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A time for change in Clayton

By Bob Paslay, Ed Brock, Justin Boron and Greg Gelpi

If one word could sum up 2004 in Clayton County, it would be "change."

From the courthouse to the state house, from the classrooms to the board rooms, new faces were popping up. And at the stroke of midnight tonight, all of these new officers will be assuming the offices to which they were elected.

Reflecting the changing demographics over the past decade and a half in the fast-growing county, African American voters turned out in record numbers in July to elect a spate of candidates to replace some long-standing officials. By November, voters in Clayton County were also still setting records as a huge turnout for the national and state elections caused voter lines to snake around polling places for hours. With one precinct in the county being the last to finish voting in the state hours after the usual 7 p.m. end of voting, election officials promised to split up some precincts and get more voting machines before the next election.

New leaders elected

The county government underwent a dramatic political shift reflective of the black majority population in the 2004 elections.

Eldrin Bell is the first African-American chairman and was sworn in Thursday night at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. He envisions a "caring government" and said he would balance the interests of the county's semi-rural south side and the more densely suburban north side.

Bell had a 33-year career with the Atlanta Police Department, serving as chief from 1990 to 1994. His partner on the issue of quality growth has been Commissioner Wole Ralph, who also is part of the historical political transition. Ralph has said he wants to stray away from the development of $150,000 to $200,000 homes and bring high-end residential development to the county.

Law enforcement in the county also will have a new face.

Victor Hill is the new sheriff and promises to hamper the many vice crimes in the county including drugs and prostitution.

Jewel Scott is the new district attorney, overcoming incumbent Bob Keller, who was the longest standing district attorney in the state after 27 years of service.

Daphne Walker became the county's first elected black judge when she was sworn in as chief magistrate judge several weeks ago.

Leslie Miller-Terry is the county's new solicitor general.

The demographic changeover of political power has not come without controversy. On his way into office, Hill struggled against the transfer of two investigative units from sheriff to police control. The conflict prompted frequent threats of litigation. The future of the Sheriff's Department will rest in the hands of the new county commission when it meets for the first time Jan. 4

New superintendent, many school changes

Foremost among these changes in the county was the wholesale changes at the Clayton County school system after a year of probation and in-fighting that threatened to severely damage the system. With a new superintendent in place, the district was able to get off probation, calm much of the controversy at the system and begin making positive changes. But this didn't prevent voters from turning out all incumbents on the school board, assuring that the nine-member board will be controlled by new members.

The Clayton County Board of Education unanimously hired its first female and only its second black superintendent in February. Superintendent Barbara Pulliam replaced interim Superintendent William Chavis and filled many senior positions with people she brought from outside the system.

The board itself underwent significant changes with all incumbents falling in attempts for re-election. Between the losses and decisions not to seek re-election, five new members joined the nine-member board.

Many voters cited the school board's actions, which led the school system to being placed on probation, when voting to replace the incumbents.

The system's accrediting agency, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, voted to lift the probation in the summer, but kept the system on warned status for another year as the system continues to meet SACS standards.

Although school board Chairwoman Nedra Ware survived calls for her resignation and talk of a recall, she was unable to survive her bid for re-election.

Lois Baines Hunter replaced Ware as David Ashe replaced Carol Kellam, Eddie White took Bob Livingston's seat and Yolanda Everett won the spot vacated by Linda Crummy.

The school board and school system marred by controversy in the past experienced other shakeups with the system's administration.

Former acting Deputy Superintendent Bill Horton was transferred to become principal of East Clayton Elementary School. He later retired, and the Professional Standards Commission revoked his teaching certificate for a year in connection to previous complaints of going over budget during previous assignments in the system.

Pulliam "restructured" the school system, and the school board approved a new organizational chart for the system, dividing the system into an operational side and an academic side.

But controversy aplenty sprung up everywhere in the county to replace the calm at the school system. In Jonesboro, controversy broke out near year's end as some city officials moved to shut down the volunteer fire department system.

Fire department controversy

More than 100 firefighters and their supporters turned out at two city council meetings to question the move which officials said was based on economic reasons.

The council released a statement saying that discussions with Jonesboro Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins that began in October 2003 regarding the needs of the department left them feeling they had only two choices.

One was to create a kind of hybrid department that would rely on a mix of volunteers and paid staff. In that option, a total of up to eight firefighters would be hired, starting with four in 2005 and up to another four in the following two years, for a total cost of $800,000.

The second option would be to contract with the Clayton County Fire Department to staff the fire station on North Main Street at roughly $372,000.

Wiggins has said there are several other options, including phasing in the changes slowly.

The council has yet to officially disband the department and at least one council member, Rick Yonce, plans to ask that the budget be reopened for further discussion on the department. Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day has met with Wiggins and the fire department at least once to discuss the issue.

Violence continues in the county

Dominating the headlines in the county in 2004 were also the acts of violence and while the numbers were not much greater than past years, the meanness of the crimes was shocking.

With two days left in the year Clayton County had seen 15 homicides, about the same number as last year, Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.

One that riveted the community was the random killing of a little boy in a park in Riverdale as two rival gangs opened fire on each other.

On June 6 4-year-old Trevon Wilson was riding his bicycle with his grandmother in Riverdale Park when the gun fight broke out between members of a gang called The Hit Squad and another called the Southside Mafia.

