Takeaways from the Oklahoma City Ward 5 city council debate
Homelessness, public transportation and the Oklahoma City Thunder were among many topics debated Thursday night between four city council candidates vying for an open seat in southwest OKC.
The seat, held for nearly 12 years by retired accountant and professor David Greenwell, is headed for a primary election Feb. 14 for residents of Oklahoma City's Ward 5.
The four candidates attended a debate — hosted by NonDoc Media at Oklahoma City Community College Thursday night — that remained civil, even when discussing the councilman they each hope to replace.
On the ballot are Jeff Owen, a 56-year-old nurse practitioner; Audra Beasley, 44, a paralegal; Thuan Nguyen, a 46-year-old insurance CEO; and Matt Hinkle, 60, who is the ward's planning commissioner and general manager of Tyler Media's Outdoor Advertising.
Not sure if you live in OKC's Ward 5? Check here and meet your city council candidates
If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary, the top two candidates will move on to an April runoff.
Here are five key takeaways for those that missed the debate. You can also find a recording of the debate on the NonDoc website.
1. Candidates see homelessness as biggest issue facing Ward 5 and OKC
When knocking doors, the candidates say the number one problem constituents brought up is Oklahoma City's homeless population. When moderator Tres Savage asked for ideas on solutions, answers varied.
Beasley said the fee for getting a new state-issued ID should be removed for the unhoused like it is for senior citizens, though this would be a state level issue.
Nguyen suggested increasing street outreach efforts to connect the unhoused with services and housing.
Most unhoused people struggle with mental health or substance abuse, Owen said. Decreasing homelessness requires collaboration with the police department to provide intervention and get people the help they need to get out of addiction.
"Remove them from the situation, get them the treatment that they need, and then from there, start working to help them rebuild their lives one step at a time," Owen said.
Hinkle, on the other hand, said people should be housed first. Hinkle also said he would support a move to allow accessory dwelling units in Oklahoma City, as it could be a step towards more affordable housing.
"Infill development of Oklahoma City is crucial to solving our housing crisis," Hinkle said. "There are lots of applications that come in front of the planning commission for ... people maximizing their space and turning their garages into apartments to rent and I've never been against that."
The 2022 point-in-time count of Oklahoma City's homeless population was 1,339, a decrease from the 2020 count of 1,573. The city did not perform a count in 2021 due to the pandemic.
MAPS 4, a program that reinvests money collected through a citywide one-cent sales tax, has earmarked $50 million for "truly affordable housing," which will work in tandem with around $400 million in funding from other sources.
Oklahoma City Council elections:Check OKC ward map, where to vote and more
2. Candidates say Ward 5 doesn't 'get its fair share' of investments from the city
When asked if the city government is investing equitably across its 621 square miles, each was adamant that their southwest ward doesn't "get its fair share," as Hinkle put it.
Candidates were specifically concerned about its share of MAPS 4. Nguyen, who serves on the MAPS 4 Connectivity subcommittee, said he's disappointed the ward is only getting seven new bus shelters. Four of the city's 20 bus routes, routes 12, 13, 16 and 40, venture into the ward's boundaries and only go as far south as 104th.
However, MAPS 4 is funding a bus rapid transit route for south Oklahoma City that could find its way into Ward 5. The sales tax funded improvement plan will also build a new park in the ward, improve several neighborhood parks and add trails and sidewalks. Some MAPS 4 projects benefit the entire city, like the Palomar Family Justice Center, mental health and addiction services, affordable housing, animal shelter and the diversion hub.
Owen said he'd like to see an equal amount of MAPS money allocated to each ward, and let voters decide where their money goes. It could go to projects within their own boundaries or they could choose a project elsewhere, he said. Beasley said she liked this idea.
"Ward 5 has been forgotten by city council for too long," said Owen, who has lived in the ward for 20 years.
Hinkle said in the city's five-year capital improvement plan, the ward is only getting five out of 123 road resurfacing projects.
"We've got roads in far south Oklahoma City that are dangerous to the neighbors that try to navigate them, that are major connecting roads," Hinkle said. "We do not get adequate dollars to take care of those things because they're spent elsewhere in the city."
3. More bike and pedestrian friendly roads needed, but ward must be smart about placement
The southside ward is one not easily accessed by biking or walking, and candidates said when making its roads more bike and pedestrian friendly, safety should be a number once concern.
Nguyen said Walker Avenue could be a good spot to try a "road diet," as Savage put it, or reducing the number of car lanes and adding bike lanes.
Hinkle said he doesn't want to add more bike lanes just to say there's more bike lanes.
"I would be more enthused if bike lanes were connected to trails, which connected to other trails, which got you where you need to go," Hinkle said. "Right now we're going to run a bike lane down south east 59th street in that industrial area, and it's going to be semi trucks versus bicycles."
4. Candidates differ on need for more public transportation in the ward, but all agree the Streetcar was a bad investment
Oklahoma City's public transportation provider, EMBARK, does not cover south Oklahoma City like it should, Hinkle said. Though, he said he understands that it's hard to add more stops or shelters when the ridership isn't justifying it.
Nguyen, however, said the ridership isn't there because the routes provide such little access.
"I've had to ride the bus once because my car broke down," Nguyen said. "I couldn't get (home) from the bus stop, I had to walk three miles from my house."
After discussing public transit, the candidates were asked by a show of hands if the OKC Streetcar was a good investment and if it should be expanded. None raised their hands.
5. Candidates love the OKC Thunder, but some think money should go to more pressing needs than new arena
Mayor David Holt proposed the idea last summer that the city hold off on MAPS 4 funds previously earmarked for Paycom Center upgrades, in favor of a possible public-private financing deal to build the Oklahoma City Thunder a new arena.
Beasley said the owners of the Thunder should have enough money to build the arena without help from the city.
Owen said he feels the city has more pressing needs it should be spending tax dollars on.
"There's other things that are higher priority," Owen said. "Taking care of the streets, taking care of the homeless situation. How can we justify paying for that with all the social issues that we have going on?"
Considering the notoriety the Thunder has brought to OKC, and the sales tax revenue the city brings in from home games, Hinkle said the Thunder needs to stay in Oklahoma City "as long as feasible."
"If I'm elected, I will do everything in my power to make sure that the Thunder stays in Oklahoma City," Hinkle said.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC City Council Ward 5 election candidates debate issues