side.
He said the city’s refuse system should be evaluated. He said he’s researched a “pay as you throw” trash program that charges resident by the garbage bag. The program would encourage residents to throw away less garbage and it could boost recycling, he said.
“I think the city should look into alternatives [to buying trash bags for residents],” Mace said. “A 40-year-old program really should be reviewed from time to time.”
The primary election is May 8. Early voting begins Wednesday.