Several arrests have been made in the case but the investigation still continues. An effort remains ongoing to name the park or part of the park after Wilson.

Testimony in the hearing for a man arrested in connection with the July 11 killing of 48-year-old Ramatoulie Demba revealed a world of drug users sharing Demba's stolen car. Benny Earl Kimbrough, 35, has been charged with burglary and theft by taking in connection with the break in at Demba's home, but he has not been charged with murder.

Kimbrough was arrested after another man, 33-year-old Franklin Hudson Jr., who was arrested while in possession of Demba's car told police he had gotten the car from another man. Investigators had to go through two other people to identify Kimbrough.

Clayton County Police Detective Frank Thomas testified at a preliminary hearing for Kimbrough and said all of the people involved in the crime were crack cocaine users who passed the stolen car among themselves.

Witnesses also saw Kimbrough with other items believed to have been taken from Demba's home.

The friendship of a teen and a man a few years older turned deadly as the teen claimed his friend made unwanted sexual advances in an Oct. 14 incident. Adrian Taylor, 18, has been charged with murder in the case in which police say he admitted to returning to 23-year-old Josh Cook's house on Elam Street near Forest Park and bludgeoning him with a tire jack after Cook allegedly made a sexual advance toward him.

Airport continues to grow

The year had positive news, however, as the nation's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, took on a new name and continued a $5.4 billion expansion of the facilities.

In March, the Atlanta City County changed the name of the airport to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, adding "Jackson" to honor the late civil rights pioneer and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

The change didn't come without controversy as the family of William Hartsfield, the airport's other namesake, said the move took away from his recognition. Hartsfield, former mayor of Atlanta, saw the airport grow from a dirt field to a hub of regional transportation during his time in office.

The airport most recently started Phase II of the construction project that will relocate baggage screeners to an area below the main terminal. Airport officials say the project will be completed at the end of 2005.

Airport officials hope the relocation will streamline the check-in process for customers and increase safety.

Along with the addition of a fifth-runway, the airport also will get a new tower, which will rise 398 feet above ground level, making it the tallest in the nation.

Delta Air Lines, was able to begin righting its economic course and avoided bankruptcy by employee layoffs and pay concessions and debts. With fuel costs high, many of the nation's airlines had a bumpy year. As they cruise into 2005, the picture remains unclear as Delta struggles to avoid bankruptcy. The airport was not without its controversy as an Atlanta police officer assigned there was accused of roughing up a Henry County woman who he said was obstructing traffic. Officer Terance Alexander countered and said the woman, Diana Dietrich-Barnes hit him with her vehicle mirror in early November. Clayton County's two top prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against the woman.

New buildings spring up

Across Clayton County, building continued and this helped fuel the county's economy.

Everything from new archives buildings to new libraries, schools and a county police and 911 headquarters were being constructed.

The National Archives and Records Administration's 350,000 square-foot building under construction on Jonesboro Road at the entrance to Clayton College & State University is scheduled to open some time in 2005. Standing next to the already open Georgia State Archives building, the new building will hold documents for federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Census Bureau that pertain to the southeast region.

Former Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman C. Crandle Bray had two new buildings dedicated for him, the Clayton County Police Department/911 Communications Headquarters building on McDonough Street in Jonesboro and the county's new library in Lovejoy.

The $19 million, 90,000 square-feet police and 911 headquarters building opened in the spring. The new 12,000 square-foot library is slated to open early next year.

In a boost for development in the coming year, voters approved a one cent sales tax for county projects and another penny to continue building schools. The county funds mean a series of senior centers along with road and intersection changes will span into 2005 as the money rolls in and more projects are completed. Even a new aquatic center that appeared to be in trouble because of some feuding between the county officials and school officials ended up getting approved and is headed for construction. Building of single-family homes and businesses continued on pace with prior years.

In other news

On the good news side for Clayton County in 2004 was a word that was very bad news for parts of the nation -- weather. As hurricanes pounded Florida in punch after punch and as winter storms pummeled other areas of the nation later in the year, Clayton County had a mild winter, a rainy but not devastating summer and a perfect fall. Area residents responded with help for those hard hit by the wrath of Mother Nation.

Fort Gillem and Atlanta Motor Speedway were there to help too. Trailer after trailer made its way to Fort Gillem as the staging facility for shuffling relief to hard hit Florida residents. The speedway opened up its facilities for those with trailers to park them as they fled from the path of the hurricanes.

While it was business as usual at Fort Gillem, officials there kept their eyes on Washington as the process continues in 2005 about which bases to close. Some area residents formed a committee, backed by Congressman David Scott, aimed at convincing military and civilian leaders that the supply fort is a vital part of the nation's defense effort and should not be targeted. Even as its fate remains to be decided, construction of new facilities continued in 2004 at the fort.

In the good news-bad news category, the black asphalt interstate that snakes through Clayton County providing vital money for the economy also was the site of some deadly crashes. One claimed the life of Clarke University Assistant Dean Michael Hall of Atlanta who was bringing his kids back from a ball game. A just purchased dryer fell off a truck onto the interstate, and it caused the dean to crash trying to avoid it. The man who purchased the drier, Jose Luna Gonzales of Hapeville, was later charged and pleaded guilty, but lawsuits by the family of the dead driver were filed and could be heard in 2005 or later.