Commissioners exchange words about rec centers

By Ed Brock

The issue of putting roadwork before recreation centers led to a heated exchange between Clayton County's commissioners.

At Tuesday's regular meeting of the board of commissioners Peggy Davidson, the county's director of Central Services, and Director of Transportation and Development Wayne Patterson were giving a report on milling and resurfacing road projects around the county.

Commissioner Wole Ralph expressed concerns about doing the work using money from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax while the county still hasn't begun work on six recreation centers that are also to be funded by $40 million of the SPLOST money. He said he wanted to meet with Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell to get a resolution on the recreation centers first and to delay approving the roadwork until the commission's next meeting.

Ralph's request drew an angry retort from Commissioner Virginia Gray.

"I'm tired of you getting up here every month and pretending you are the only one concerned with recreation," Gray said.

Gray said the commission had endured ridicule and derogatory comments regarding its approach to building the centers and she was tired of that, too. She insisted that the commission was moving forward with building the recreation centers.

The commission has also faced the threat of a lawsuit regarding the centers amid a public outcry that has been heightened by a recent spate of violent crimes by and against young people. Last month members of the Clayton County branch of the NAACP hinted at such action if the centers aren't built.

At a press conference in front of the commission's office on Smith Street in Jonesboro, the NAACP group also pointed out that the county commission missed a 90-day deadline given by Chairman Eldrin Bell to break ground on the first recreation center in Riverdale.

"Ninety days have come and gone a few times," said Bobby Simmons, the economic development director of the Clayton County NAACP. "They will force us to look at our legal avenues. This is something that we're not taking lightly."

Dexter Matthews, the president of the local NAACP, proposed that the county commission build three centers this year and three centers next year, even though he says he was promised in 2003 that two centers would be completed in SPLOST's first year.

Ralph told Gray that he had never made any derogatory comments about her or the commission, but he did think the commission would be in trouble if it didn't set aside the money for the centers soon.

"The truth is the citizens themselves do not have the confidence that this board is going to build these centers," Ralph said.

Last month Bell defended the county's slow approach to building the centers and said the delay in the construction of the Riverdale center was due to the fact that the purchase of property for the center fell through. Gray echoed that argument on Tuesday, saying the problem was finding reasonably priced land for the centers.

"If you have a solution to this land purchase problem bring it to us," Gray said.

Gray added that the group of people who attend commission meetings to demand faster action on the recreation centers do not represent the commission's entire constituency and the commission had to make decisions that served everybody. Bell and Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer also said the county had to consider all of its obligations.

"We're developing the worst road system in the area," Rhodenizer said. "Our road system is in terrible shape and we have to give some attention to it as well."

Bell said the county had slowed some of the roadwork, but they had already committed to some contracts. He said he didn't want to get the county into a bad legal situation.

"I've been committed to doing it by the law," Bell said. "I have people calling me every day concerned about roads as well. We're going to move forward legally and judicially."