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Borough Council, Students Debate Mayoral Candidate Guidelines At Special Meeting

Student leaders and State College Borough Council members debated the ethics and efficacy of a set of guidelines for considering interim mayoral candidates at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting welcomed a group that included UPUA representatives, Penn State College Democrats executives, and former mayoral candidate Michael Black and that debated the guidelines on matters ranging from race to town/gown relations.

Council Member Catherine Dauler proposed the guidelines, which outline guidelines for Council to evaluate mayoral candidates based on, at a special meeting last Friday. Her list immediately sparked a rebuttal from several colleagues, specifically Council Member Dan Murphy, who also works in Penn State’s Student Orientation and Transition Programs Office . Murphy argued that active Penn State employees shouldn’t be barred from consideration for the position.

Wednesday’s session was scheduled to discuss these guidelines and vote on when and if Council would implement them in the selection process. But because the meeting was advertised incorrectly in the Centre Daily Times, Council was prohibited from voting on the matter.

Current Mayor of State College Don Hahn weighed in on the debate by sending a letter that encouraged Council to evaluate candidates based on their own personal guidelines, but refrain from establishing official guidelines.

“Official guidelines may have a chilling effect upon applications for Mayor,” it read. “I urge Council members to continue to have personal guidelines while refraining from adopting official, collective guidelines.”

Murphy kicked off Wednesday’s session with a statement about last week’s meeting. He pointed out the guidelines’ dangerously vague use of the term “actively employed” to describe candidates who work for Penn State.

“The great irony of this debate is that those that insist that elected leaders must be able to serve all who call State College home have a demonstrably poor track record of doing so,” he said. “If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Murphy said that he isn’t considering a run for mayor, but that the guidelines provide a narrow definition of potential candidates that favor current and former members of local government.

“I am actually most concerned by the significant and likely unintended outcome that these guidelines serve to close the door on participation by people of color in this process,” Murphy added.

He cited the guideline that proposed candidates have prior experience in local government, saying that it unnecessarily barred other qualified individuals from other fields and industries from being chosen.

“If we intend to pull from a pool of available people in State College with the actual work experience in local government, we’re all but assuring that our pool of candidates will be all white,” he said, calling for his colleagues to “critically explore (their) white privilege” and apply it to governmental procedure.

“There is a simple difference between the word guidelines and the word requirements,” Congress Member Theresa Lafer said after Murphy finished, claiming along with fellow Council Member Janet Engeman that the guidelines would only help Council choose from a potentially large pool of candidates.

“It’s not a law, it’s not an ordinance, it’s not carved in stone for the next 3,000 years,” she said.

Lafer continued to outline the potential divide between Borough and university interests that might cause a Penn State-affiliated mayor to choose sides or recuse themselves from a potential vote. She said that Council’s primary concern should be choosing a candidate who will act on behalf of constituents who didn’t choose them and will only serve for two years, and said that the guidelines don’t go against expanding opportunity in the community.

“I bent over backward over a decade ago to get us a student representative. We not only have a student representative. We have a black woman student representative,” she said, referring to Borough Council Student Representative Genevievre Miller.

She also criticized Murphy’s statements, and emphasized that no Council members were “stupid,” “evil,” or “blind.”

Dauler said that the list was meant only to give guidelines for candidates, who would be expected to “hit the ground running” as soon as they are appointed with knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order and how to run a public meeting.

“It never occurred to me that this would be a way to exclude anyone,” Dauler said, citing local government ad hoc committees with appointees of color and calling for a review of the guidelines one-by-one.

Council Member David Brown, who was absent from last week’s Friday meeting where Council took a straw poll to determine the implementation of the guidelines that ended in a 3-3 split vote, said that he favored not choosing a Penn State employee as Mayor for time management reasons. He also said that he didn’t think the previous experience requirement wasn’t discriminatory and said that the “inflammatory, emotionally-charged” counterargument could have the opposite effect of its goal. He also said that he might run for mayor.

Council President Evan Myers, who agreed with Hahn’s denouncement of the guidelines then turned the floor over to Miller.

“I find it incredibly, incredibly, incredibly offensive that my being here, and that I so happen to be a woman, and I so happen to be a person of color has anything to do with the Borough’s diversity and inclusion initiatives,” she said. “I did this on my own, not because of you.

“The argument that ‘because I’m here, we’re not discriminating,’ is frustrating. If you can just pan the room, I’m the only one who is usually here, and I can’t vote, so I don’t understand that argument.”

She went on to say that though the difference between guidelines and requirements had been defined, the list would still affect Council’s decision-making process.

“When your comments are ‘it never occurred to you,’ that’s exactly why it’s discriminatory because it occurs to people like me that do see it,” she said. “Please stop saying that because you have a black person here, you are progressive. You are not.”

After further remarks from Myers and other Council members, Murphy weighed in once again.

“I think that while it may be true that I am undermining the community through my impassioned remarks, I think it’s actually more undermining to engage in tokenism, which I think has happened here,” Murphy said, adding that the guidelines should remain unofficial and that voters should decide if the candidate should be awarded a second term.

The floor was then opened for public comment, and Penn State College Democrats President Kelsey Denny approached the podium first.

“First of all, I need to point out that Ms. Lafer, you owe Genevieve an apology,” she said. “You used her identity as a bargaining chip for your own pathetic argument. It was uncalled for, it was honestly disgraceful, and you owe her an apology.”

“If she is upset, she can come to me,” Lafer said, interrupting Denny.

Denny continued to point out that in order to actively increase student participation and inclusion in the Borough, Council would need to consider those connected to the university as candidates.

“Can any of you even name the top three things Penn State students care about the most? If you can’t, you should be unseated,” she said.

UPUA Vice President Jake Griggs also spoke, noting that the guidelines seemed unnecessary, and agreed with Hahn and Murphy’s comments.

Freddy Purnell, the recent winner of Penn State Homecoming’s Guide State Forward Award, spoke next, emphasizing the need for Council to listen to historically marginalized communities.

“When people come up here, especially when we’re looking at people who speak to marginalized, minority communities, and point out things you may not see yourself, you need to listen,” he said.

Several community members remarked on laughs, eye-rolling, and other body language signals projected by Council during the discrimination discussion.

UPUA At-Large Representative Tyler Akers agreed with Hahn’s letter and called for Council to tailor its guidelines more closely to the Mayor’s actual job description. Jacob Klipstein, the administrative vice president for the Penn State College Democrats, called the guidelines, especially the two-year point, “unenforceable, and also undemocratic.”

Former mayoral candidate Michael Black was the afternoon’s final speaker. He suggested that the community cooperate to embrace love and empathy in creating a more inclusive and open community after thanking Council.

Council may vote on the guidelines proposal at its November 8 meeting.

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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