Monday, July 26, 2021
Home » News » Politics » Borough Council Candidates Discuss Issues Facing State College

Borough Council Candidates Discuss Issues Facing State College

The six Democratic candidates on the primary ballot for State College Borough Council shared their views on a variety of issues during Thursday’s League of Women Voters of Centre County Candidates’ Night.

As is customary, the League invites only candidates in opposed races to participate in the forum. Just one candidate, Jacob Werner, is on the Republican ballot.

Three borough council seats are up for election this year, and three candidates can win nominations for the general election on the Democratic and Republican primary ballots — meaning, as has happened in years past, a Democrat can pick up a Republican nomination through write-ins.

Primary Election Day is May 18 and mail-in voting is currently underway.

The six candidates on the Democratic side are:

  • Richard Biever, the owner and director of FUSE Productions and Singing Onstage
  • Catherine Dauler, a former borough councilwoman who served four terms and teacher
  • Ronald Filippelli, the current State College Mayor, former councilman and professor emeritus and dean emeritus at Penn State
  • Katherine Yeaple, a current borough councilwoman, nurse and former transportation planner.

Balachandran, Biever and Lipscomb are running as the Central PA United progressive slate. Dauler and Filippelli are running a joint campaign.

Here’s a look at how each responded to questions posed by League moderator Jennifer Nicholas, as well as their closing statements.

What do you believe the environmental justice issues are in State College and what would you do to meaningfully and significantly address them?

Gopal Balachandran said that environmental justice issues are related to housing. More affordable housing and a denser downtown, he said, is “going to address a lot of the environmental issues… We want to be able to mitigate [climate change] by having proper kind of housing and that also deals with issues of access to affordable housing as well and that will also deal with walkability and bikeability of the State College area and downtown specifically.”

Richard Biever also said more multi-family dwellings are needed within the borough. “What we’re trying to do is reduce our carbon footprint and that is true in any community when we bring people together to have more walking paths, more bike paths, anything that can help us reduce consumption is what we’re looking for.”

Catherine Dauler cited work the borough has done, noting that a about a decade ago council passed a resolution setting priorities for sustainability. “We managed to check a lot of the boxes off,” she said. Since then the borough has received the Pennsylvania Sustainable Community platinum certification. “I think we have been really a leader in the region in moving toward all sorts of efforts to address the issue of sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint,” she said.

Ronald Filippelli said because the impact of environmental problems falls heaviest on vulnerable communities, “it’s essential that we face up to the challenges of sustainability.” He added that State College has been recognized as a bicycle friendly community. “I think we’re doing a good job, but we have to do more and housing, as has been pointed out, is central to that, absolutely central. Affordable housing [is] really a difficult challenge in State College. It’s a complex issue, but it’s better to have infill and density than to have sprawl.”

Divine Lipscomb agreed with previous candidates and said community conversations are needed to best address the issues. “When we talk about environmental, we talk about density and how State College is actually set up, how we put enough people comfortably into our space and how do we make sure once we have those people in those spaces they aren’t adding more to the environmental problems. I think that’s a community question,” he said.

Katherine Yeaple said that, locally, addressing environmental issues involves giving individuals the opportunities to make sustainable choices. “I would promote less carbon-emitting modes of transportation: pedestrian, bicycle-friendly infrastructure…” she said, adding that the borough can invest in that infrastructure. “I think… if you make the choices available to people then they will choose the least negative impact to the environment,” she said. Yeaple added that making alternative transportation available is a social justice issue as well for those who do not have personal vehicles.

Over the past year with COVID, the finances of many of our local businesses have been negatively impacted. What are your ideas to build back their strength?

Biever noted that as a small business owner he personally has felt those impacts. He cited as a possible measure to assist individuals and businesses the example of Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is providing universal basic income of several hundred dollars a month to 2,000 low-income families. “So it’s taking the federal dollars and if there are any state dollars and turning it over without condition to those who need it most — not just for food, not just for necessities but for whatever they want to spend it on, so that would go right back into the borough,” Biever said.

Dauler said that once the borough receives funding from the federal American Rescue Plan, which is providing billions in direct aid to municipalities across the country, it needs to address budget shortfalls. The next priority, she said should be providing assistance to small businesses through grants or loans. “I think that the crisis of the pandemic has affected them more adversely than many people really realize,” she said.

