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Council hopefuls talk change

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) squared off Monday against two challengers, Green Party candidate Lynne Serpe and Populist Jerry Kann, on senior citizen services, development, graffiti and education during the sole debate in the race for his Astoria Council seat.

The three candidates answered anonymous questions from audience members at Astoria’s Riccardo’s by the Bridge in the mostly cordial debate. Vallone, who was first elected in 2001, touted his record in the Council, while Serpe emphasized environmental issues and Kann pushed for higher taxes on the city’s wealthier residents.

Serpe said the district’s abundance of seniors needed additional services, such as better access to transit and libraries.

“I’m calling for seven-day library service,” she said. “Seniors need online services where they can access Medicaid information.”

Vallone vowed to ensure that future development in Astoria would match the neighborhood’s character. He said he began the process several years ago for the massive rezoning of the community that will soon come to fruition.

“The rezoning will allow for new development, but not out of context,” he said. “The neighborhood hasn’t been rezoned since 1961. This will go a long way when it’s done.”

The candidates also discussed how they would combat graffiti in the community. Vallone, who is chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee and has long been an opponent of graffiti, said he has passed laws banning etching acid and increasing penalties against vandals.

Kann said the community could cut down on graffiti vandalism by providing youths with more activities.

“We could build a community center for youths,” he said. “It’s teenagers who do this stuff. You’ve got to give them the feeling that they have a future in the neighborhood.”

All three candidates said they would prioritize improvements to schools in the district.

“I’ve provided tons of money to keep arts in our schools,” Vallone said. “I think we push tests too much and I think the amount of homework for 8- and 9-year-olds is entirely too much.”

Kann said he would like for the city to create a teacher’s commission that would make decisions on city education.

“They know what’s going on better than everybody,” he said. “Only parents with children should be able to run the board and they’d be elected, not appointed.”

Serpe said she believes that parents of students do not have enough of a role in the way city schools are operated.

“I think there is an enormous amount we can do to teach kids how they can be good citizens of the world,” she said. “I think we need more parental involvement in public schools.”

Kann, who formerly ran against Vallone in 2001 and 2005 as a Green Party candidate but is on the Populist line this year, proposed raising income taxes on the city residents earning more than $500,000 per year amid the current economic downturn. He said he believed the city’s Democratic and Republican parties were “servicing rich people.”

“The richest man in town is buying the office of mayor,” he said of Michael Bloomberg’s bid for a third term. “We should not allow this. There is a ridiculously low level of unionization in this city and we need more democracy. We’ve got to get angry.”

Serpe, who is a community liaison for Long Island City’s nonprofit Community Environmental Center, said she would push environmental issues to the forefront as a Council member.

“Clean air, clean water and clean streets — these are not partisan issues,” she said. “They impact our health and quality of life. I’m nervous that we can’t afford four more years of the same. We can have a bright green future.”

Vallone said he would continue to prioritize the three issues on which he has run during his Council bids -— public safety, education and the environment — if elected for a third term.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “There are less police than in the 1990s, our schools could be better and power plants are still trying to come into our neighborhood.”

District 22 covers Astoria, Rikers Island and sections of Long Island City and Jackson Heights.

The debate was hosted by the Queens Gazette.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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