Candidates for city commissioner address immigrant concerns

Candidates for the Bowling Green City Commission Board met in City Hall for a public forum on Tuesday, Sept. 13. A prominent point of discussion was the refugee community in Bowling Green and what candidates were going to do to help make them a part of the community.

Emma Collins

On Tuesday, the International Communities Advisory Council hosted a forum where 10 of the 12 candidates for the four city commissioner positions met to discuss issues relevant to new Americans, immigrants and refugees.

The free event, held in the Commissioner Chamber of Bowling Green City Hall, attracted a crowd of nearly 60 people including a number of immigrants and refugees, several of whom are members of the ICAC.

According to its website, the ICAC is an organization designed to “represent members of our diverse communities and identify issues of concern” relevant to immigrants and refugees. These concerns are then passed on to Leyda Becker, the community services specialist/international communities liaison, who works with the local government to address needs of the international community. Becker was also in charge of helping to select the questions asked by Chad Young of WKCT, who served as the moderator.

Throughout the forum, Young asked the candidates a variety of questions regarding their stance on concerns voiced by the immigrant community. Several questions focused on the struggle many immigrants face when trying to learn English. All of the candidates who were asked about English classes agreed learning English affects an immigrant’s ability to become successful in Bowling Green.

When asked how the city could be more serviceable to refugees and immigrants, particularly in regards to English as a second language classes, candidate Matt Stephens said he believes the language barrier is one of the toughest challenges immigrants will face.

“There’s no doubt that it’s our responsibility, the county government and the city government, to continue to support ESL programs,” Stephens said. “I believe that vocational tech schools, I would like to see them, if they’re not already, offer classes as well.”

Candidate Derek Reeder said he also believes learning English is a challenge and the city needs to make sure the schools are prepared to teach English as a second language.

“It’s important that our schools have robust English as a second language courses,” Reeder said. “We need to make sure that the teachers are well equipped to help those students out.”

In addition to maintaining ESL classes, Reeder said he also believes the city government needs to have access to translators who speak a variety of languages.

Other questions focused on the city’s limited transportation services. One particular question asked candidates if they supported increasing funds for transportation services and adding additional routes and hours to transportation.

Candidate Brian “Slim” Nash, who previously served as a city commissioner from 2005 to 2012, responded simply with, “Yes and yes,” when asked if he supported those two changes to the transportation services.

Two other candidates, Sue Parrigin and Rick Williams, both of whom are currently city commissioners, said they do support changes to transportation services; however, they both said it is important to remain fiscally responsible when considering such changes.

“We would love to see and love to find a big pot of money that we could use to buy a bunch more buses and add more routes,” Williams said. “But we have to do this in a regulated manner where we can afford it and it doesn’t put a burden on all of our citizens to have to pay for something.”

Parrigin said the current board of commissioners is looking for ways to add more money to fund transportation services, and they will be discussing it at their upcoming fall retreat.

While most of the candidates agreed on the need for an increase in ESL programs and transportation services, they did not agree on two of the more controversial subjects of the forum: the Universal Residential Landlord and Tenant Act and the Fairness Ordinance.

The Universal Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or URLTA, is an act designed to help improve the relationship between tenants and landlords by clearly defining the rights of both parties.

When asked how he would help provide affordable housing to immigrants, one of the candidates, Andrew Manley, said he would attempt to pass URLTA.

“I think that’s the first initiative,” Manley said. “[It’s] the key.”

Nate Morguelan, another candidate, said he would also support passing URLTA.

“That’ll help everyone make sure, while they are renting, they are protected,” Morguelan said. “It protects the landlords, too.”

Later in the forum, when asked how she would protect immigrant tenants’ rights, Parrigin said she would be hesitant to pass URLTA because she has heard it is an all-or-nothing act.

“I also have heard mixed reviews from officials in Lexington and Louisville as to the effectiveness and fairness of the URLTA law, and I’d like to take a look at it closer,” Parrigin said.

A question about the Fairness Ordinance also sparked different reactions among candidates. The Fairness Ordinance seeks to make it illegal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

When asked if she supported it, Parrigin said she is not opposed to treating people fairly; however, she said she believes the city government is the wrong place to have a conversation about the ordinance.

“Bowling Green city commission is the lowest and least representative form of government that we have,” Parrigin said. “The conversation, in my opinion, needs to be at the very least statewide and preferably at the federal level.”

Following Parrigin’s answer, when asked whether he supported the ordinance, candidate Ryan Fulkerson received the loudest applause of the night when he said he disagreed with Parrigin’s opinion.

“Right now you can be fired from your job or evicted from your house simply because you’re gay, and those aren’t the values that I recognize in Bowling Green values or American values,” Fulkerson said. “I think we need to change that.”

Fulkerson’s response also earned him a standing ovation from several other candidates.

At the end of the forum, all of the candidates were invited to give a closing statement. Many of them, including candidate Dan Rudloff, said their love of Bowling Green was one of the reasons they chose to run for city commissioner. Others, including candidate Jennifer Morlan, said they were grateful to have the opportunity to speak at the forum and to see members of the community come to listen.

All of the 10 candidates, as well as Joe Denning and Mark Bradford who did not attend the forum, will be on the ballot for election day on Nov. 8.

Reporter Emma Collins can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @thebest_dilemma.