Filippelli said “a large portion” of those federal funds should go to grants and no-interest loans for local businesses. He also said the borough needs to look at ways to adjust downtown parking to encourage people to patronize local businesses, as it has done through much of the pandemic. “We can’t make it free but we can look for creative ways to manage our parking to have more people downtown,” he said. “This will allow our businesses to hire back their workers, which is essential, because our retail workers, our service workers have been the most affected by the pandemic. They are a high priority.”

Lipscomb echoed Dauler and Filippelli, saying local businesses should be a high priority for receiving federal fund allocations “because they are the ones who keep the community running. If we do not allocate those funds and that support, essentially our community will suffer for it.”

Yeaple said the borough needs to encourage community members to shop local “if we want to keep a vital and vibrant downtown.” She noted the borough has been providing no-interest small business loans of up to $20,000 during the pandemic. “With the American Rescue Plan, there will be I think between 11 and 13 million dollars to assist with operations in the borough and also to assist small businesses and provide other forms of assistance to residents in the borough. I think help is on the way and there will be more coming.”

Balachandran agreed the borough is “fortunate” to be receiving federal funding that can be used to aid local businesses. “I would add that I think that there is a long-term issue that we really want to think through in borough council, and that is what kind of a vision do we have for downtown,” he said. Some efforts have been made, like the approval of a seasonal pedlet on South Allen Street, he said, but he wants to “reimagine our urban spaces” to attract people downtown, encourage them to spend more time there and spend their dollars at local businesses. “I think the pandemic and the finances provide an opportunity to rethink, reimagine and re-envision downtown,” he said.

Do you support the short-term rental ordinance that the borough is currently considering? If so, why? If not, why not? (Borough council is considering an ordinance to license and regulate short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs)

Dauler “absolutely” supports the measure. “I know when I was on council we were very concerned about the effect of short-term rentals in the neighborhoods and how they affect the economy as well and the effect they have on permanent residents,” she said. “I’m certainly in support of it and I hope borough council will move quickly to pass it.”

Filippelli supports the ordinance under consideration. He said that while short-term rentals can have negative impacts on neighborhoods, another issue to consider is how they contribute to a housing shortage in the borough. “The number of homes for example that are taken out and are weekend homes or Airbnb homes, that’s one home less that can be available for people to live in the borough of State College,” he said. Unregulated short-term rentals also are unfair to hotel businesses, which have to be licensed and pay taxes, he added.

Lipscomb said he is not sure yet whether he supports the proposed ordinance. “Are we in the space to say who can use their property for what? We are a small town that has a university here and I believe college football back. So does a person not have that right to use their property for a short-term rental? I don’t know, I’m not going to say that as of yet.”

Yeaple favors short-term rental regulation, saying sometimes homes used as short-term rentals sit empty for most of the year. “We want stable neighborhoods and I think the borough is trying to regulate this, to get a handle on how many homes are being occupied by residents. We don’t really like to see vacant homes. It’s for neighborhood stability. I would support that.”

Balachandran said that “as an abstract matter… there are some really compelling reasons” to have a short-term rental licensing program. But, he said, community dialogue is important because the issue is “not universally popular” in the community and he has spoken to residents who rent out their own homes for just a few weekends a year. “In the abstract, I definitely could agree with it, however, I think we need to have proper dialogue with the community in order to make sure we deal with some of the equity issues that are also involved with short-term rentals.”

Biever said he would need to read the specific language of the ordinance before deciding. He also would want to have conversations with community members who would be impacted, review what the effects have been in other communities where such regulations have been implemented, “and kind of put all of that together into what the decision should be for the State College Borough.”

What value is the borough’s relationship with the Centre Region Council of Governments and what changes if any would you like to see within the COG?

Filippelli called the borough-COG relationship “very valuable,” and said while there has been occasional friction with the COG in the past, that has been true of all the municipalities. He is a “very strong supporter of regional government” and said regionalization may be an answer to issues facing the borough in the future. “For example… State College’s tax [base] situation is very, very precarious… One of the solutions to that — looking ahead to the future, not for the next borough council but looking down the road a little bit — I think one of the answers to that is regionalization, and I think COG would be at the core of that.”

