At a forum for candidates running in the upcoming May primary election, incumbent District 9 City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess squared off against his two competitors, the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsed candidate Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell and Lucille Prater-Holliday, the president of non-profit group Action United, formerly known as ACORN.

BURDEN OF PROOF—Candidates Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell, right; and Lucille Prater-Holiday, left, challenged incumbent City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess’ record. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

The candidates at the forum hosted by the Western Pennsylvania Black Political Assembly, tackled issues confronting the city’s struggling district 9 neighborhoods. Primary among them was the issue of Black-on-Black violence and it’s connection to economic development and youth recreation.

“We have to get the homicide rate down in our community,” Burgess said. “We have to have the public directly involved in the decision making in terms of how government spends our money.”

As the incumbent, Bur­gess was tasked with proving what he has done for his district during his first term. His challengers were especially critical of Bur­gess’ handling of his district’s Community Development Block Grants, which have been placed in the hands of the POISE foundation.

Both candidates said the fate of these funds should be put in the hands of the people. Burgess said the reason his CDBG funds are allocated by the POISE foundation is because he wants to ensure there is no favoritism.

“Anyone who lives in the council district or who works in the council district is eligible to apply,” Burgess said. “We’ll continue to give money based on the need in my district not based on my political friends.”

The challengers also criticized Burgess’ Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, which was originally brought to Pittsburgh by David Kennedy, a Harvard professor. Prater-Holliday said Burgess should have consulted local anti-violence groups such as One Vision One Life and the Community Empowerment Association, as opposed to consulting an outside source.

“There were organizations already in this city who were working on this issue. Why someone would need to be brought in and paid $100,000 is beyond me,” Prater-Holliday said. “I don’t see how threatening these people is going to change their behavior.”

Both candidates disproved of the program’s tactic of threatening gang members with jail time if they don’t reform their violent behavior. They said they’d like to see a greater emphasis on providing violent offenders with positive alternatives.

“What we need to do is educate them and work with them,” Copeland-Mitchell said. “I’ve seen many people’s lives turned around with that help.”

Providing social services to gang members identified through PIRC is a large component of the program. In fact the city received $100,000 from local entre­pre­neur and former Pittsburgh Steeler Chuck Sanders for this very purpose.

“In a few months you’ll have a report that will tell you whether or not PIRC has worked,” Burgess said. “It’s been fully functional for six or seven months. It’s going to take one to two years to see the full picture. I do believe it will work. “

The District 9 candidates were joined on the panel by incumbent council representatives Darlene Harris, district 1, and Patrick Dowd, district 7. Of the five candidates, only Copeland-Mitchell, a relative newcomer in the political realm, received the Democratic Committee’s endorsement.

“Politics is new to me, but I am a concerned citizen just like the rest of you,” Copeland-Mitchell said.

However, in an effort to minimize the importance of the party endorsement, the remaining candidates all said what really matters is being endorsed by the people.

“I personally did not seek the endorsement because I wanted to take it straight to the voters,” Prater-Holliday said. “The endorsement costs $1250 and I thought that money could be better spent somewhere else.”

The 9th Council District includes most of East Liberty, Homewood, East Hills, parts of Garfield, Lincoln Lemington, Larimer, Belmar Gardens, parts of North Point Breeze, and parts of Friendship.

The forum was also hosted in part by the Black Political Empowerment Project, The Alleghenians LTD, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, A Phillip Randolph Institute, and The Institute of the Black World.

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