A debate was held at the Richland County Public Library on Oct. 1, where candidates from all three districts were present for an issues forums sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. Credit: Lee Wardlaw
Columbia residents will go to the polls Nov. 5 to vote on city council elections.
Three of the city’s five seats are up for grabs, and in the at-large district, 76-year-old incumbent Howard Duvall faces three young challengers: Sara Middleton, Dylan Gunnels, and Amadeo Geere.
Middleton, a 27-year old businesswoman and attorney, is the daughter of Greg Middleton, a Columbia businessman who has invested, developed, and owned several historical buildings on Main Street and The Vista. The young entrepreneur has been an effective fundraiser so far, raising $50,250 in the election cycle, outpacing Duvall, who has raised $45,510.
Gunnels, also 27, is an activist, community leader, an entrepreneur in Columbia. He currently serves as the refugee services coordinator at Lutheran Services Carolinas and is the founder of Agape Table, an organization that advocates equity for the LGBTQ+ community in faith spaces.
Geere, who is 31, is originally from Bhutan, a small country in South Asia that he fled the country due to religious and ethnic persecution to move to upstate New York, where he graduated college before moving to Columbia in 2015.
Geere, who also has a background in nonprofit work, was most recently employed with the S.C Office of Attorney General as a victim advocacy coordinator.
Middleton believes that her experience in business and law gives her an advantage over her competitors.
“I think it’s so crucial that you have people that have experience on city council that know how to work with developers and business owners,” she said.
Gunnels is confident that his experience managing budgets in the non-profit sector will translate well to public office if he is elected.
“I’m used to doing it with no money, and quite frankly, the City of Columbia has money,” he said.
Geere believes that the city’s elected officials have failed the people and that he can give a voice to those who are unrepresented. One of his top priorities is to bridge the gap between the city and lower income communities.
Duvall, who is aiming to win the seat for a second term, said that his competitors have good ideas, but lack practical experience.
“I’m the only one in the at-large race who has any experience at all in municipal government,” he said.
All three of Duvall’s competitors believe that one of the top issues the city is facing is economic development, something they feel that sitting council members have ignored.
Middleton cities high taxes as a reason for Columbia’s struggles. Middleton said that she’s met with many major developers in the area and most choose to build in West Columbia.
“Columbia has high property taxes, utility bills are high, and we have city council members who want to raise our water and sewage taxes,” she said.
Another issue, she said, is unnecessary regulations.
“It took one of our restaurants 18 months to get an encroachment permit, which just means you have tables and chairs outside your restaurant on the sidewalk,” she said.
Middleton said that she would encourage cutting red tape on business regulations to stimulate economic growth rather than further raising taxes to fund city programs like the police department and public safety.
Gunnels also expressed concern with Columbia’s business regulations. “Why does it take 18 months to accomplish here what it takes six weeks to accomplish in West Columbia when it comes to licensing and paperwork?” he said.
“I’m used to bringing all of the stakeholders to the table, I’m used to creating a unified vision where everybody’s moving forward on the same page,” he said.
Geere suggested that the city should give businesses performance measurement metrics, something that sitting officials have failed to do.
Another hot topic that is being discussed in Columbia is public access issues, most notably safe and affordable housing. Last January, the city’s public housing agency, Columbia Housing Authority, came under intense scrutiny after Calvin Witherspoon, 61, and Derrick Roper, 30, died from carbon monoxide poising in the Allen-Benedict Court apartments, the now-shuttered public housing complex off of Harden Street.
Duvall said that the city is an estimated 6,000 units short of safe and affordable housing that is needed for residents.
As a currently sitting council member, Duvall said that he is working to pass inclusionary zoning, which would require each housing development built in the city to have a certain number of units that would be subsidized to the point that they would fit the affordable market. The measure would need to be approved by the state legislature.
Each of the incumbent’s opponents agree that safe and affordable housing is an issue that the city faces, but Gunnels suggested that public access issues extend beyond housing, noting that food insecurity is also a problem.
“20% of people from Richland County don’t know where there next meal is coming from,” he said.
Public safety is another problem pressing the city, as the Columbia Police Department has eighty unfilled officer positions. Duvall said that many police officers are hired by other cities after they are trained in Columbia’s program.
While she would plan to fund the police department through economic development, Middleton said that there’s a deeper issue with crime in the city.
“We have to be hitting the root cause of the issue,” she said.
Gunnels and Geere also agree that finding ways to better fund the department will be needed to find a solution.
Gunnels said that if elected to council, he would pursue funding and partnerships to raise officer’s wages and find more resources for the department as a whole.
“The first thing is to continue to support efforts for recruitment and retention,” Gunnels said.
Geere also plans to pursue full funding for the department, but might also consider implementing additional officer training and education.
“We need more trauma-informed officers to deal with the diverse community,” he said. “We need to prioritize on fully funding our law enforcement. We need more trauma-informed officers to deal with the diverse community.”
While Duvall said that the city’s number one issue is public safety and Middleton is focused on economic development, Geere and Gunnels are alarmed by the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
Geere cited the city’s water and sewage systems as central issues, and pledged to take a closer look at the crisis if elected into office. “I will prioritize funding and fixing Columbia’s outdated infrastructures,” he said.
Geere also warned of dire effects for inaction from the city.
“If we wait, then it’s going to be costly,” he said.
For Gunnels, creating more effective public transportation is all-important. He said that plans have existed in the past for the city to create citywide bicycle and pedestrian transportation.
“Stop with the defeatist mentality to think that it can’t be done,” he said.
In other city contests, incumbent Ed McDowell faces challengers Catherine Fleming Bruce and Anna Forseca in District 2 and in District 3 incumbent Moe Badourrah also had two challengers, John Loveday and Will Brennan.
Howard Duvall is running as the incumbent candidate and has held the office since 2016. Credit: City of Columbia
Sara Middleton, a 27-year old businesswoman and lawyer, said that she wants to bring additional revenue to Columbia’s budget by increasing the city’s business footprint. Credit: Lee Wardlaw
26-year old Dylan Gunnels is an openly gay candidate who wants to tackle issues like student security, safe and affordable housing, economic development, and infrastructure. Credit: Dylan Gunnels/Dylan Gunnels For City Council
32-year old Amadeo Geere said that he is running because he feels that City Council has ignored core government responsibilities such as public safety and infrastrucutre. Credit: Amadeo Geere