Lipscomb also said the relationship with COG is important. “If we are not governing together as a region and as a community, then how do we exist together? I believe in building strong relationships. If there’s tensions in those relationships I think there is a way to find common ground. I always look for the common ground, regardless of what the situation is, and I think that’s what should happen in our government.”

Yeaple cited the benefits of regional cooperation on parks, pools, Schlow Centre Region Library and fire protection. “All of these things are enhancements that improve the quality of life of where we live,” she said. “This year we’re putting forward I think a little over $2 million to the Council of Governments and we do see a return. There’s economies of scale here, so it’s a very good thing. What value do we get? We get quality of life and safety, so what more could you want?”

Balachandran is “strongly in support of the borough working in COG,” pointing to issues such as climate change that individual municipalities cannot effectively address on their own. “If you don’t have all the governments working together, you’re just not going to be able to come up with a very effective solution to this global threat of climate change,” he said. Regional cooperation also is needed for issues such as having a usable bike path system. “So all of these things, they come together in order to make our region the wonderful place it is and we can make it a lot better,” he said. He added that regional development and growth boundaries also make it critical for municipalities to work together.

Biever said as a theater creator, the only way he can create is through collaboration. “There is no such thing as a one-man show,” he said. “Even if you’re going to see a play with one person in it, there is a host of other people who have helped create that.” The borders between municipalities are manmade and they each provide things the others do not have, he said. “It would be foolhardy to think we could just go on our own. We need to collaborate, we need to have a coalition and we need to work together to solve the problems and have a higher quality of life.”

Dauler said the Centre Region COG, which marked its 50th year in 2020, is considered “the gold standard” for regional government in Pennsylvania. Aside from the financial benefits of sharing expenses for services that improve the region, Dauler said, the COG also brings together officials from each municipality on committees. “It’s a wonderful way to get to know people who are just outside the border of the borough and to work with them on common challenges. To me that’s invaluable and one of the things I appreciated most about being on the COG.”

Given the borough’s $50 million budget and the complexity of borough council’s responsibilities, please describe the relevant skills and/or experiences you have had that relate to the work you hope to do on the council?

Lipscomb acknowledged there are areas where he does not have previous experience (“I can tell you one thing, I’ve never managed $50 million,” he said) but stressed the value of individuals with different backgrounds and strengths working together. “My life experiences revolve around racial justice and social equity. Mr. Biever, he’s a business owner. Gopal, he’s a lawyer. You put us all into the same space… and then you add the community into that equation [we will develop] budget and build a safer and vibrant community.”

Yeaple cited her experience preparing budgets as a transportation planner for the state of Wisconsin and as a capital planner for Amtrak. “[Budgets] are a policy statement, basically what you are going to invest in, what you prioritize, what you want to put your money towards,” she said. She also noted she has been on borough council since last fall and worked on the 2021 budget. “We passed a very good budget,” she said. “It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t balanced; we had to dip into the fund balance given the pandemic. I think my experience on borough council is relevant for the future with budgets.”

Balachandran said his legal background and dealing extensively with technical issues within the law would “be extremely valuable in dealing with a budget.” As an undergrad, he was a chemistry major and is “very familiar with having to deal with numbers of all kinds,” he said. He echoed Lipscomb’s comments about running as a slate and collaborating. “We’re running as a community of people, in terms of dialogue, and so it’s going to be the added experiences of all of us working together in terms of dealing with our budget priorities.”

Biever manages budgets for his businesses and was formerly executive director of The State Theatre, “where we had a $1.2 million budget and reduced the debt there,” he said. Like Yeaple, Biever said the budget is about priorities. “The vision and the priorities come first and then you affix a number to that. And that’s what I think our slate is really most interested in is building that coalition of voices within this borough to create that list of priorities and then attach the numbers to that.”

Dauler also said the budget is a list of priorities and requires what the borough has been doing to have monthly financial updates on what’s been spent and how much is left to spend for the year. “In the past couple of years we haven’t had a structurally balanced budget, which is disturbing,” she said. “I’m hopeful now that we have money that will be coming from the American Rescue Act that we will first replace the reserves that we have spent and make sure we are on a firmer footing as far as how we balance our budget and what we prioritize.”

