VIDEO: Experience or change? District 8 candidates square off in debate

The two candidates hoping to represent District 8 on the City Council discussed housing policies, police reform and how to bolster the local economy during a debate Thursday night hosted by local media outlets.

Councilman Al Austin, 51, who is seeking his third term, said the city needs experience at this perilous moment: “People want knowledgeable leadership.”

His challenger Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, 45, an economic development director, said the district is ready for change: “The kind of leadership we need is innovative, ready to go and is already part of change here in LA County.”

District 8 includes parts of North Long Beach and Bixby Knolls.

The March 3 primary was a close race: Thrash-Ntuk claimed 38% of the vote to Austin’s 32%. A third candidate, Juan Ovalle, earned 30% of the vote, according to the official tally.

Thrash-Ntuk said she is disappointed that the current City Council has not prioritized homelessness with a comprehensive plan. She wants to create a “chief of housing,” similar to the chief of police and fire, and create a command center where we are “going to go out on streets, understand who is there and why they are there.”

“Homelessness is the top of my agenda,” she said, “to make sure no family is without a home.”

Austin said the city already has a housing czar—”you can call it whatever you want”—and said the city is leading on homelessness. The job is part of the duties of the deputy city manager.

Austin also touted his five years experience on the city’s Budget Oversight Committee in tackling Long Beach’s significant economic issues that lie ahead due to the COVID-19 health pandemic.

The city, he said, is doing a lot to help small businesses through grants, loans and other resources, advocacy for federal and state money, and adjusting city rules, such as opening public spaces for restaurants who must serve outdoors.

“We need to be innovative and creative, and we need to be resilient as a city,” Austin said.

Thrash-Ntuk unleashed her sharpest attack against on Austin on the subject of police reform, saying he cannot make independent decisions because he has taken “tens of thousands of dollars” from the Police Officers Association, the union that represents police. (A Post analysis found all nine current councilmembers have taken donations from the POA; Austin has received roughly $38,000 over the past five years.)

“We have to build back trust,” she said, adding that she has been pulled over by police in Bixby Knolls and asked whether she lives there. “We have to elect someone who is willing to speak out, and has the true independence to be able to ask those hard questions.”

Austin said he and the council have worked hard for significant change—and the police department has responded by banning use of controversial methods of subduing suspects and using less force. (Between 2016 and 2018, the number of times officers used force indeed dropped from around 500 instances in 2016 to 383 in 2018, according to statistics from the department.)

“We’ve had our tough times in the city of Long Beach, and we’ve learned our lessons,” he said.

Watch the full debate here:

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.