Special election today

By Trina Trice

The time has come to decide who'll fill the vacant seat on the Clayton County Board of Education and will become the county's next probate court judge.

Voters will also decide whether they want to pay another penny sales tax for a variety of road and recreational improvements.

Today is the special election and registered voters can expect the day to be warm and sunny, weather forecasters say.

With 112,402 registered voters in the county, a low turnout is expected despite the good weather, said Ann Smith, deputy Election superintendent.

"The turnout for special elections is historically less than a general election," Smith said.

Candidates for the school board seat are Natisha Lee, 27, a cashier at Wal-Mart, and Allen Johnson, 73, a retired Clayton County school administrator.

Sue Ryan resigned from the school board in March after serving only three months of her four-year term.

Since her departure the school board has been divided. With eight months of controversy the election of the ninth board member is seen by many as critical for the future of the district, especially with the selection of a superintendent and getting the school system off of probation being important issues the board must resolve.

When asked why they are running for the school board, Lee said, "I heard a lot about the school being on probation. I just want to work as a team on the school board. I'm looking to make Clayton County Schools better for the children.

"A lot of people are saying I'm not qualified, but it's not about being qualified. It's about getting the job done. I'm not saying that I'd be the best person on the board, but I'd be there to help."

Johnson, who has garnered support from the Clayton County Educators Association, and Barbara Halstead, a former school board candidate that dropped out, said he wants to reinstate "the integrity of the Clayton County Board of Education and the Clayton County school system, and provide leadership which is so profoundly lacking."

Because the seat represents school District 8, only voters in that district can vote for the candidates. There are 18,005 registered voters in the district.

District 8 is in northeastern Clayton County, and includes parts of Morrow, Forest Park, Lake City, Conley, and Ellenwood. It is bordered on the west by Ga. Highway 54 and partially bordered on the east by Ga. Highway 42, and extends from the DeKalb County line in the north to the intersection of Rock Creek Drive and Fielder Road in the south.

Voters countywide can vote on the probate court judge and the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST.

Contenders for probate court judge are Pam Ferguson, Bobby Simmons, Fred Zimmerman and Clay Davis.

The judgeship is part of the special election due to the retirement of Eugene Lawson.

The probate judge handles cases involving marriage and weapon licenses, custody and guardianship minors, and competency of relatives.

While all candidates have extensive backgrounds in law, they differ on the kind of changes they'd like to make to the office.

While Davis said he'd "develop a system for indigent representation and a judicial outreach program to pre-empt teen deaths," Simmons said he'd like to wait until he "had an opportunity to study how my anticipated changes will affect operations. I do not wish to create apprehension on the part of the current staff without consulting with them and receiving their input."

Ferguson believes more technology is needed.

"We, as a nation, are moving to more computerized information," she said. "Clayton County Probate Court should be part of that and not get left behind."

Zimmerman has a three point vision.

"My vision of the probate court is to take the probate court to the next higher level, to take the court to the people," he said.

Zimmerman would like the county computers to be more accessible to residents. He also said he'll go to churches, schools and civic organizations to teach people about the probate process; and create a pro-bono project for people who can't afford an attorney.

If none of the candidates gets 50 percent of the vote cast today plus one additional vote, the two top vote-getters will face off in a runoff in three weeks.

If approved, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would add an extra penny of sales tax on the dollar to raise $240 million for road improvements, a new senior center and six new recreation centers for the county.

The SPLOST can only be used for the items outlined on the ballot and has a five-year time limit.

Lou Hisel, head of the Recreation and Roads 2003 Committee that promotes the tax, and Wade Starr, administrative assistant to Clayton County Commissioner Crandle Bray, have canvassed the county with signs and appearances at public meetings endorsing the tax.

Hisel's committee, as well as the Clayton County school system, has met criticism from the local Libertarian Party who oppose the SPLOST and the way it has been promoted.

Libertarians Doug Craig and Philip Bradley have accused school administrators for giving pro-SPLOST literature to teachers for distribution at open houses in August. They also contend the Recreation and Roads committee put up signs in support of the SPLOST on the county right-of-ways and left pro-SPLOST brochures in the public library.

A SPLOST was rejected by voters of the county last year but supporters hope they have added enough other projects to bring out more supporters.