Filippelli was associate dean in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts and was partly responsible for a $40 million annual budget, he said. He also served on borough council for eight years, which meant being involved with eight “complicated and tricky” budgets. Working with a number of nonprofits that are supported by the borough over the years, he is familiar with the budget issues they face, he said. “I worked for a long time as a board member and an active member of the affordable housing community on the State College Community Land Trust, which has given me an in-depth understanding of the questions of affordable housing in the borough and that is definitely a budget issue.”

Over the past year there have been many suggestions for police reforms. What is your position on reforms? If in favor, what type of reform would you propose and how would you implement that reform?

Yeaple supports a community oversight board, which borough council is in the process of implementing. “I’m in support of an all-volunteer citizens oversight board because it should reflect the citizens,” she said. “…They would have the oversight power to review policies of the police and also to take calls independent of the police. It’s also important that someone be in the room for an [internal] investigation in real time, and that was a recommendation of the COB task force.”

Balachandran supports “a number of reforms,” which he said are a matter of not only racial justice but also proper budgetary policy as well. He noted that in the 2021 budget the number of vacant police officer positions to be filled was increased while funding for the community oversight board and a civilian response team is coming from reserves. “The history of this country and policing is you can’t just hire more police officers and expect police officers to fix every single kind of social ill that’s out there,” he said. “That’s why we have to go ahead and use some of the funding for police to be able to use it for social health and mental health services.” He supports a “robust community oversight board” and added that the borough can learn from reforms implemented by other police departments.

Biever said a community oversight board is “vital” and “a must.” He also is in favor of reallocating funds to social services, such as mental health professionals who would respond instead of or along with police to mental health calls. Citing the fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie, Biever said it is imperative to continue monitoring police officer training to ensure they are being trained to de-escalate. “We need to look at that seriously and make sure there’s a constant effort to make sure that training is done properly.”

Dauler called the State College Police Department “very professional.” She also said the oversight board is a “worthwhile idea” that she hopes will be implemented. “I think that the concerns that people have in the community are real, but I also think that there is more openness than some people wish to recognize,” she said. “The chief of police has said they try to be all professional but there is a reason to work hard to improve and I think that’s what they’re trying to do.” Dauler added that “it isn’t right” that police are expected to act in place of mental health professionals in addition to their other duties.

FIlippelli said State College has “a very good police department… with a tremendous record. It is one of the best trained police departments in the state of Pennsylvania, if not the best.” The department “is trained in all the areas that the reform movement is looking to institute in communities,” he added. Filippelli is in support of the community oversight board, which he said will be implemented by the current council. While a majority of residents have a favorable view of the department, the concerns of those who do not must be addressed, he said. “What we need is more community policing. The one area where our police department is weakest is in the communication with the community, so we need to improve that and the interaction with the community.”

Lipscomb, who is Black, said he was the only candidate who had the personal experience fearing for his life when police cruiser lights flashed behind him. “Whether we have good policing or bad policing, what we need to make sure we have is policing that works for and with the community,” he said. “If I don’t know the officer who is behind me, if the officer behind me does not know me, yet we live in the same community, that in itself presents a problem. Because if you know me and you are here to protect and serve in the community that I also live in, you will not pull your gun on me.” A community oversight board is necessary, he said, but so too is a personal connection between officers and the community.

Each candidate was permitted to make a closing statement.

Balachandran: “As candidates on a progressive slate, Richard Biever, Divine Lipscomb and I, we stand for racial, economic and environmental justice. Our plan to accomplish these goals is through transparency in policing, through proper funding for a community oversight board and social services, and fair and equitable zoning resulting in more housing, more density and reducing our carbon footprint. The three of us on this slate we have a very unique set of experiences in order to accomplish our goals. Mr. Biever is a small business owner. Mr. Lipscomb is a restorative justice advocate at Penn State. And I, as you have heard, am an attorney. I work at Penn State Law School. Experience is something that we have seen throughout the community in yard signs and through letters to the editor. To me, on one hand, experience is a very powerful thing, because it shows that people really love this community and I think on that level it’s very powerful. But on the other hand we want to be careful that experience does not turn exclusionary. I would ask for the voters to be able to look through the voting records for all the people running for State College Borough Council. And as recent experiences of white supremacy and the challenges of climate change and the fact that we have had over 1,000 donors to our campaign, over 100 volunteers, it’s time for State College to have fresh voices, diverse voices and progressive voices.”

