Michael E. Barnes and Emily Keller are vying to become Hagerstown’s next mayor in the Nov. 3 general election.
Oct. 13 is the deadline to register. Mail-in ballots could be mailed out as soon as this week, and in-person early voting starts Oct. 26 at the county’s early voting center at 17718 Virginia Ave. near Hagerstown. Eleven vote centers will be open on Election Day, according to the Washington County Election Board website.
Hagerstown’s mayor serves a four-year term. The job pays $28,000 a year.
Barnes and Keller were asked about the opioid epidemic, their highest priorities and public safety. The following are their responses.
Q: Each of you cites the opioid epidemic as a major challenge. What specific steps would you take to tackle it?
Barnes: As stated in my recent policy update, we must start by being more strict in our enforcement of drug crimes. Secondly, we must take steps to enroll many of our suffering citizens in the new treatment program that I have outlined on my website www.votebarnes2020.com. It is also vital that we find ways to put many of our addicts to work during their recovery to give them skills and abilities to use in order to lift themselves out of their current addiction upon release from rehab.
Keller: I have spent the last four years developing relationships all across the state to form partnerships to heal our community. I will continue to serve on the Senior Opioid Policy Group, which has a strategic plan that includes expanding treatment options, expanding mobile crisis, expanding education through Washington Goes Purple, providing harm reduction services, and expanding the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. I will support Washington County Recovers, which is a day of access to immediate treatment once a quarter. As mayor, I will use my voice to promote the services we have so people know where to go.
Q: Setting the opioid problem aside, if you had to spend your entire term working on only one issue, what would it be and why?
Barnes: Bringing good-paying jobs instead of an endless stream of warehousing jobs to the city. We are constantly losing our young people to other communities because of the lack of opportunities for good-paying jobs. I’d like to work to bring those jobs, like what we see in Ashburn, Va., to the Hagerstown area.
Keller: The answer most people would expect is public safety, but if I had to pick one it would be solving our budget issues by expanding the tax base through economic development, as well as other budget reviews. We have to be able to pay our police officers competitively in order to retain officers and not have a constant rotating door of them leaving for other agencies. This will allow our police to do what they’re good at — keeping us safe without being stretched so thin. In order to do that, we need to focus on our budget and tax base.
Q: If it becomes necessary, what city services or spending would you consider cutting to make sure your highest priorities are addressed?
Barnes: In going through the budget, there isn’t really one specific service that we can cut and still maintain quality services to our people. That being said, how each department spends its money is going to be thoroughly examined in my administration. Overspending on things like lawnmowers will be corrected and in these seemingly small reductions we will greatly improve the city expenditures.
Keller: An organizational review needs to be completed from the top down in our government to ensure wise spending. Like most organizations, we have “our way” of doing things and a review can help find areas where we may be spending too much or too little. The services we provide — fire, police, parks, street cleaning, etc. — are what make our city a great place to live. Cutting those services should be a last resort, and the decision of what to cut should include feedback from our citizens. By focusing on expanding the tax base we can alleviate budget issues.
Q: What are the three most important steps the mayor can take to improve the reality and perceptions of public safety in Hagerstown?
Barnes: Ensure our police department has the resources required as opposed to the minimum resources to meet standards. Enforce the “little” things to create and emphasize the culture of peace that we deserve. Thirdly, investing more heavily in the patrol of Community Resource Officers in and around the downtown area to constantly and effectively provide watchful eyes and a visible police presence in areas of economic activity as well as depressed neighborhoods.
Keller: Provide competitive pay for our public safety officials so we are retaining talent and can fully staff units to help proactively fight crime, as well as allow time for them to develop relationships and be visible within our community. Get feet on the streets. Our downtown is perceived as unsafe because it is lacking in foot traffic. People feel safer when they aren’t alone and people are less likely to commit crimes in public. As mayor, I will promote the positive so people come out and see the great things we have to offer, changing the negative perceptions we often face.
Q: In addition to what has been done, such as blocking off areas for outside dining, what can the city do to help businesses, organizations and residents cope with and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Barnes: Continue to provide quality outlets and environments for citizens to safely interact, businesses to safely engage and churches to safely worship. Most importantly, I will be working closely with our representatives in the State House to get done what needs to be done for our city to fully open in a safe way once again as winter approaches and many of these outside activities become less and less prominent. And additionally we will in courage all businesses and organizations or places of gather to follow Gov. Hogan’s Phase 3 guidelines.
Keller: Now more than ever, a strong partnership between our local, state and federal leaders is necessary. We will work closely with them in order to receive the grant relief funds that are being offered, so we can pass those onto our businesses and residents. We need to be proactive and reach out to our businesses to find out what they need and help promote their reopening and recovery efforts. The city will need to partner with our local organizations who are helping residents and use our media platforms/utility bills/any customer communication methods to make residents aware of the resources available.