During a special meeting held virtually on Tuesday night, 11 State College residents made their cases for why they should be selected to fill the vacancy on borough council.
Councilman Dan Murphy resigned on Aug. 17 and in accordance with the borough’s home rule charter the remaining council members have until Oct. 1 to choose a replacement.
The charter requires only the council members reside and be registered to vote in the borough. Council previously agreed to open applications to any eligible borough resident.
Initially, 13 residents applied, but two — Katherine Watt and Eric Boeldt — withdrew from consideration. The remaining candidates were sent dozens of questions submitted by council members and the public and could incorporate answers to any of them into their five-minute remarks on Tuesday night.
Common themes emerged as the applicants detailed priorities and pressing issues facing the borough, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial equity, police reform, sustainability and budget issues.
The sitting council members will make nominations and vote on an interim council member during a virtual public meeting on Monday. The first nominee receiving four yes votes will be appointed and will serve the remainder of Murphy’s elected term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2021.
Here’s a brief look at each of the candidates:
Uche H. Ikwut-Ukwa
A professional engineer for more than 30 years, Uche H. Ikwut-Ukwa said the fatal police shooting of State College resident Osaze Osagie in 2019, other police shootings of Black men and women across the country, the local movements calling for racial justice, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic inspired him to become more actively involved in civic matters.
“In deciding to apply for the vacant council member position, I came to the conclusion that the time for apathy has long passed and that I needed to engage in finding solutions that will end or reduce racial injustice and improve opportunities for Blacks and other minorities, as well as all of those who struggle with mental health issues in the borough,” he said.
He said he is in favor of an ordinance to restrict justification of police use of deadly force when their lives or those of the public are not in danger.
He added that his experience in architecture and engineering, management roles and MBA will be valuable as council addresses issues of planning and zoning, budget reviews and capital project expenditures.
Ikwut-Ukwa said that he believes he can help to make State College a safe and attractive place for all of its residents and visitors.
“If selected as the interim borough council member I pledge to work cooperatively with other council members to find optimal solutions to the many challenges that have hit our community,” Ikwut-Ukwa said.
Oscar Jacob Baumert IV
A Penn State undergraduate studying chemistry, Oscar Jacob Baumert IV is active with the Wage Justice Coalition, Centre County COVID19 Community Response, Pennsylvania United, Pennsylvania Stands Up and Habitat for Humanity.
Baumert said Penn State erred in bringing students back to campus, but now the community must handle it responsibly.
“What we should’ve done was not bring them back, but now that we have to deal with that we have to find a way of dealing with that,” he said. “We have to stop school and we cannot just send students home. We have to have a period of time where they need to stay here, be quarantined and get tested, so that way they don’t expose themselves to the virus and that everybody is safe. “
He added that he would advocate for the borough to meet all of the 3/20 Coalition’s demands for police reform, naming the officers involved in Osagie’s shooting and compensating the Osagie family.
“For any actual type of progress to happen, specifically here in State College, we need to meet the demands that 3.20 have put ahead of us. All of them,” he said.
He also wants to return public benches that have been removed from outside Schlow Centre Region Library.
Katherine Oh Yeaple
A registered nurse who works in infection control for Penn State, Katherine Oh Yeaple also has a background in urban planning. She previously did planning for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and for Amtrak. She’s also a volunteer for Remote Area Medical and the Palmer Museum of Art.
“Why do I want to be on the borough council? Because I believe in health and wellness, balanced growth and transportation alternatives,” she said.
Yeaple said she expects the area will continue to see growth and that “we need to do it smartly,” addressing environmental impact and infrastructure needs.
She also supports the planned community police oversight board and said having a mental health professional on staff to assist with crisis and wellness checks may be an appropriate step.
Yeaple lauded the borough council’s work on the COVID-19 masking and social distancing ordinance, the development of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza and the 2022 Sustainability Plan.
“I think the quality of life here is very good. We need to maintain the quality of life,” she said. “The future is going to be challenging but I think that we live in a very promising area which has a lot of strengths, and we just need to work on those strengths.”
Elle (Louise) Morgan
A full-time instructor in Penn State’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, Elle Morgan teaches public speaking and civic engagement.
She said she wants to see more representation of women in government and to be a voice for inclusivity.
In speaking with her students she said their top concerns are COVID-19 and the many challenges that accompany it, adding that it’s the most immediate challenge facing the borough and the nation.
“What does the borough council do about a pandemic? Well we have to have empathy — empathy for all of those that are involved,” she said. “We’re all navigating it together. Every one of us.”
Racial justice “sits right next to” the pandemic among pressing issues, she said.
“The pandemic itself seemed to bring it forward for us to look at it with new eyes and to just say… we cannot have apathy any longer. It’s time for this action now,” Morgan said.