Biever: “My experience includes living in the borough of State College for over 20 years. As has been mentioned, I’m a small business owner and I was severely affected by COVID. As I also mentioned a little bit earlier, my experience as a theater creator makes me a collaborator. If I could leave you with one thought it is that what our slate, Divine Gopal and myself, want to do is bring together unique voices, the voices of the residents of the borough, into a coalition. We have over 100 volunteers for our campaign, we have knocked on over a thousand doors and had over 500 conversations. We are talking to the people of the borough and we will govern with that coalition of people in the borough, the voices of the people combined with the experts to bring the best kind of governance we can to the borough.”

Dauler: “I believe that local government is essential for strong communities. As a neighborhood advocate with my neighborhood and then also with the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, I learned that to have real change, we need to remember that we are not in an adversarial relationship with borough council, but we are together trying to learn and change and adapt to new situations. My experiences as a member of the board of the Downtown Improvement District gave me an insight into the challenges that businesses have had but now especially because of the pandemic. As we face the recovery for the pandemic and have the funds from the recovery package from the federal government, I believe first we need to get the borough finances on firm footing and then enhance our existing affordable housing programs with additional funds and also then provide aid to the downtown businesses. My priorities for sustaining State College as a good place to live include civility, equity and inclusion in all aspects of our civic life.”

Filippelli: “I’ll start off by saying, and I think an overwhelming majority of citizens of this borough believe this, that State College is a great place to live. It’s an award-winning community. I mentioned some of the awards. I could give you a much longer list that involve biking and walking and sustainability, all the things that everybody on this panel cares about. That was done by past councils. I think we ought to give them credit for that. It’s not like we’re starting over here. We’re way down the path of being a successful community. In some of the discussion that has gone on in the campaign, Cathy Dauler and I have been called politicians. That’s very funny. A politician is not someone who works and gives up time for no money, for actually no salary and no payment. In my mind that’s not a politician; that’s a public servant. I’m very proud of the experience I bring to the job and I would welcome any member of the opposition or any member of the community to look at my voting record and to look at Cathy Dauler’s voting record, as was suggested by Mr. Balachandran. The fact is that we have voting records and that’s an important thing to consider. Building on that, Cathy and I decided to run because of the pandemic and because of the special circumstances that the pandemic has brought to the borough. Neither of us planned to run before this disaster that we’re living through now. I believe experience does matter in this kind of a setting and I urge you to consider that when you vote for borough council members and i ask you to vote for Ron Filippelli and Cathy Dauler for borough council.”

Lipscomb: “The first thing I want to say is, everyone had to start somewhere in public service. One of the things that made me want to run is that I see opposition in our community. I see divisions in our community. I am no one’s opposition. I’m your neighbor. I live with you. We live together. And when we don’t see that represented in our government and the people who represent us, that becomes problematic. Love me like I’m your neighbor, because I love you like you are mine. I have no drama with anyone. I just want to live in a community where I feel safe and I want to be amongst people who care about that safety, whether it’s my employment situation, whether it’s my housing situation, the environment that I live in or my physical safety. Why is that hard? A community is a collective unit of individuals who live together and we should all feel safe in that community. Some of us, a lot of us, don’t. And so I implore our community to vote for our slate and to look for people who want to be your neighbors in governance.”

Yeaple: “Divine, I love you back. What a strange journey we’re all on together. I am a nurse, so what do we do? We help the sick and we try to make things a little bit better. Over 3,500 nurses and health care workers have passed away this year because of the pandemic. I know first hand people have been affected by COVID-19. And there is a schism going on in our nation. I would say this: There is a lot of work to do. We love this community. Treat each other with empathy. Listen to each other’s histories. I think we can get through this but we have to work together. Vote for me.”