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Swirsky gets jump on ward business

1/2/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Rich Swirsky
WEST AKRON — Rich Swirsky was sworn in as the new Ward 1 member of Akron City Council last month, but he said he began serving constituents before he took the oath of office.

The Highland Square resident said he has been hearing from people with concerns in his ward for several months.

“The night I was elected in the primary, somebody emailed me about prostitution in their neighborhood, and I went out and met with her,” Swirsky said. “I started assuming the role of Councilperson even while I was campaigning. People would ask me things or point out things to me, and I would call [the Office of] Neighborhood Assistance to make sure graffiti got cleaned up, swings were fixed at a playground and sidewalks repaired.”

The concept of service is just something that’s important to him, Swirsky explained.

“It’s part of my value system and consistent with my faith,” he said. “Connecting yourself with the community is something that’s expected of you and that I expect of myself.”

The Cleveland Heights native, 60, has made Akron his home for the past 30 years. Swirsky said he lived in North Hill for a few years before moving to Highland Square. He and his wife, Rebecca, are the parents of two grown children, Sarah and David, both Firestone High School graduates.

After earning his degree in political science from Ohio University, Swirsky worked for 20 years for Ohio Citizen Action, a community organization that focuses on environmental issues. After that, he entered the field of education, earning a master’s degree from The University of Akron in 2005.

“I had worked at a policy level and community level to help people, and I wanted to change my emphasis to work more closely with individuals and with young people,” Swirsky said. “I had been volunteering a lot with young people, coaching and running nature programs, and I sort of found I had the knack for relating to young people.”

For the past eight years, he’s worked for the Akron Public Schools. Currently, he is a reading teacher working with ninth- and 10th-grade Firestone students who need help with their reading skills.

As Councilman, Swirsky represents the newly drawn Ward 1, which was created when the city was redistricted following the last U.S. Census. The ward stretches from Merriman Woods and Highland Square south to Downtown Akron and The University of Akron area. The redrawn ward boundaries meant that former Ward 1 Councilman James Hurley was now a resident of the newly drawn Ward 2, which left the new Ward 1 open to a new Council member.

Swirsky was one of five to run in the Democratic Primary Election. He earned the most votes, with 46 percent, over Robin Green, with 20 percent; Chuck Heimbaugh, with 18 percent; Derrick Hall, with 9 percent; and John Bryan, with 7 percent. In the Nov. 5 General Election, he was challenged by Republican Anthony Karam. Swirsky received 75 percent of the votes.

Swirsky said the No. 1 concern among Ward 1 residents that he heard during his campaigns was crime.

“The answers are at the grassroots level and strength through block watches and neighborhood organizations that address crime,” he said. “The community policing program is good but could be expanded. The more we can get police walking on the streets and talking to neighbors and more accessible and at the right times of day and in the right locations, we can have more effective policing.”

He added he believes the Akron Police Department’s recent decision to not respond to all alarm calls due to the high incidence of false alarms is a positive step.

“It will free police up to address more problems than the false alarms,” he said.

Swirsky said he thinks his skills and personality lend themselves to him becoming an effective Councilman.

“I can be very persistent,” he said. “I can combine patience, persistence and a sense of humor.”

An active Democrat, Swirsky said so far he has a lot of respect for his fellow City Council members, also all Democrats, and the city’s administration.

“I’ve been impressed with the leadership in the Council and the seriousness and conscientiousness of all the Council members,” he said. “I plan to work collaboratively with all the members of Council and with the mayor.”

He notes he’s also happy to see the city continuing to work on the combined sewer overflow issue by seeking an opportunity to develop and enter into an Integrated Plan with the Environmental Protection Agency, which would allow more options to cities, including using “green solutions” with rates more affordable to ratepayers.

“The door is open for more green infrastructure, so I’m elated we’re getting ahold of a big change of direction which will mean lower sewer rates and greener practices,” he said.

As for Ward 1’s Highland Square, Swirsky is also hopeful that changes taking place in that neighborhood will lead to bigger and better things.

“It’s very exciting because we have a library that has a new building, the Mustard Seed coming in, we have a theater, and we have a number of small restaurants and services,” he said. “What would be nice is to see a cooperative arts center. I’m working with a group of people now exploring that possibility. We also have a lot of people in our community that are artists, so it’s only fitting we provide some sort of support and space for artists in our community.”

He added the ward is full of talented people, and he hopes to get many of them involved in the community.

“Overall, this is a very diverse ward with a lot of community-minded people with talents and abilities, and they are often willing to contribute,” he said. “I’ll be taking my community organizing skills to connect them and assist them in an agenda that benefits the whole community.”

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