City Council Candidates Make Their Case

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 Election Day is around the corner and to help residents of District 32 learn more about the candidates, the Belle Harbor Property Owners Association recently utilized their monthly meeting at P.S. 114 to hold a candidates’ forum. The meeting turned into an informative session with District 32 City Council candidates Joann Ariola and Felicia Singh, who both answered questions on issues that concern the community.

The BHPOA and the Neponsit Homeowners Association worked together to make sure the forum was a success. Having dealt with previous sound issues, the civic hired DJs@Work to run the sound system for the night. Sarina Roffe moderated the event, asking the questions and keeping the peace. Republican Mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa, who had previously confirmed his attendance, was a no-show on Tuesday as he had to prepare for Wednesday’s debate with Democrat mayoral candidate Eric Adams. However, that meant there was more time to focus on the candidates running for a position that will directly impact residents from Breezy Point to Rockaway to Broad Channel and the rest of District 32. Overall, the forum was a productive, informational and well-organized opportunity for voters to get to know who they’ll be choosing as their next City councilwoman.

Roffe laid out the ground rules, asking that everyone treat each other with respect and that people hold off on heckling and applause as the BHPOA had limited time in the auditorium and such disruptions would delay the forum. The questions that were asked were submitted by members of the community, so they reflected on issues that concern those living in District 32. They ranged in topics from social services to transportation, public safety, public health, land use, education and more.

Introducing the candidates, Roffe described Singh as an educator who comes from a family of immigrants. She is a lifelong resident of District 32, living in Ozone Park. She has dedicated her life to “empowering communities” through service, including two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in China, spearheading voter registration drives and community service projects with the Ozone Park Civic Association, and serving as Queens’ borough director of Amplify Her. She was elected to serve as a member of Assembly District 23’s County Committee and worked with the Census Bureau. She is running on a platform that includes fully funding schools, supporting small businesses and climate and environmental justice.

Roffe described Ariola as someone born to working class parents, who is a parent herself and a grandmother. She was born in Ozone Park, raised in Howard Beach and educated in Rockaway at Stella Maris. She has been involved in parent associations and local school, civic and charitable organizations. She’s been a community advocate for 20 years and has worked for two mayors and members of city council as the director of intergovernmental affairs for Medisys, where she secures funding for noteworthy projects throughout the network and serves as a liaison between the hospital network and community boards, houses of worship and other groups. She was a member of the Queen Borough President’s hurricane task force following Sandy and, on an NY Rising committee to help develop climate resilient projects. She has been President of the Howard Beach Lindenwood Civic Association and a member of the 106th Community Council and Community Board 10.

After a coin toss, Singh was given first opportunity to speak. She added that she is a workers’ rights advocate. As her father is a taxi driver, she has been an advocate through the medallion crisis impacting drivers across the city. “I’m running for office to center the issues missing in city legislation. Issues impacting community members, students and climate resilience in District 32,” she said. During her turn, Ariola noted, “there is such a tremendous contrast between the candidates running here.” She added, “public service is not just a job, it’s a calling. The fact that I’ve been active for 30 years shows you the commitment to that calling and my commitment to serve you.”

Roffe then began questions, the first concerning personal safety and security. On the closing of Rikers Island, Ariola said, “I do not believe Rikers Island should close. I believe they should revert resources being used to open community prisons to restore, renovate and make Rikers a livable facility. We have to put money into it because the conditions are horrific.” Singh took an opposite stance. “85% of occupants in Rikers are awaiting trial. They haven’t been found guilty or not guilty and it costs $1,000 a day for one person to await trial. I’m a proponent of closing Rikers, but I’m not a proponent of community jails either. The answer is not using tax dollars you paid to house people at Rikers, and community jails don’t work either.”

On the civil unrest during the summer of 2020 and defunding the police, Singh said, “The civil unrest in summer 2020 was because of police brutality.” She said she doesn’t support abolishing the police, but rather defunding, meaning reallocating funds from the law enforcement budget to other services such as infrastructure and resiliency. “Law enforcement is not working the way it should in 2021,” Singh said. Ariola said the civil unrest last summer was a result of a peaceful protest being hijacked by looting and violence. “I’m of the opinion that what stands between us and chaos is the blue line that is called the NYPD,” Ariola said. “We cannot take away the police force. NYPD was the gold standard. There are way more good cops than there are bad cops.”

On rising crime like grand larceny and police being short staffed, the candidates were asked what they would do to make sure the 100th Precinct has additional resources. Ariola said, “I would not be in favor of further defunding the police another $1 billion because that would take more police off the streets. Public urination, panhandling, we don’t have to look anywhere beyond 116th Street to see what’s happening. I want to make sure our police department has all the tools they need to make sure they can address all those concerns.” Singh attributed the grand larceny to reports saying people left their cars unattended or not locking their doors. She then pointed to a rise in domestic violence reports in the precinct. “What it tells me is that the 100th Precinct needs help responding to domestic violence,” she said, adding that there needs to be more funding for programs that support domestic violence victims.

Regarding social services, the candidates were asked about De Blasio’s $3.5 billion spent on homeless services, while the homeless population is rising, and how they would address it. Singh said “It’s disappointing to see de Blasio promised affordable housing and not do it. There’s a lot about de Blasio that has failed the unhoused population,” she said. She said many don’t want to turn to shelters as they’re unsafe so there needs to be more of a move toward “truly affordable housing and job training for the unhoused population,” and suggested that a proposed bill, Intro 146, be signed into law to expand the Section 8 voucher program. Ariola said, "$3.5 billion spent on homeless and yet de Blasio and City Hall have seriously failed the population.” She suggested there be more healthcare and treatment programs available for the homeless population, as some suffer from mental health and drug problems, so they can be eventually be put in supportive housing and given job training to return to the work force.

