(AUDIO) Decatur commission candidates talk annexation, greenspace at forum
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
Seven Decatur City Commission candidates took the stage at a forum Monday evening at the Decatur Public Library.
The forum topics focused on issues currently affecting downtown Decatur like development, annexation, greenspace, and the upcoming GO bond referendum.
The forum was hosted by Downtown Decatur Neighbors (DDN). The group describes itself as encompassing downtown condos, apartments, and single family homes. Its main goal “is to ensure that quality of life issues, specifically those of relevance to downtown residents, are identified and addressed as our city continues to undergo rapid change and development,” according to the website.
Candidates were asked to give opening statements introducing themselves, and then they spent the rest of the time answering questions presented by DDN president George Dusenbury, before giving closing statements.
First question off the bat: the DDN wanted to know how candidates felt about creating a master plan for downtown Decatur as more condos, apartments, and other developments come in. All of the candidates were in favor of creating a master plan that included greenspace and looked toward the future of the city.
The seven candidates were also asked whether they would be voting on the $75 million school bond referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. All said they would vote yes, though they had different ideas about spending the money.
But the consensus ended when the topic of annexation came up.
“I definitely believe we need to consider situations of how we or should we annex,” Valencia Monique Breedlove, Candidate for District 1 Post (B) said.
“Annexation – in my opinion a lot’s going to be determined once the cityhood vote happens in November,” said Commissioner Scott Drake, who is running again for District 1 Post (B). “Annexation when we were working on it last year, we saw the pros and cons of it. There were a lot more pros that we found that were valuable than negatives. …I’m not afraid of building our brand and making our city a little bigger.”
“I’m against it,” said James M. Johnson, Candidate for District 2 Post (B). “Annexation is a crutch. It’s a way not to plan. When you have this rolling process, it’s basically saying I don’t want to make a decision now.”
“Annexation is a process,” said Tony Powers, At Large Candidate. “Yes we talk about it. We like to hear that we have opportunities for annexation. Unfortunately, we only drive a small portion of that. There’s a much bigger piece that is also controlled by the state legislature and until we have a strong voice that can champion that cause, we can plan for annexation, but it’s driven by a much higher level.”
Eric Tumperi, District 1 Post (B) Candidate, said more cooperation is needed with the school system in order to annex carefully and not create an influx of new students overnight.
And John P. Ridley, At Large Candidate, said that annexation is a solution to expanding the tax base in the city.
Brian Smith, District 2 (B) Candidate, had to leave early for a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, so he was not present to answer the question. However, in a candidate Q&A with Decaturish, he said of the city and school system working together, “Our City and school system will keep growing, and now is the time to address that growth in a coordinated way.”
Gentrification and creating affordable housing was another question put to the candidates.
“We need to buy in from everyone who says yes, we want affordable housing,” said Powers. “The way to attack that is to make sure our neighbors are comfortable with what that means. Diversity is not just something we talk about.”
Breedlove spoke from personal experience, noting that when she moved to Decatur, she moved into an apartment. “I would love to be able to afford something in the city of Decatur,” Breedlove said. “At this point, I can’t. But I would love to make sure that we get at the table, talk about it, and come up with a plan.”
Tumperi said planning for future growth and annexation will both play a part.
“If we do annexation right and don’t bomb the school system in the process, we’ll acquire residential housing not like the high-priced housing in Decatur. We’ll bring in new communities to the neighborhood,” Tumperi said.
“We are not going to solve diversity issue until we deal with the core issue that our financial structure can’t sustain the existing situation,” Ridley said. “We’ve got to make some changes. That will help us deal with things like diversity and the tax burden.”
The forum wasn’t all serious. During closing statements, candidate Johnson elicited laughs with an observation about the other candidates who had been listing their work and time in the city. After Powers finished his statement, talking about his previous experience in the city, Johnson spoke.
“I have to react to something Tony just said. One of the reasons I decided to do this was because I’ve lived here for nine years, and I get the sense that city politics is run by the same 10 people. … the planning committee, the board of something appeals. You see a couple of leadership/neighborhood groups,” Johnson said.
The audience started to laugh.
“Brian Smith, my opponent, that is what he hyped –‘I’ve done all those things, I’ve checked the boxes, now it’s my time,’ and that’s bullshit,” Johnson said. “I have as much influence here as anybody else, and you guys do too! I probably don’t have a great shot at winning, but I’ve got some ideas.”
At this point, the audience erupted.
“Maybe next time you guys will say, you know what, ‘I haven’t sat on the planning committee, I haven’t sat on the board of zoning appeals, I’ve got some ideas, and maybe I need to run!’ And I hope you do that because it’s fun,” Johnson said, ending his statement.
Dusenbury cautioned him that there were children in the audience and tried to calm the crowd down.
Commissioner Drake, who was supposed to give his closing statement, quipped, “How do you follow that?”
Listen: Here is the full audio from the Oct. 12 forum.
Though the municipal elections are set for November 3, early voting began this week. Monday’s forum is one of several on the calendar. Here are the remaining Decatur forums:
– Winnona Park Neighborhood Forum, Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. at Winnona Park Elementary School, 510 Avery St, Decatur, GA 30030
– Oakhurst Presbyterian Forum, Sunday, Oct. 18, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Oakhurst Presbyterian, located at 118 Second Ave NE, Decatur, GA 30030
– Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association Forum, Sunday, Oct. 25, from 3 to 5 p.m. in the sanctuary of The Church at Decatur Heights. The church is located at 735 Sycamore Dr., Decatur, GA.