Other issues include sustainability, climate change, inclusivity and quality of life. She added that she supports the formation of the community oversight board.
Director of Business Development, Account Management at AccuWeather, Ezra Nanes previously ran against state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman for the 34th District seat in 2018 and applied to fill the borough’s mayoral vacancy last year.
He said that he feels a responsibility to serve his community as it faces challenging issues including COVID-19, racial justice, climate change and planning responsibly for growth.
Injustice cannot correct injustice,” Nanes said. “So when we talk about the killing of Osaze Osagie we must talk of justice. At this moment justice has not yet been done for Mr. Osagie and his family. I am not here to blame, but to join you and all our community in shouldering responsibility for this. Until we give justice to Mr. Osagie to heed the call of the 3/20 coalition, the wound will never heal.”
Nanes also said the increase in high-rise developments downtown “certainly raises red flags,” about who they benefit.
“You will find me a strong advocate for a pedestrian-friendly, bikeable and accessible vision of our community, where people can easily reach public spaces to enjoy the company of their neighbors and local businesses can thrive,” he said.
Nanes supports the borough’s work toward carbon neutrality and said he would advocate for being even more aggressive in addressing climate change.
He appreciates the borough’s leadership in tackling the challenges of COVID-19 and said he calls on Penn State to provide greater transparency on its decision making.
“Our current alarming spike in cases in the borough and in Centre County and our district-wide school closures call for a powerful sense of urgency and accountability from the university that we are simply not seeing,” Nanes said. “Our State College Area school board and administration have provided a model of the kind of empathetic, data-driven and transparent leadership we need at this time.”
Thomas Dougherty III
Thomas Dougherty is a Penn State undergraduate pursuing degrees in political science and African studies with the goal of joining the Peace Corps. Currently chair of the University Park Undergraduate Association’s governmental affairs committee, Dougherty previously served as UPUA liaison to borough council and ran for council in 2019.
Dougherty said he believes council needs a student voice and that the university and borough need to come together for collaborative action, not just talk.
“Our community faces one of the biggest hurdles it may face until the climate crisis is at our doorstep,” he said. “We have to address issues as they come to us, work on solutions and present our plan to address it.”
Dougherty said that the borough needs to be sure it does better than the university has in addressing COVID-19
“[Penn State] has failed so many of its students, and the borough cannot fail its residents,” he said. “I want to make well sure it does not do that since we are at the wheel.”
Dougherty said the borough and community need to ensure that Osagie’s death results in lasting change.
“Our community has seen racial injustice. It happened here on March 2019. We rallied together during an unprecedented time for justice for change,” he said. “We have to do everything in our power to make sure this injustice must never be repeated.”
He also noted the internal department review found the officers followed policy in every area. “We have to be harder on how we are reviewing our policing,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re making actions that are actually tangible and actually making change.”
Jacob Werner is a Penn State research professor and attending veterinarian for Agricultural Animals and Wildlife Animal Resource Program.
He is seeking the seat on council, he said, because he wants to help all feel welcome, establish open dialogue throughout the community, and develop relationships to provide opportunities for new and existing businesses.
“This is my action: work to foster business development, help families grow, develop relationships that make everyone welcome,” he said.
Werner said he believes in listening and being open to new ideas.
“I believe in conducting research into topics that I may not know about to gain a full understanding and provide resources for growth,” he said.
He related a story of befriending a young Chinese family in his neighborhood and learning that no one else had spoken to them during their time living there, despite yard signs throughout the neighborhood saying all are welcome.
“I wondered, if every person put to action the words on a sign in their yards, that this town wouldn’t just be a town but rather a community,” he said. “Words mean nothing if actions cannot back those up. I am a person of putting my life into action and I hope to be able to do so as a member of borough council.”
Jeffrey R. Kern
A certified general appraiser and owner of Resource Technologies Corporation, Kern previously was a borough council member and has served on multiple authorities, boards and commissions in the borough. He is currently chair of the board for the State College Borough Water Authority.
Kern cited his experience and knowledge of council workings and said he is ready to jump into the work without needing much of a learning curve.
“This is a budget year and this is going to be a tough budget year for the borough. We have lost a significant amount of earned income tax, which is roughly 20 to 25 percent of the borough’s revenue and we are about to lose, even though we are seeing significant growth downtown, the potential for real estate income growth because of a recent ruling by the appellate court in Pennsylvania…,” he said.
He added that without addressing revenue downturns, the borough won’t have the needed funds to tackle pressing issues.
“Whether we are worried about climate change, which I am, whether we are worried about racial inequities, which I am, whether we are worried about how we fix the pot holes in the street, we have to have the revenue to do that,” he said. “Without the revenue to do that, we become empty vessels of our speech.”
Kern also said he believes in service to the borough community.
