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Onyemenam, Bell to square off publicly

By Justin Boron

The candidates for the county commission chairman race will meet today in Morrow for a political forum that will give audience members a chance to grill the two on the community's pressing issues.

The candidates' plans for the community have been blanketed in the recent months by the Republican nominee's attempt to discredit Eldrin Bell's candidacy.

Since Bell easily sewed up the Democratic nomination for county commission chairman in July, Republican-nominee Michael Onyemenam, who ran uncontested in the primary, has stripped away at his opponent's ethical and political background.

Onyemenam, a Nigerian limousine driver, has filed lawsuits, dug through personnel histories and even directly asked Bell to step down from the race.

But with one week to go before the polls open next Tuesday, Bell has done little to mollify the criticism coming out of the Onyemenam campaign. All but ignoring it, he has denied any wrongdoing alleged by his opponent.

Calling his opponent an "opportunist," Bell has even asked reporters not to indulge Onyemenam's tactics.

Instead of mounting a definite response, Bell has quietly attended county government meetings, preparing for his transition into power.

Confidence in the former Atlanta Police Chief's victory is so strong in the traditionally Democratic-voting community that current County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray motioned to Bell as the next chairman at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting.

But a relentless Onyemenam refuses to give in to public expectation. Promising victory, he said he already has a transition team in place.

Onyemenam's plan for the county, which includes removing from power those with questionable personnel backgrounds, would break down the levels of government into neighborhood, faith, and business-based advisory boards.

Upon assuming office, he said he would conduct a full audit of all the county government departments.

The county already conducts a financial audit each year for all the departments that handle money, said Don Comer, the county attorney.

A probe into all of the departments has never really been done before and would be a considerable expense, he said.

Frank Bailey, Bell's campaign manager, said the group would make efforts to understand where funds were going, but would not go as far as conducting an audit of every government department.

Onyemenam also has proposed a new "homeland security" plan to reform the county and municipal police departments.

One of its measures would prevent any police officer from conducting private business in uniform.

G.B. Osborne, Onyemenam's campaign manager, has criticized Bell for providing private security service during his tenure at the Atlanta Police Department.

Osborne provided documents that he says show that Bell did private security work for a possible Atlanta Police Department suspect in 1978.

Bailey said Bell had no plans for police reform but has been meeting with the various departments to discuss crime reduction.

An issue that could affect Clayton County's largest section of undeveloped land is the expansion of Tara Field. Current county officials have left the issue for the next chairman to take the reins.

Henry County has expressed an interest in assisting with the airport expansion in exchange for co-ownership. Although the airport is in Henry County, Clayton County has owned and operated it since 1992.

Bell has yet to make his intentions clear about airport expansion, but he has expressed some skepticism in exchanging co-ownership for Henry County's help.

Clayton County could expand the airport on its own, said Bailey, who also sits on the Airport Authority.

Onyemenam said he would embrace Henry County's offer, calling it " a beneficial partnership."

While important issues like airport development will likely be left unclear until after the election, Bailey said Bell has a plan to help extend the runway there.

Both candidates said they hoped to make a final push in the final week of the campaign, but Bailey said he is confident of victory.

Onyemenam said he thinks Bell will lose the election on his own.

"We are running on Mr. Bell's record," he said.