Following Corey O’Connor’s appointment to the post of Allegheny County controller, a special election for Pittsburgh’s District 5 City Council seat is set for November. So far, two candidates have tossed their hats into the race: Greenfield community advocate Barb Warwick and Squirrel Hill’s Doug Shields, who represented District 5 before O’Connor.
District 5 encompasses nine neighborhoods, including Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, Hazelwood, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Regent Square, Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park.
Warwick spoke with the Chronicle about a variety of topics, from policing to traffic calming to gun violence.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
I think that what we really need on city council right now is community voices. I’ve been very active in my community in Greenfield and Hazelwood over the past years. I really have my ear to the ground on what’s going on in the community, what people need and what they’re looking for out of their city councilperson.
What would be your first priorities if you join City Council?
The top things that I’m the most interested in is, one, traffic calming throughout the district.
Another area of interest for me is out-of-school activities. I would like to see programs that have ended since COVID [started up again], for example the after-school care at Magee Rec Center in Greenfield. I’d like to see the after-school program at the Burgwin Rec Center in Hazelwood resume, which is currently managed on a purely volunteer basis by the community. I would like to see that funded so that those community members don’t have to donate their time in order for the kids in the neighborhood to have a safe place to go after school.
You recently put out a statement praising the County Council for banning fracking in county parks. What else can a council member do to help further environmental goals?
I, myself and my community, spent six years fighting the Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle road, which was going to be built through Schenley Park, through a public park. I would love to see some type of legislation put forward to ensure that our public parks are protected and that we are not building new roads for vehicle traffic through our public parks, preserving those parks for recreation.
You volunteered for Ed Gainey, Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians. Do you generally align yourself with the new progressive movement in Pittsburgh?
Yes, I do. I think it’s very exciting. I think that over the years Pittsburgh has developed sort of an entrenched political network. That’s not to say that everyone who is part of that network is somehow bad. But it is important if we want to get community voices to elevate those voices. It’s important to get new fresh faces that are more focused on the community needs than we have seen certainly with the past mayoral administration.
Councilmember O’Connor had good relationships with the district’s Jewish community. Is there anything specific that you’d want to do to continue this priority?
One thing that is really great right now is that the Yeshiva Schools are moving into the former St. Rosalia in Greenfield. I think that is an incredible opportunity to sort of connect these groups and these communities together. Again, this is not something that is finalized, but since pre-pandemic, I have been working with some of the members of the Greenfield School PTO on fundraising for a playground at Greenfield School. Because the Yeshiva school [at former St. Rosalia’s] would be right next to Greenfield School — there’s a fence separating the two — it would be really wonderful to see that playground operate as a shared space for the two schools in order to bring those two communities together.
Would you support trying to revisit local gun control laws on the City Council, even with them being struck down by the state courts?
Yeah, I mean, [the courts] are sort of a roadblock that goes beyond the purview of council. But I do believe that it’s worth continuing to try to find new ways to keep our community safe. Gun violence obviously has affected in a major way the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, but it’s also affecting other communities all around. I think, beyond legislating gun control, there are other ways that communities can work together and internally to try and mitigate these issues. For example, I saw the article [that ran in the Chronicle] about the self-defense training at the JCC. That’s a great way to address the issue within the Jewish community. There are other ways, too. Perhaps in other communities where the violence is more youth-oriented, [we need] to bring the youth together, connecting with them in a real and meaningful way through local community groups in order to talk about the root causes of the violence, and get the perspective of the young people who are so deeply affected.
The key with so much of what we’re trying to do is that the solutions need to be community-based as well. We can’t come in and impose a solution on everyone. It’s not going to work that way. But in order for communities to enact the changes that they want to see, they need that support from the mayor’s office, right, like [Gainey’s] Plan for Peace, but also lower down at the council level. The individual solutions are brought from the communities up, so then you have the support going in both directions to actually ensure that those solutions are effective.
In your issues page, you talk briefly about policing and where that intersects with policy. How do you think policing should look in Pittsburgh?
When we talk about policing, it’s very important for us to remember that one in five of our budget dollars is going toward law enforcement. That’s a huge number, [but] bumper sticker solutions are not effective. Something that the City Council is doing right now is an audit of the police force, to go in and really look at the day-to-day operations right within Pittsburgh Police to see if there are ways that the resources can be used more efficiently or more effectively. I don’t see a place where we can actually spend more than what we’re spending now. You can’t just throw money at the problem. There’s that side of things in terms of the efficiency of the police force, but then also improving trust and building trust within the communities. The way that that looks needs to be defined by the communities themselves.
I was talking about how one in five budget dollars is being spent on law enforcement and how we need to evaluate how the department is operating. I think it’s also important to underscore that right now we are asking so much of our law enforcement officers. We’re asking them to do all things, address all problems. They don’t necessarily have the training or expertise, for example, to deal with mental health crises. I am fully on board with this overall approach from the mayor, to begin looking at public safety in terms of public health and seeing if there are ways that we can use those budget dollars to take some of the workload off of our officers. By bringing in social workers or other types of experts, we can make sure that every call is addressed by the appropriate person in order to have the best resolution to whatever crisis is going on.
Is there anything you’d want to see the council emphasize or improve on?
I would like to improve access to the councilperson’s office. I think that the lion’s share of the daily grind of being a councilperson is fielding constituent issues, whether it’s those traffic calming issues or something with the retaining wall in the back, whatever it may be, the issues that people come forward with.
I think that historically there is a disconnect. If you know someone or you’re on the committee or say you went to high school with someone, it’s easier to get in touch, right? Maybe you have a different expertise than somebody who just got here as a renter or maybe doesn’t have those same connections. My top priority when it comes to community engagement is that I work for the people. If you call my office, if you send me an email, you’re going to get a meaningful response and follow-up. That’s not to say I’m going to be able to solve every single problem. But navigating the city is difficult for anybody. There are ways that city council can help constituents get to the services and get the help that they need,
Is there anything else you’d want to add?
One of the top reasons that I got involved in the race in the first place is one of the largest developments in the county is going up right in my front yard and Hazelwood’s front yard with Hazelwood Green. This has the potential to be an outstanding development; it’s right on the river, it could be beautiful. One of the nice things about it, too, is that when we think of development, we often think of things being torn down in order to build the new. That’s not the case here, which is green. This is pure, pure Greenfield.
That said, I do want to make sure that the Hazelwood Green development delivers on its promise to improve quality of life in Hazelwood and does not fall into the same sort of gentrification situation that we have seen in East Liberty, in Homestead, with other developments around the city. Even with the best intentions, there’s going to be times where the needs of the development come into conflict with what’s good for the community. It is going to be critical over the next five to 10 years that we have somebody in that City Council that is an independent voice and [can] speak out and advocate for the community in terms of how that development is going to move forward. PJC
Ethan Beck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.