Mannion town hall

John Mannion, Democratic candidate for the 50th Senate District seat, answers questions during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Camillus. 

CAMILLUS — At a town hall meeting Tuesday, John Mannion sought to make connections with 50th Senate District voters he hopes to represent. 

Mannion, D-Westvale, answered questions for 45 minutes at the Maxwell Memorial Library in Camillus. It was the first of five town hall meetings he plans to hold in as many weeks. The first gathering drew nearly 30 people.

The question-and-answer phase of the forum opened with an inquiry about his position on charter schools and teacher evaluations. While he believes charter schools were originally an innovative idea, he questioned why public funds are given to the schools when they don’t have to abide by the same guidelines.

As a biology teacher at West Genesee High School in Camillus, Mannion is familiar with the current teacher evaluation system. He believes state testing, which is main part of how teachers are evaluated, is flawed.

There is a bill in the state Legislature that received bipartisan support and would alter the existing teacher evaluation system by allowing for local control. It would prevent state tests from being used in the evaluation of teachers. The measure passed the state Assembly, but didn’t receive a vote in the state Senate.

“The tests need to change and the evaluation system needs to change,” Mannion said.

There were multiple questions about water quality during the town hall meeting. Harmful algal blooms have been spotted in Owasco and Skaneateles lakes, both of which provide drinking water to Auburn, Syracuse and other municipalities within the 50th district.

To address the problem, the state has allocated $65 million for the development of plans to combat algal blooms on lakes throughout New York. But Mannion believes more should be done to protect the lakes, especially here in central New York. He supports a comprehensive plan that would include an educational component, more state funding and greater coordination with other communities working to eliminate algal blooms.

“We have to do better,” he said. “It’s our drinking water. It’s our greatest resource.”

Mannion reiterated his support of a community grid to replacing the existing Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse. There has been much debate in the region about the project because of the pros and cons of each proposal.

The community grid would utilize the street system in the city and remove the elevated highway. Interstate 481 would be used for through traffic, such as large trucks and motorists traveling north on I-81.

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Mannion acknowledged that there are other alternatives for the project. The viaduct could be rebuilt and reconfigured. A tunnel combined with a community grid is a possibility. But both would cost more than the community grid on its own. The grid would cost an estimated $1.3 billion. Rebuilding the viaduct would cost at least $1.7 billion. The hybrid tunnel-grid option would exceed $3 billion.

The tunnel option was initially eliminated from consideration because the state determined it wasn’t feasible. But after another study was completed, the hybrid option will be included in the options that the state Department of Transportation considers. Mannion believes that decision is “irresponsible” due to the maintenance the tunnel would require, the infrastructure it would affect and the city’s high water table.

The community grid, he argued, could spur economic development and help connect the downtown area to University Hill.

“The grid is not a boulevard,” he said. “The grid is a more comprehensive plan that can improve access to those areas.”

Mannion concluded the town hall meeting with an outline of his five-point ethics reform agenda. He wants to ban outside income for state lawmakers and end what’s known as the “LLC loophole,” which allows wealthy individuals to create multiple limited liability corporations that can donate to candidates. He also supports limits on donations from “soft money” campaign committees.

He endorsed legislation that would restore the state comptroller’s authority to oversee certain state economic development projects. And he supports establishing a “truly independent” redistricting commission.

He also believes there should be term limits for state lawmakers. There isn’t a cap on how long a legislator can serve in the Assembly or Senate. For state senators, he supports imposing a limit of seven terms, or 14 years.

Mannion’s ethics reform plan builds on one of his core beliefs — that there needs to be more “common people” in the state Legislature. If that happens, he believes that it may help restore faith in government.

“I think there’s less of it than it’s ever been,” he said. “That’s why I think we need regular people … We need people to come in, serve and then pass the torch onto the next folks.”

Mannion is vying for the 50th district seat against Republican nominee Bob Antonacci, the longtime Onondaga County comptroller. They are hoping to succeed state Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Republican who has served in the state Senate since 1993.

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.