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Bethlehem City Council candidates updated

Special to the Bethlehem Press

The Press asked each of the candidates for Bethlehem City Council to respond to the same four policy questions. Hillary Kwiatek, Rachel León, Kiera Wilhelm, Grace Crampsie Smith and incumbent Bryan Callahan responded. Incumbent Adam Waldron said he no longer plans to run for city council.

An earlier version of this story was published without two candidates, who responded after our deadline.

1. What major initiative do you support or would you support that will improve the quality of life for citizens of Bethlehem?

2. In light of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, why or why not would you support creating a regional health bureau with jurisdiction in both Lehigh County and Northampton County?

3. Why or why not would you support the abolishment of bail for both Lehigh County and Northampton County?

4. Would or would you not support the concept of housing homeless people in “tiny homes” with communal dining and bathrooms within the city limits of Bethlehem? If so, where exactly would you recommend such a project be located? If not, can you explain why not?

Hillary Kwiatek

Quality of life? Kwiatek: “I support the implementation of the Climate Action Plan, which I believe will transform the city of Bethlehem to a model green city where we lower greenhouse gas emissions, increase the use of renewable energy and reach zero waste. This will improve the quality of life for every resident of the city.

Regional Health Bureau? Kwiatek: “I think the failed attempt to create a bi-county health bureau many years ago may have been ahead of its time. The Lehigh Valley is much more cohesive as a region now, and the time could be right to try again. While our city health bureaus have done incredible work during the pandemic, a bureau spanning both counties could potentially tackle public health issues that impact residents across the region. I believe it is worth investigating as we take a look at how we can better prepare for the next major public health crisis.

Elimination of cash bail? Kwiatek: “I support the elimination of the cash bail system. The cash bail system discriminates against people of color and poor people. The United States is one of few countries that uses a commercial bail bondsmen system. Pretrial detainees make up 70 percent of our nation’s jailed population, and many are there simply because they are poor, not because they pose a threat. Lengthy pre-trial imprisonment has significant negative impacts on people who are, after all, owed the presumption of innocence in our justice system.

“Where cash bail has been eliminated and programs such as supervised release have been implemented, the data are showing no significant increase in recidivism. Defendants show up for their court appearances at very high rate.

Homelessness? Kwiatek: “I am a proponent of the “housing first” philosophy of addressing homelessness. There are myriad reasons why a person could be unsheltered, from mental illness and drug addiction to fleeing an unsafe home. By helping them find shelter first, their other challenges can be addressed from a starting point of stability. Tiny homes with some communal spaces could be one solution, however, there are other approaches being tried in other cities that could also be effective. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city of a similar size, the city bought an old hotel and used federal funds to renovate it so that each person actually had more of their own apartment rather than having to share dining and bathroom spaces. Like Bethlehem, the Santa Fe government partners with non-profit agencies with the expertise to provide services and support. Having experienced the way in which COVID spread rapidly in communal living situations, providing housing options without shared space could be preferable. With regard to location, I believe such a facility could and should co-exist in any neighborhood. Our unsheltered residents are members of our community.”

Rachel Leon

Quality of life: León: “I support the climate action plan and continued efforts to ensure that Bethlehem’s air quality improves.

Regional Health Bureau? León: “If the creation of a regional health bureau with overarching jurisdiction was met with support from the community, I would [support it].

Elimination of cash bail? León: “Bail has disproportionately affected marginalized communities. I would support the restructuring of bail to include income and allegation considerations.

Homelessness? León: “If tiny homes have proven successful this option should be explored, in an accessible to pedestrian’s part of the city.

Bryan Callahan

Quality of life: Callahan: “I proposed, supported and got passed the Equal Pay Ordinance that supports equal pay for equal work for women.

Regional Health Bureau? “I would not support a Regional Health Bureau at this time. Our current City Health Bureau has done a remarkable job in handling this pandemic and the roll out of the vaccinations.

Elimination of cash bail? Callahan: “For nonviolent crimes I would support the abolishment of bail. I would not support the abolishment of bail for violent crimes.

Homelessness? Callahan: “I would support using Federal Housing and Urban Renewal funds to build more affordable housing for the needy.

