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South Bend mayoral candidates square off in only debate

October 07, 2015

SOUTH BEND — Housing, public safety, transportation, and economic development took center stage Tuesday during the first and only mayoral debate between incumbent Democrat Pete Buttigieg and Republican challenger Kelly Jones.

The American Democracy Project, Indiana University South Bend Politic Science Club and League of Women Voters of St. Joseph County hosted the event, which took place inside Wiekamp Hall on the IU South Bend campus.

Buttigieg, a former consultant seeking a second term in office, and Jones, a jewelry maker, took questions from moderator Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at IU South Bend, and the audience.

On the issue of public safety, Jones, a South Bend native, said she would work with newly appointed police Chief Scott Ruszkowski to push for more community policing.

“I believe in going back to the way things were in the '70s and '80s, where the police department did more foot” patrols, Jones said.

“By getting out there and getting to know people in the city … there’ll be a comfort zone, and people will be more willing to go to the police when there’s a problem,” she said.

Said Buttigieg, “While I don’t feel that we should be turning back the clock by any means in our police department … I do certainly believe more community policing, and particularly encouraging officers to get out of their cars and interact with residents … will help officers more effectively do their jobs.”

Buttigieg also highlighted the city’s Group Violence Intervention strategy, which seeks to address gang-related gun violence by offering the perpetrators of such violence a choice: “The shooting needs to stop: We will help you if you let us; we will stop you if you make us.”

A centerpiece of the mayor’s first term, the strategy has resulted in a marked decrease in gang-related gun violence, according to data provided by the city, even as gun violence in general has spiked.

Both candidates expressed support for ShotSpotter, another part of the mayor’s public safety strategy that uses audio sensors to detect and locate gunfire in high-crime areas.

“We’ve been able to use that to deploy officers immediately to a shooting,” Buttigieg said of ShotSpotter. “It’s enhanced our ability to respond to violent crime and perhaps even save lives.”

Said Jones, “I am concerned about how it’s going to work in the long-term, but in the short-term it so far is working.”

At the same time, “I do believe ShotSpotter needs to be spread out further throughout town,” Jones said. “I know there have been problems even on my side of town.”

On the issue of housing, Buttigieg pointed to the success of the vacant and abandoned housing program, which has resulted in the repair or demolition of more than 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses in 1,000 days, dating back to his first few months in office.

As for what to do with the resulting vacant lots, “Moving forward we need to have a customized approach … for the different areas where houses couldn’t be repaired,” Buttigieg said. “A vacant lot is better than a collapsing house, but a vacant lot is not the answer.”

He proposed turning some of the lots into side lots or community gardens.

Said Jones, “We should have already been looking into solutions (for the lots), such as housing for veterans or the homeless.”

She proposed a “tiny house program” in which the city would participate in the construction of small houses — less than 400 square feet — for veterans and the homeless.

The houses would be built two to three per lot, Jones said, and offered to qualifying residents.

On the issue of transportation, Jones criticized parts of the Smart Streets program, which seeks to redesign city streets consistent with the “complete streets” philosophy, which advocates for streets designed for all users.

Specifically, Jones expressed concern that plans to convert Main and Michigan streets from one-way to two-way, and to narrow each street from four to three lanes, would only lead to traffic congestion downtown, hurting business.

“I think taking four lanes and turning it into (three) lanes each will create too much traffic downtown,” she said.

“I’m glad we’ll have Wi-Fi,” she said, referring to plans to offer free wireless internet downtown later this year, “so those people stuck in traffic will have something to do.”

Buttigieg, for his part, noted that the developers of the Chase Tower, LaSalle Hotel and former College Football Hall of Fame all cited the proposed improvements to Main and Michigan as a factor in their decision to invest downtown.

“Right now it takes 10 minutes to get from the Michigan Street Bridge to Erskine Commons,” he added. “If that goes up to 11 minutes as consequence of this, I don’t think we’ll have anybody pulling out their laptop and passing the time on Wi-Fi.”

Jones also criticized the placement of bike lanes in the city.

“We need to consider where do the bicyclists belong, on the road or off of the road” she said. “Honestly, I don’t believe they should be on the road at all.”

Buttigieg disagreed.

“Most professionals in bike and traffic safety will tell you that it’s safer for a bicycle to be on the road and not on sidewalk,” he said.

The candidates also disagreed on the issue of an expanded city smoking ban, minus existing exceptions for bars, taverns, private clubs and some restaurants.

“I’m open to policies that continue in the direction of making sure we have clean air in bars and restaurants,” Buttigieg said.

A former smoker, Jones, for her part, said it should be up to the owners of such establishments to set smoking policy.

Similarly, only one of the two candidates would commit to serving out all four years of their term if elected.

“Anything less would be disrespectful to the people of South Bend,” Jones said.

Said Buttigieg, a rising star in the state Democratic Party, “I’m completely focused on this job and on being the best mayor I can possibly be for this city, because this is home.”

“Is that a commitment?” Bennion, the moderator, pressed.

“I can’t speak to everything that will happen in the future,” Buttigieg said. “What I will say is I’m completely focused on this job and I’m having the time of my life.”

South Bend Tribune