By Justin Boron
Parading a group of young Clayton County citizens before the Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Richard Jones said paving the future of the community's children was more important than paving roads.
The deacon at New Macedonia Baptist Church led off a series of remarks at yet another meeting where citizens persisted in discussing the embattled Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program.
The repeated outcries over SPLOST policy, one citizen said, are part of a relentlessness campaign to ensure that six recreation centers are completed.
"We will not go away," said Linda Crawley-Simmons of the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP.
At the same meeting, the county commission okayed about $10 million worth of SPLOST road projects. The move was seen by at least two critics as a shift from an earlier stated plan to slow roadwork and consequently pick up the pace of recreation centers.
Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton NAACP branch, and Commissioner Wole Ralph, have said the bulky roads proposal appears to be a step away from plans to favor the recreation center portion of the SPLOST.
On Monday, Bill Horton, the interim spokesman for the county commission, said he was not aware of any change in the direction of SPLOST.
While much of the focus has been on where SPLOST funds should be dedicated, Jones, the deacon, said he instead wanted to focus on the children.
"I'm not here to talk about the dollars . . . I'm here to talk about the rec center users," he said.
Attempting to allay the concern, Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer asked for the citizens' trust. He said that the board was not there to deceive citizens about the centers.
"For the benefit of the children, we're not going to misrepresent anything to you," Rhodenizer said.
County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell also has repeatedly said the six centers would be built.
But Sharon Owens, another community activist, said real progress on the centers needed to happen soon.
"I personally feel that they're not going to be able to gain the trust of the youth if they don't do something in a hurry," she said.
Although absent from the meeting, the NAACP's Matthews has criticized the county commission for what he calls a gap in what it promises to do and what it actually does.
He also recently threw the possibility of a lawsuit into debate, and said he may get some support in an ongoing Cobb County suit.
Clayton SPLOST critics watching Cobb case
Officials and community leaders who have criticized the county commission for reneging on its commitment to the centers say they are following closely an ongoing Cobb County lawsuit.
A fight over laptops there has raised some of the same questions driving the SPLOST debate in Clayton County, Ralph said.
"Everybody's kind of watching it," he said. "It goes back to what the SPLOST is and what the spirit of the SPLOST is."
Former Gov. Roy Barnes and former Cobb County Commissioner Joseph Thompson are suing the Cobb County Board of Education for diverging from what was promised in official SPLOST documents.
The board there came up with "a very detailed plan," Barnes said. "Now, they're not following it."
In 2003, Cobb County voters approved an additional education SPLOST tax for technology improvements.
Barnes said he argued in the case that voters never authorized the laptops.
In the Clayton County case, critics also have criticized the county for backing away from what had been outlined in official documents.
Matthews said he saw some parallels in the two cases and a victory in Cobb County would add to the cause in Clayton County.
Forest Park Mayor Chuck Hall has proposed extending the SPLOST to cover operating costs for the commuter rail.
But the proposal has several roadblocks in front of it.
First of all, it would require a change in the law by the General Assembly, said Jim Grubiak, general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
The current law doesn't allow for SPLOST money to go toward operating costs, he said.
Barnes, who was one of the original legislators to introduce the SPLOST, said changing the law would be a marked step away from its original intent and didn't have much of a shot at passing.
Even if the state law got changed, Matthews said it was unlikely that a Clayton County SPLOST would make it through a citizen referendum again.
"I can guarantee you, 100 percent, that that won't pass," Matthews said.