Grace Crampsie Smith

Quality of life: Smith: “I support and have been working on Inclusionary Housing in Bethlehem, which is housing that is affordable for low/middle to middle income workers and families. In November, I initiated the Inclusive Bethlehem/Affordable Housing Task Force. 1 in 3 area households are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing every month. Since 2014, 887 apartment units have gone through Bethlehem’s approval process, none are considered affordable units. This housing crisis is getting worse as people move out of larger cities into smaller cities like Bethlehem due to the pandemic and an increase in working remotely. Our Task Force will be presenting recommendations to council and the Mayor in the future. In order to retain Bethlehem’s rich, diverse heritage, we must promote and secure suitable housing that is affordable for multi-income levels.

Regional Health Bureau? Smith: “Firstly, I have to commend Bethlehem’s Health Bureau for the countless hours and efforts they have put forth during this pandemic. This pandemic has certainly emphasized the vital role that Health Bureaus have in our communities. While I believe it is wise to consider collaboration and joining of resources at the city and county level as much as possible, I would need much more data, research, and input to determine the best course of action re: creating a regional health bureau. There are definite pros and cons to this issue. Local health bureaus can better tailor their services to the unique needs of their citizens. However, there are areas not sufficiently served due the lack of local health bureaus and a regional one would better meet the needs of these individuals.

Elimination of cash bail? Smith: “I would support researching alternatives to cash bail. Three out of 5 people in U.S. jails today have not been convicted of a crime. Between 1970 and 2015 there has been an 433 percent increase in the use of pretrial detention in prisons. The cash bail system criminalizes poverty, as people who are unable to afford bail are detained while they await trial for weeks or even months. Cash bail perpetuates inequities in the justice system that are disproportionately felt by communities of color and those experiencing poverty. If detained due to lack of access to bail monies, one can lose their job, their housing, etc. Studies have shown that pretrial arrests can actually increase a person’s likelihood of re-arrest upon release. However, studies of New Jersey and Washington, D.C., indicate that defendants’ rates of appearance for trial after cash bail reforms were implemented are similar or better to rates of appearance before the reforms. This is a critical issue to be further explored, and will likely be determined at the county and/or state level.

Homelessness? Smith: “As a member of the NAACP Advisory Council, I serve on the Homelessness Sub-Committee and we are currently discussing ‘tiny homes” as an option. I believe we must have a continuum of initiatives re: homelessness and housing. We need a permanent shelter for folks who are homeless as we are the only city in the Valley to not have one. Our sub-committee is working on this! We also need to develop transitional as well as permanent housing. “Tiny homes” could be a viable model however, we need to do more research into this option. While it has worked in some areas, some things to consider are: can we provide more housing units in a multi-level building versus a ‘tiny homes community; what is the life span of a “tiny home”; would this option be deemed as segregation; where is the best location; and what is the input of those who are homeless and/or transient?”

Kiera Wilhelm

Quality of life? Wilhelm: “Our most time-sensitive initiatives revolve around pandemic recovery. This includes ensuring that all of our citizens have equal access to vaccines and are getting vaccinated, as well as prioritizing small business recovery funding, housing assistance and mortgage/rent relief, and support to our schools.”

Regional Health Bureau? Wilhelm: “Bethlehem is fortunate to have a Bureau of Health that is an extraordinary resource to our City; the way they have managed the pandemic-in particular the herculean task of administering vaccines-has made it abundantly clear. If a regional health bureau served as a means of additional and valuable support to our existing City bureau, I would support its creation and a cooperative relationship between the two.”

Elimination of cash bail? Wilhelm: “Cash bail supports a wealth-based and inequitable justice system in which legally innocent people remain in prison for weeks, months, or years simply because of an inability to cover the cost of bail-and is one of the many areas in which criminal justice reform is needed.”

Homelessness? Wilhelm: “While thoughtful research is needed in terms of determining a specific location, a community of tiny homes-which provides a mailing address, safe shelter, food, and other resources designed to scaffold residents toward living independently-is an option worth our consideration as we care for our unhoused neighbors.”