ELECTION 2019 QUESTIONNAIRES | Champaign City Council: A.J. Christensen

ELECTION 2019 QUESTIONNAIRES | Champaign City Council: A.J. Christensen

1. What prompted you to run for a seat on the city council?

"After the 2016 federal election, I decided that the best way to avoid feeling helpless in the face of a country's growing appetite for authoritarianism was to educate myself and get involved. I started a letter writing group to contact elected representatives, enrolled in a city government class, and began volunteering for political campaigns.

"It was through these activities and through my volunteer efforts with the local film society that I had a realization — Champaign is an oasis from the chaos of the federal government and a truly unique place where people support each other's growth and success in a way that very few communities do.

"I decided to run for office because I know Champaign can be an example to the rest of the country of what a community that values diversity, respects scientific fact and that resists the drowning out of free speech by money should look like."

2. What would make you a better candidate than your opponents?

"I am a programmer and designer, and I have had many opportunities to translate the creative problem-solving techniques learned from those fields into social change. I have spent years building creative communities through my volunteer work — initially as a University of Illinois student, then as an early contributor to the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization, and eventually as a co-founder of the Champaign Urbana Film Society.

"I love making evidence-based decisions and organizing communities.

"As a gay white male, I also have had the opportunity to analyze how society doles out privilege. This campaign itself is a show of privilege for all eight candidates, and I am well aware that there are community leaders who would be better suited to a role on city council than any of us, but who lack the resources for a campaign.

"I want to find platforms for the voices and ideas in our community that are crucially important, but too often suppressed by lack of privilege."

3. What do you consider the greatest challenge facing the city in the next four years?

"The wealth gap in this community is as significant a local issue as it is a national one. This translates directly to racial disparity in almost every aspect of city life, and directly contributes to issues like poor infrastructure planning in the neighborhoods north of University Ave., the rise in gun violence and disenfranchisement of voters who don't feel heard by the system meant to represent them."

4. How would you evaluate the CU Fresh Start anti-gun-violence initiative after two years?

"Having a community-focused response to gun violence is absolutely the right way forward. CU Fresh Start rightly identifies previous gun crime offenders as centers of influence that can help prevent future gun crime in the community.

"However, the program requires more predictable funding and employee stability to be able to offer services consistently. The city also has to be able to offer more access to stable housing and employment opportunities to these citizens.

"Any citizen with a history of incarceration is more likely to repeat a crime without access to basic necessities like stable housing, which is one reason I am concerned about a clause in our Human Rights Ordinance that allows discrimination in rental agreements."

5. How worrisome an issue is gun violence in Champaign-Urbana, and what more, if anything, can be done to curtail it?

"Gun violence is extremely worrisome — it erodes our sense of security and permanently ends lives. It disproportionately affects African-Americans and low-income families.

"Gun violence is not a sudden spontaneous act. It's an act of desperation often born out of systemic repression. We have to take a serious look at inequality in our city if we want to end gun violence in Champaign, which will be a long-term process of building communities to trust each other.

"In the short term, I support community policing initiatives that help build trust between police officers and the neighborhoods they patrol. Neighbors that trust the law enforcement institution are more willing to call out suspicious activity.

"It's also important to mention that a significant portion of the gun violence in our community occurs behind closed doors, and that engaged neighbors are able to help alert the city to circumstances that may be peacefully resolved through conflict resolution resources."

6. Assuming recreational cannabis is legalized, what additional resources, if any, would you be in favor of devoting to police and DUI enforcement/education?

"The Illinois state legislature is likely to legalize recreational cannabis use soon and with it will come a host of unanswered questions for law enforcement, including what legally constitutes a DUI.

"I support funding additional police officer training that ensures adherence to the law and understanding of the complex issues of identifying risky behaviors and judging sobriety in the field.

"I will also support the repeal of the city's cannabis possession fine completely."

7. What are your thoughts on the growing number of high-rises near campus, and their impact on the look and feel of Campustown?

"The growth of Campustown is an economic boon for our city, but without responsible management of building development we may find ourselves in a ghost town in the next decade.

"Many high-rise structures built both on and off campus have been constructed with low-cost materials and are not designed to last. And especially in neighborhoods near campus, large multi-family buildings are eroding a sense of community and character that actually contributes to the local economy.

"I look forward to working with developers to ensure future projects are sustainable and maintain the character of their neighborhoods."

8. Do you worry about the loss of historic structures as this development expands?

"I do. The historic buildings in this community bring with them stories of the city of Champaign, and these stories compel people to live here.

"Maintaining the character of the city of Champaign is not only aesthetically pleasing, but has a direct impact on retaining residents, attracting new talent, and ultimately the strength of our local economy."

9. Given the recent Clark Park issue, how would you protect central Champaign neighborhoods that want to retain their character?

"Building strong neighborhoods like Clark Park is a considerable challenge, and it would be a tremendous loss to the city to see that community dissolve either through dispute or through loss of identity.

"I understand the fears and concerns of both sides of the debate around the conservation district, and I welcome the opportunity to work with community leaders from both sides to re-frame the issue in a way that protects the neighborhood from aggressive over-development while also protecting the common-sense rights of property owners."

10. Similarly, are you worried that developments on the fringe of town — i.e., Carle at the Fields — will simply draw retail, etc., away from downtown and central Champaign?

"I support zoning efforts that prioritize city in-fill over fringe development. We need to ensure that local businesses in the heart of the city are strong before we can rely on the health of businesses at the borders of town.

"In the 1960s, a new mall on the west edge of Champaign siphoned off business from downtown Champaign until the downtown area was a husk of its former self, depressing the economy city-wide. We have only just revitalized our city's core, and I would like to avoid repeating this mistake of the past."

11. Has the city done enough to award contracts to minority- and female-owned businesses? And, if not, what specifically would you propose?

"There are many ways in which the city should better support African Americans, LGBT+ citizens, citizens with disabilities and other minorities. I will not say the city has done enough to award contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses until we reach racial and gender parity.

"These contracts are one of the tools the city has to reduce the wealth gap and provide diverse business owners with opportunities to grow and become larger contributors to the whole community. The best way for this growth to happen is for council members to appoint minorities and women to oversee contract negotiation, and to interact regularly outside of the city building with members of those communities."

12. How significant an investment should Champaign make to try to lure back the IHSA boys' basketball tournament once its contract with Peoria expires in 2020?

"Athletics are a part of the character of a city, which directly contributes to economic development. But many large events look for government incentives, which are costly to taxpayers.

"I would analyze the negotiation of the IHSA boys' basketball tournament, as I would for any large event, from the perspective of whether it would have a positive impact on the culture and economy or simply drain valuable resources."

13. What's the thing or two you're proudest of about living in Champaign?

"Champaign is a city where you can learn to do anything and take a leadership role in it. I'm proud of the quality of life here for entrepreneurs, creators and volunteers who would struggle to find and sustain their voices elsewhere.

"And I hope to encourage more citizens to see needs in this community — whether in local politics, or the arts, or our desperate need for Ethiopian cuisine — and to fill them."

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