Days before the a special election in Tuscaloosa's District 7, City Council candidates Sonya McKinstry and Cassius Lanier discussed their platforms during a virtual forum hosted by The League of Women Voters of Greater Tuscaloosa.

McKinstry has served 2 previous terms on the Council, and was chair of its finance committee for the past two years, overseeing $240 million in city funding. She said one of her proudest achievements during her time on the council was the recreation of the Residential Lateral Assistance Program, which allowed people in her districts to repair or replace the lateral lines between their homes and the city's sewer lines.

She said this was a major aid to many residents in District 7, where the laterals of many older homes homes connected to each other rather instead of directly to the city sewer system.

Lanier said he was born and raised in Tuscaloosa. He is an alumnus of Central High School and Stillman College, and he owns and operates Lanier Automotive. He is a strong advocate of the pre-trial Second Chance Program for minor criminal offenders, and he hosts several events at his business that allow ex-felons to find employment.

"Gainful employment is very important," Lanier said. "I think it will turn your life around, me being the example.

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Each candidate discussed their stances on three key issues during the forum: public safety, neighborhood revitalization and community involvement. Their details responses are outlined below:

Public Safety & Community Policing

Both McKinstry and Lanier said they believe it's a priority to promote community policing that in order to reduce crime in District 7, community members must speak up when they know of any criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

"We put a lot of pressure on the police... We could hire 100 more police officers, and all they'll be doing is showing up to the scene to be reactive, because that's all they know," Lanier said. "It has to be a total team effort."

"We want to help the police," McKinstry said. "That doesn't subsidize for having police presence. We know what's happening in our neighborhood... A lot of times, in those households behind that door, they don't wanna tell that they have someone in their home selling drugs."

McKinstry also said she has been a vocal advocate of creating a police substation in the district. Both candidates recognized the plague of gun violence in Tuscaloosa and said that this issue is multifaceted and requires continued effort from both police and community leaders to solve.

"We don't make the laws on who can carry a gun, who can open carry," McKinstry said. "We have to make sure we do whatever we can to get the guns out of our youth. They don't have any gun education... We lose so many youth to gun violence. It's a continuous discussion."

"When you break down the fear and the stereotypes and the stigma, you allow relationships to form,"  Lanier said about relationships to police.

Neighborhood Revitalization

McKinstry and Lanier both said infrastructure improvements must be a priority in District 7, from drainage issues, to repaving streets and upgrading streetlights, which Lanier says will go hand-in-hand with reducing crime.

Right now, lights throughout Tuscaloosa are being updated to LED lighting, but McKinstry said more must be done.

Both candidates had different ideas as to the future of the dilapidated and partially demolished McFarland Mall property, which is currently owned by Tuscaloosa developer Stan Pate. Lanier stressed that if he were appointed to the council, the first thing he would do would be identify potential code violations so the city could clear the site and start from scratch.

Lanier pitched potential businesses that could take the place of the condemned mall including a Top Golf and a Cheesecake Factory.

"When you have a blighted area, do you think a top-tier business wants to come? I doubt it," Lanier said. "Nobody wants to come and bring a nice business and develop a nice property next to a garbage dump."

McKinstry made her ideas on the matter clear during the election cycle, when she appeared with Pate to announce his plans to develop the mall site into a sportsplex and said her longstanding relationship with Pate and Mayor Walt Maddox will help her get the project off the ground.

"When it comes to condemnation, the city has never torn down a business," she said. "We have to invest in the people who are invested in the community of District 7. Once you have developers taking on private dollars and they're so entrenched into the development of your community, you get behind them because those developers don't come every day."

Community Outreach

Both candidates said they have been closely following the Tuscaloosa City Council's votes since the general election in March, and have made it a point to reach out to all sitting council members and make sure that voices are heard in District 7 until a representative can officially take a seat on the council.

They were both asked about their priorities should District 7's lines be redrawn based on results from the 2020 census. McKinstry had not heard of any plans for redistricting, but said her community has strong advocates and diversity in governmental representation. She wants to ensure government lines aren't drawn to become strictly suburban or strictly commercial or are divided by income. She wants to make sure her community has strong input on issues and is represented fairly.

Lanier also said he had a strong relationship with his district and would host monthly town meetings and neighborhood meet-and-greets to help keep the public informed and up to date on anything that might affect District 7.

Each candidate was asked about whether they would support potential investors' plans for development in the district, and whether they would protect residents' neighborhoods from commercialization.

While Lanier said he would work closely between both developers and residents to find a common ground, especially if commercial development would bring more jobs and increased revenue to the district, McKinstry said D7 residents should come first.

"I am with the neighborhood," McKinstry said. "The residents there, we're their voice. The community has to protect their livelihood. There's no relocation added into [developers'] financial plans. The person that represents that district has to represent the community. I have done it, I will continued to do it."

"Progress doesn't come by terms, it comes by funding," McKinstry closed. "Educating people with the truth is important. It's important to have experience and have knowledge and have people you can trust."

"Some problems that are small to us are big to the people that voted us in," Lanier said, advocating for a change in leadership in his district. "Progress is visual, what are you seeing?"

The special election will take place Tuesday, July 27. Polls will be open at East McFarland Baptist Church from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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