By Ivan Pereira
Almost all of the contenders vying to take over the City Council seat left vacant after the death of Thomas White spoke about their plans for the future of southeast Queens during a candidates forum Monday night.
Nicole Paultre-Bell, Imam Charles Bilal, Martha Taylor Butler, Allan Jennings, Harpreet Toor and Ruben Wills were on hand at the forum at Christ Church International, at 122-20 Merrill St., which was moderated by Celeste James, who works at the church. Candidate Albert Baldeo was invited but did not show up.
James said many issues are affecting the district, which includes Jamaica, Rochdale Village, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, and the forum was conducted to see how each candidate proposed to solve the problems during their first six months in office.
“This is an important forum for us because of all the issues that go on in this community,” James said.
After a brief introduction, each candidate had to pick a typed-out question from a box that dealt with specific community issues selected by the church.
Paultre-Bell, the fiancée of police shooting victim Sean Bell, touted her activism in the community following the 2006 incident and said she has been speaking with residents about their needs. Her question from the box asked how she would bring schools into the 21st century with new technologies.
Bell said that as a mother of two daughters, she understood the need for whiteboards and good computers and would find ways to get additional funding to the schools.
“One thing I want to do is bring those things to our schools,” she said.
Charles Bilal spoke about his decades working in southeast Queens helping teenagers get out of trouble through his job as an inmate chaplain for the city Department of Correction. He cited his experience working with the youth to answer his question about the issue of young men and women who are not involved with the community.
Bilal said the best way to get them off the streets was to promote jobs and after-school activities that pique their interests.
“I have seen our youth come through our prisons. They say, ‘If you don’t want us on the corner, give us jobs,’” he said.
Butler cited the experience she has gained during her years of working as state Assemblywoman Michelle Titus’ (D-Far Rockaway) chief of staff. She was asked about how she would handle welfare and unemployment needs in light of the weak economy.
Butler said that as a Council member, she would make sure southeast Queens does not get left out of recession relief plans.
“I will make sure every community is given what it needs,” she said.
Jennings touted his single term as the district’s councilman from 2001-05 and said he already has helped the community by providing resources to the area’s schools. He was asked what he would do to fight the increased cost of utilities, including water rates.
Jennings said he would vote down any measure that would increase the price of utilities and find other ways to increase city revenue.
“I think it’s a disgrace that this city is trying to balance the books on the backs of New Yorkers,” he said.
Toor, a Sikh immigrant from Ozone Park, recounted how he had to work hard to support his family over the last 27 years and said he would bring the same passion to the needy of the district. Toor used his experience of working with the city Department of Homeless Services to answer a question about the large number of shelters in Jamaica.
The candidate said it is wrong that the neighborhood has 10 of the borough’s 18 shelters but not any other resources to help the district.
“If they are going to shove it down our throats, we must make changes,” he said.
Wills said he has been a strong advocate for the community and has gained excellent political experience by working with Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica). When asked how he would solve the community’s health-care needs, he promoted more primary health centers.
Wills said the biggest problem was that constituents were not getting adequate primary care, which resulted in an increase in unnecessary emergency room visits.
“Primary health care deals with issues we can stop,” he said.
Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.