By ANDREW NEAL
In what is a far stretch from a close race, three candidates for Utica City Council met last Monday to discuss a range of issues affecting the city – from safety to downtown development, the economy and transportation.
The forum was hosted by the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and moderated by their president Melanie Davis, who read questions submitted by local media outlets including the Gazette.
Newcomers Gus Calandrino and Brad O’Donnell joined mayor pro-tem and longtime council member Ken Sikora for the discussion. The three candidates are running uncontested thanks to council member Bill Osladil’s recent decision not to seek reelection.
Calandrino began his remarks by thanking Osladil for his years of service to the city. “Utica will miss you sorely, Bill.”
He then detailed his background as a Navy veteran and resident of Utica for 14 years with his wife and two children. As for his candidacy, Calandrino said his priorities are “responsible tax spending, improving the neighborhoods, and increasing transparency to make local government more accessible to the residents.”
Ken Sikora is a 31 year resident of Utica and was first elected to council 29 years ago. He has subsequently been elected six more times for a total of seven terms.
“If you have watched over the last 29 years, you know when it comes to me, you get what you see. There is no BS,” Sikora said.
Comparatively, Brad O’Donnell is the newcomer to council. He is a homeowner in Utica and currently serves on the city’s planning commission. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University, member of the Smart Towns nonprofit, and works in the software industry.
“This city is bursting with potential,” said O’Donnell, “and I would be honored to be a part of the change that’s coming to our city.”
In the wake of the recent homicide in Utica’s Grant Park, the candidates were asked what, if anything, should be done to bolster safety in the city.
Sikora called the tragedy “unforeseen and unprovoked,” and said that it would be almost impossible to have police on every corner, but that the cops are doing their best. O’Donnell invoked the old “cops on the beat” adage to encourage a community policing model that would have officers making their presence more known in public areas. Calandrino echoed similar sentiments and urged for adding more deterrents in the parks.
On the subject of recreational marijuana, O’Donnell said he supports legalization and would permit dispensaries in the city, with limitations on exterior designs and logos. He probably wouldn’t allow grow operations. Calandrino said the momentum is strong for legalization and that the city should not get left behind if legal businesses want to operate in Utica, and added, “I think the community needs to be involved to figure out what we want to do together, but I think it needs to be looked at.”
Sikora’s answer was simple: no. He would not support dispensaries or grow facilities in the city of Utica, saying, “If you want to buy a bag a weed, you can go up the street, down the street, left or right. It’s not far to go.”
On how the city can appeal more to the millennial generation, O’Donnell encouraged a culture of entrepreneurship, giving small business owners a chance in Utica.
Calandrino said Jimmy John’s Field has helped put Utica more on the map, although that might not be exactly what millennials are looking for. He said things like public art spaces and improving green spaces would also help.
Sikora said because of its age, Utica is still predominantly a single-family home type of town, making it difficult for many millennials to afford to live there. “We are still kind of handcuffed by who we are,” Sikora said. He added that outdoor events like music in the park and food truck rallies have helped attract younger crowds to the city.
In closing, Calandrino joked that since he is running uncontested, “that’s one reason I’m the best.” On a more serious note, he said that he is here to help push the city into the future. “For us as city leaders, and for the city itself, to succeed, we need to have the residents informed and involved in what we do, and that’s what is going to be my major effort.”
Sikora cited his experience as the key to his success on council. “29 years ago I was the new kid on the block. I was 29 years old when I was sworn into this council, and now I’m 58.” Because of this experience, Sikora said he’s not afraid to speak out and have the necessary, sometimes difficult, conversations.
“As long as one person votes for me, I’ll be back on council,” Sikora said. “I have to see if my wife will do that.”