Decatur forum combines commission and school board candidates
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
Four city of Decatur commission candidates and three Decatur school board candidates took the stage Sunday afternoon at the last candidate forum of the season before elections on Tuesday, November 3.
The Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association hosted Commissioner Scott Drake and challenger Eric Tumperi (District 1 Post B), James Johnson (District 2 Post B), John Ridley (At Large), and CSD candidates Board Chair Garrett Goebel (District 1 Post B) and Thomas DeSimone and Tasha White (District 2 Post B). The event took place in the sanctuary of The Church at Decatur Heights.
Organizers explained that at large commission candidate Tony Powers was away on a business trip, while Brian Smith, Candidate for District 2 Post B, had a prior campaign event. Commission candidate Valencia Breedlove did not respond to the invitation to the forum, according to organizers.
Bill Banks, Decaturish contributor and AJC reporter, moderated the debate, asking candidates the recently popular questions about annexation and greenspace, but also asking them more unusual questions such their 10-year vision for Decatur and their views on additional festivals and events to bring to the city.
All of the candidates were asked about the sometimes-contentious relationship between the school board and the commission. Banks asked candidates for suggestions to improve the working relationship between the two as a CSD new superintendent comes in.
Drake said historically there had been some challenges, but he didn’t feel the relationship was difficult currently. “The best thing we can do is meet more often and meet when there is not a hot topic going on,” Drake said.
“I’m not very interested in looking backward at bad history,” CSD Board Chair Goebel said. “In my time on the board, the relationship between the city and schools has been improving steadily. …We’ve been having joint meetings, and we need to have more of those.”
At large candidate Ridley said he was encouraged by the quality of the school board, but said CSD isn’t in the land planning business or zoning business – those are city responsibilities. “My issue is there really is a lot the city can do and hasn’t done that needs to be addressed,” Ridley said.
When asked about challenges incoming superintendent David Dude will face, Board of Education candidates DeSimone and White were both supportive of Dude’s hiring.
“One of the challenges he is going to encounter is the unique structure of working in a charter system school where each of the individual schools within that district have their own school leadership teams,” DeSimone said. “Additionally, the expansion, and I’m crossing my fingers the GO bond does pass. Just navigating that project is going to be a substantial investment of time and effort.”
“Growth is going to be his no. 1 problem that he’s going to have to deal with when he starts on Nov. 1,” White said. “So if the bond does pass, there will be a lot of oversight in making sure that the plans are executed in the way that they’ve been presented to the community. And if the bond does not pass, everyone is going to have to roll their sleeves up and sit down and come up with alternatives so that we can address the growth issue.”
Banks’ last question had to do with Decatur being a city of festivals. He cited commission candidate Johnson’s mention in a previous forum that he wanted people to get off the plane and head to Decatur as a destination. Banks asked the candidates what was the next best idea for Decatur.
“I think a lot of people like to drink and get out and have fun and shake hands and talk to neighbors,” Johnson said. “Anything that gets people outside and drinking is good. More of that.”
Tumperi said his vision included Decatur becoming a downtown walkable mall like that in Charlottesville, Virginia. He suggested closing some streets and creating more parking decks around the city. “Right now, I don’t come to downtown Decatur sometimes, because I don’t know where to park,” he said. “It’s become a big problem, and it’s hitting the retailers, so we have to solve that problem.”
Commissioner Drake cited the recent Oakhurst Porchfest and called for more neighborhood-driven events, while DeSimone said he liked the idea of parades and all-day community events, having lived in New Orleans.
Ridley suggested reserving the United Methodist’s Children’s Home for greenspace and creating a world-class music facility on the land.
White suggested a local artists’ market like one she’s visited in Charleston, South Carolina, while Goebel proposed listening to citizens for great ideas to create community as the city grows.
The forum was unlike previous forums in which candidates listened to citizens’ concerns or moderators presented audience questions in addition to their own. Banks presented all of the questions and directed them to either the commission candidates, the school board candidates, or all seven on stage. Candidates received two minutes to answer. Each gave an introduction and a closing speech.
Advance voting is in progress and continues through Friday, October 30 at the Memorial Drive Complex.
If you prefer to vote on Nov. 3, you can get your polling location and sample ballot by visiting the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter page.