For the first time in nearly 40 years, Tempe City Council candidates were unable to address community questions in person. Instead, the proposed extension of the streetcar, various urban development plans and other topics needed to be discussed virtually.
Six of seven candidates running for three open seats on Tempe City Council attended the forum over Zoom. Victor Linoff, a local historian who hosted the event, said the decision to move to Zoom was made by the sponsors, out of an abundance of caution after a candidate tested positive for COVID-19. The Arizona Republic and the Tempe Chamber of Commerce hosted the event Wednesday.
Candidates Gina Kash, Arlene Chin, Jennifer Adams, John Skelton, Harper Lines and Casey Clowes all attended over Zoom. The seventh candidate, Berdetta Hodge, provided a statement as she was needed at the Tempe Union High School District board meeting and was unable to attend.
During her introduction, Adams, who is on Tempe City Council and is running for reelection, apologized in advance if her performance was impacted by any "brain fog" that she was experiencing from "active COVID."
"So if I don't make sense, I apologize, but I will try to make sense," Adams said.
The Tempe streetcar was a big topic of discussion during the meeting, with all candidates in support of the expansion. The streetcar, an extension of the light rail system, is expected to begin service early this year.
Tempe is in conversation with the city of Mesa about expanding the streetcar along the Rio Salado Parkway from downtown Tempe to Mesa Riverview, as well as other locations around the area, according to Ashley Bunch, chair of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce government relations and transportation committee.
"It just makes a ton of sense to continue that project," Skelton said. "We can see that streetcar extended into south Tempe ... as long as it financially makes sense for the city."
Nearly a third of the questions addressed current or future development projects, including the proposal for an entertainment district and hockey arena for the Arizona Coyotes near Tempe Town Lake.
The Coyotes responded to a request for proposal on Sept. 2 from Tempe for an entertainment district after the city of Glendale did not renew its lease with the team. Clowes, an attorney for Nikola Motor Company, had some concerns about the development.
"I would look at the opportunity cost of developing a sports arena on that land, rather than something else of public interest," Clowes said. "(I) don't think that we need to give tax subsidies to billionaires. Subsidies for sports teams are highly unpopular."
Adams, the only incumbent, opted out of discussing the ongoing arena proposal since she is directly involved in negotiations.
In his parting remarks, Linoff praised the candidates for their efforts in campaigning for public office.
"I've been doing these forums for many years," Linoff said. "And I really am impressed by this slate of candidates."
If three candidates don't receive over 50% of the votes cast on March 8, a runoff will occur. Residents have until February 7 to register to vote in time to receive a mail-in ballot, which will be mailed starting February 9, according to the city website.
James Doyle Brown, Jr. is an opinion columnist at The State Press. He is also in his final semester as a graduate student studying investigative journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He has previously reported for the State Press politics desk, The Howard Center of Investigative Journalism and Carnegie-Knight News21.