City council candidates offer different takes on homelessness and disruptive student partying

Four candidates are vying for two seats in the Nov. 8 election, including independents Marshall Orenic and Rick Nagel and Democrats Monica Robinson and Dany Fleming.

Video by Kevin Gorman, text by Ryan Alessi

On housing issues, the five candidates running for city council agreed Thursday that Harrisonburg needs to increase affordable options but split over the city’s role in addressing homelessness. 

And in front of an audience of JMU students, the candidates had slightly different takes on how to referee a clash of town and gown happening in the Old Town area where some residents have complained about their student neighbors’ partying — and the aftermath of those parties.  

The five candidates made three stops across JMU’s campus Thursday as part of a traveling town hall event sponsored by JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement. It was one of only a few opportunities before the Nov. 8 election for voters to hear from all five candidates at once. Next, they will field questions in a forum at 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at Court Square Theater. The event is co-sponsored by The Citizen, the Civic Engagement Center and the Shenandoah Bicycle Coalition.  

Not all five are going up against each other. Chris Jones, a Democrat who has served on the city council since 2015 and is a former mayor, is the only candidate on the ballot for a special election to fill out the remaining two years of the term for the seat that George Hirschmann held until he resigned this spring for health reasons. 

City voters will then pick two from among other four candidates to serve regular four-year terms. None of the four has served on the city council before, and they include: 

  • Dany Fleming, a Democrat and the chair of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
  • Rick Nagel, an independent and a former law enforcement officer who runs a government affairs and strategic communication firm.
  • Marshall Orenic, an independent who has worked in restaurant management.  
  • And Monica Robinson, a Democrat and former special education teacher who is now president of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. 

Speaking to about two-dozen college students at the first stop at one of the on-campus residence halls,  the five candidates took turns addressing questions about how the city can address homelessness, affordable housing, mental health services, among other issues.

Nagel and Orenic, the two independents, have both positioned themselves as challenging the status quo. Each mentioned that the city council hasn’t done enough to address issues, including homelessness. Jones, the lone incumbent, took issue with that, and referred to the land and building the city purchased this year using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. That will become a year-round shelter, and is expected to be ready to open as early as November 2023.

Here’s how that discussion about addressing homelessness played out among the five candidates:

During their answers about how to address homelessness, Nagel and Fleming cited numbers that, on the surface, seemed to be contradictory.

Fleming said the number of people in Harrisonburg experiencing homelessness had dropped since 2020. He was citing the Western Virginia Continuum of Care, a network of 45 organizations across a nearly 2,500 square mile area that’s aimed at helping people experiencing homelessness. The organization conducts an annual count of unsheltered people.  

Nagel said Fleming was incorrect about the decreasing number of people who were homeless, saying that the numbers doubled over the last decade. But he was comparing the number of people who have stayed in the shelter run by the organization Open Doors in 2021 — 308 last year —  to a 2010 report that showed 163 people experienced homelessnessin Harrisonburg and Rockingham County “on one point in time during the January 2010 Point in Time count.” 

Meanwhile, simmering tensions between residents in the Old Town neighborhood, which sits between downtown and JMU’s campus, have drawn town-gown relationships into the campaign. Many of the candidates said they attended a public meeting Tuesday for residents to air their concerns about students’ partying that was disruptive.

Jones said the stories included students leaving trash and  “urinating on garages” — or worse — in addition to being noisy into the wee hours.  

Here’s how the candidates answered the question about what the city could — and should — do about it: 

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