“For the last twentysome years I have provided some level of service to the borough because I just believe a citizen of a town must participate in that town,” he said. “I will continue to do that. My position on this would be temporary, but I would bring to you significant experience in that volunteer position.”
The associate director of global operations and learning at Penn State, Mel White spent 25 years in the U.S. Army, 18 of which were as a foreign area officer “working with non-US partners to achieve common interests.” He has also served on the borough’s Real Estate Advisory Committee.
White said he applied for the vacancy because he values the idea of selfless service and that his experience in the Army dealing with ambiguous situations will help the community find solutions during a time of crises.
He is “proud” of the responses by the commonwealth, borough and Penn State to COVID-19, but said in making decisions, they must be explained and citizens must be empowered.
“Lives have been saved, but we must never use fear or force to gain compliance,” he said. “That’s not the kind of society we want to live in. Unpopular measures need to be explained so people are empowered to choose to do the right thing.”
He also is proud of the Black Lives Matter and 3/20 Coalition movements in State College and said he endorses how council has so far addressed the coalition’s demands.
“I’m proud of these actions because they show our community is unwilling to be silent in the face of inequity,” he said. “I’m also proud because these movements have been peaceful here to date.”
For police reform, he said the issue is “the militarization of the mindset,” and that police are often asked to handle situations that might be better suited elsewhere.
“Police need to be changed, equipped and funded for law enforcement and relevant duties,” he said. “But other activities belong somewhere else.”
Anticipating revenue shortfalls, White said increasing taxes should not be the answer. “Options such as deficit spending, delaying projects or improvements deferring recapitalization and others should all be exhausted before we turn to increasing taxes,” he said.
A retired director of the Office of Military and Security Programs at Penn State, Ron Madrid also spent 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer and naval aviator. Over the past 17 years he has served on multiple borough commissions and committees, is currently a member of planning commission and is a past president of the Holmes-Foster Neighborhood Association. He has previously run for council and mayor.
He is seeking the position on council, he said, because of his commitment of service to his country and community and because his experience and knowledge of how the borough functions would be an asset to the board’s work.
“Our directed efforts should be to listen, engage and legislate for the common good,” Madrid said. “Though we can try, we must realize we cannot make everybody happy.As a member of council I will be ever mindful that what we do should support our community’s priorities of safety, security and quality of life for all of our residents and those who work in and visit the borough.”
Racial and economic inequality, police accountability, COVID-19, interactions with Penn State and other municipalities, sustainability and taxation all present significant challenges, he said.
“As a member of council what I would bring to the legislative dialogue is potentially a different perspective, and perhaps a different skill set,” he said. “Being a Latino coupled with my military service and positions at Penn State provided me the exposure and opportunity to bring together opposing groups in facilitating mutually beneficial outcomes.”
Madrid’s professional experience managing multi-million dollar, publicly funded projects has provided him with the skills to create and manage budgets while appreciating the responsibility and accountability that comes with spending public funds, he said.
Through is work with the neighborhood associations, he said he has been exposed to the issues with which long-term and student residents and the business community are most concerned: zoning, taxes, traffic and pedestrian safety and quality of life.
“I would bring this knowledge along with my strategic planning and law enforcement experience to enhance council deliberations and help implement positive and meaningful change,” he said.
A Penn State sophomore majoring in labor and industrial relations, Daniel Risser also spent last fall as a constituent services coordinator for state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans 95th legislative district office in York. He is currently vice chair of the University Park Undergraduate Association governmental affairs committee.
Risser said he is seeking the position because he values public service.
“If appointed to the State College Borough Council I will work tirelessly to uphold the promise to our people that Black lives matter, all residents have equal access to necessary resources and assistance, and help diversify our local economy in order to usher State College Borough into the future,” he said.
He wants to show that students care about State College and that when problems arise they can be addressed and solved as a community. Risser said he wants students to not only eat, drink and shop in the borough, but also use public resources such as parks, borough events and Schlow Library. He also wants to foster greater awareness among students about authorities, boards and commissions.
Addressing COVID-19, Risser said he would like to strengthen the borough’s mask and social distancing ordinance and would advocate for public health ambassadors, similar to Penn State’s program for promoting virus mitigation.
“With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic settling in, the fate of our small businesses are more uncertain than ever,” he said. “That being said now is the time for our community to begin diversifying economically. With the relatively low cost of living here and proximity to metropolitan areas and some of the best fly fishing waters, State College has the potential to become a hub for recreational tourism and farm to table dining, acting as a weekend getaway for city residents.”
Risser said he would work to see the borough zoned for more affordable housing for students and families.
The State College community’s peaceful protests against systemic injustices gave him hope, Risser said, and while the borough police department has restrictive use of force policies, he called for greater transparency on use of force.
“Additionally the borough council and our community as a whole should work together to lower the barriers of entry for marginalized communities to start and grow their businesses here in State College,” he said.