Each were then asked how they would address the increase in quality of life issues and petty crimes since the shelter opened on Beach 101st. Ariola said, “We cannot warehouse people in shelters in communities. People being brought back there have criminal records. We need to give the NYPD back the authority to make those arrests. The way we have it structured now, where the police are handcuffed and everyone else runs wild, it’s only going to get worse until someone says no.” Singh reiterated supporting Intro 146 to help lower shelter capacities and increase the voucher system. “The bill exists but the mayor is not pushing it and that’s a travesty,” she said.

As the economy took a hit due to Covid, the candidates were asked what they would do to bring back tourism. Singh said, “In the fiscal budget, the city allocated $10 million to tourism. These are tangible things we need to see here to support our small businesses,” she said, adding that with pandemic assistance, Queens only saw 17% of funding, which was disproportionate compared to other boroughs. “We need to advocate for a trickle down to south Queens,” Singh said. Ariola said that since businesses struggled, there needs to be more done to support them, like helping small businesses fill out paperwork for funding. She also said addressing public safety is a big factor when it comes to boosting tourism.

On education, each were asked whether or not specialized high school programs should be funded and supported. “Yes, I do think specialized high schools and gifted and talented programs should be funded. It needs to be made better and more inclusive, but keep it because it’s necessary,” Ariola said. Singh said after the pandemic, there are bigger issues than specialized high schools. As an educator, Singh supports fully funding all schools.

On the topic of dedicating more resources to charter schools, Singh said while she worked for a charter school in Coney Island, she is determined to fund all schools equitably and take care of neighborhood schools, so students don’t have to go far for quality education. Ariola said she believes people should have a choice of what type of school they go to and there should be tax breaks for those who may choose to not send their kids to public schools.

On transportation, each were asked what they would change or keep from de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan. Ariola said she supports the ferry and wants to add more stops to it. She said there’s now more bus and bike lanes, but they’re not cohabitating with vehicle traffic. She also pointed out that people are being ticketed more with cameras. “I want to advocate for safer streets and safe ways to commute and make sure bicyclists are held to the same standard vehicles are so we can cohabitate,” Ariola said. Singh said there needs to be more done to protect bikers, including truly protected bike lanes and she supports things like stop signs and speed bumps to reduce speeding.

Asked about concerns regarding electric bikes and scooters, Singh said some are turning to these options since they don’t have cars and they’re faster than public transportation. She advocated for problem solving to figure out ways to deter people from using electric bikes and scooters on places like the boardwalk. Ariola said some who utilize these electric vehicles do so recklessly, and not just on the boardwalk, and applauded the NYPD’s efforts to confiscate some vehicles that are being used recklessly.

On land use, each were asked about the December 2020 “Planning Together” proposal that would change the city land use process to ensure equitable growth. Ariola said Planning Together would take away input from community boards and said City Hall shouldn’t be able to dictate what’s best for communities on land use issues. “We want to see development but don’t want to see projects we don’t have a say in,” Ariola said. Singh said Planning Together doesn’t allow for any community input until Phase 3 and that city agencies need to work with community members on day one when it comes to planning. “We want to support community boards, change the red tape and make sure you have a say in your community,” Singh said.

With one hospital on the peninsula, each were asked what they would do to improve healthcare here. “We need to have a trauma center and specialists on the peninsula,” Singh said, adding there needs to be more services for women. Ariola said, “We have St. John’s, and we have to do better by them. I would commit to funding that hospital to make sure they have what they need to serve this community and see more expansion of healthcare facilities affiliated with a hospital, further west on the peninsula."

When asked if ID should be required to vote, the candidates took opposing positions. Ariola said, “Yes because it would dispel any misgivings of voter fraud,” and added that there should be more accessibility to be able to acquire ID, possibly without fees. Singh said, “Voting is a fundamental right that we cannot go backwards on. I would never support showing ID to vote.”

Each candidate was then given time to make closing statements while answering a specific question. Singh said that in knocking on doors, she found most people want improved quality of life, including “trees trimmed, potholes filled, less garbage on the street and better schools. The issue that you have with my policies is not that I have plans, it’s that I support the expansion of what public safety looks like. You know what’s so beautiful about Belle Harbor when I knock on doors here? I see children playing basketball, they’re on their bikes, they’re playing with their parents, running across the street. I totally get why you want to preserve that. Your privilege is that you will have that no matter what but that is just not true of other parts of this district where someone stands outside and gets shot. While we will preserve your safety because you have it based on where you live, based on your socio-economic income, based on your race, you have that and that’s amazing. I want to make sure we expand what that looks like for the rest of this district.”

Ariola said, “as part of the Queens delegation, there is equity in the dispersing of discretionary money. As far as capital money, I think because of the relationships I’ve garnered and working with people across the aisle and learning to negotiate with people who are not from the same party, because once we get to city hall, it is not about the party anymore. It is about providing what’s best for the community. It’s not about flipping the seat from red to blue because this seat has been blue and it has been red, but it’s always been well represented and that’s what you’ll get with me.”

Election Day is Tuesday, November 2 at your designated polling location. Early voting begins October 23 and continues through October 31 at the Rockaway YMCA.

 By Katie McFadden

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