Jonesboro race fraught with emotion

By Ed Brock

Long before the active campaigning began in Jonesboro's race for city council the emotional bedrock of the race was laid with the elimination of the city's volunteer fire department.

That action in December 2004 created a deep divide between one section of the city's residents and the current administration, including Mayor Joy Day and City Manager Jon Walker. It gave rise to a group called Jonesboro Pride and a contest of opinions expressed silently in yard signs and verbally in raised voices at city council meetings.

On Tuesday the conflict will either move to another level or it will begin to subside.

In the running for the at large election are incumbents Wallace Norrington, Yvette McDonald and Rick Yonce. Luther Maddox, Clarence Mann and Pam Scott are the outsiders in the regular election.

There will also be a special election on Tuesday to pick the person to finish the term of retiring City Councilman Clifford “Rip” Sewell. Bobby Wiggins and Danny Windom are running in that election.

Maddox, Wiggins and Mann represent the opposition to Day. They have expressed a desire to terminate Walker and to reverse or slow the city's participation in redevelopment programs administered by Walker in order to restore city services that have been privatized.

Yonce also supports them those issues. McDonald stands in support of the mayor and of redevelopment programs like the Livable Centers Initiative, as does Windom.

Scott said she could work with Day and Walker, but she doesn't agree with some of their decisions.

She doesn't have a problem with the Clayton County Fire Department providing service for the city, but she doesn't like the way the volunteer department was shut down.

“We all showed up to have a voice in it and we all got shot down,” Scott said.

She likes the LCI and is not opposed to a commuter rail passing through the city, but she wonders about the feasibility of the city's plan to build a parking deck for people using the rail.

“The first thing they have to figure out is how to get the businesses to fill the shops they're going to put in the parking deck,” Scott said.

As for whether Walker should keep his job, Scott only said she thinks he should live in the city. Walker currently lives outside the city.

Norrington missed a forum one week ago in which the other candidates made their feelings known. He has been on the council for 16 years and is seeking his fifth term.

Norrington voted to keep the city's fire department, but he still supports the list of redevelopment projects he says must be completed.

One of those is the Streetscape Project for downtown Jonesboro that would widen sidewalks and pave them with brick, add benches, trees and flower boxes and decorative trash cans.

Originally the Streetscape project, funded to a large degree by the Atlanta Regional Commission, was going to redevelop about 2.9 miles of Main Street and McDonough Street between North Avenue and South Avenue in one large effort. However, an increase in the estimated building costs from about $2.5 million to over $3.5 million and the evaporation of nearly $1 million promised by the county have caused the city to adjust their plans, possibly breaking it into phases.

“We want to at least do that to show some improvement to the downtown area,” Norrington said.

He's a little cooler on the plans for an Atlanta to Lovejoy commuter train line to run through the city. It might help with traffic, Norrington said, “but I'm not for the taxpayers to pay the bills.”

On the subject of taxes the city has finally initiated a three-mill property tax. That, along with a 3.9-mill fire tax to pay for the Clayton County Fire Department's services in lieu of the old volunteer fire department, has become another rallying point for Jonesboro Pride members to protest.

Norrington said the drop in the economy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 necessitated the creation of the property tax and most of the city's residents will not have to pay it due to a $60,000 homestead exemption. Business and rental property owners will pick up most of the burden.

During the debate moderator Bobby Simmons questioned the candidates on how that might affect efforts to recruit businesses to come into the city.

Norrington said “the thing is, where can you go without paying taxes.”

As for the passionate protests of the Jonesboro Pride group, Norrington was not too disturbed.

“I think the people are just concerned and they're letting it be known,” he said.

One of his fellow council members who is not up for reelection this time, Linda Wenz, is a little angrier about the group.

“Those people are dangerous,” Wenz said.

Wenz, who is also a supporter of Day, said she received an invitation to the first Jonesboro Pride meeting and when she tried to attend she was essentially surrounded and forced to leave.

“We've tried to listen to them and they don't let us,” Wenz said. “I've been to two of their meetings and they tried to have me arrested.”

Jonesboro Pride member Roger Grider said the incident wasn't as bad as Wenz made it seem, but he said they did ask her to leave and she refused. Emotions were high at that time, Grider said, but he thinks people are calming down now and he insists that there is nothing personal in the group's agenda.

Day said she has confidence in the people of the city to make the right decision. She said she would continue to support Walker, who's termination would require a vote by the council, and the city's current programs even if the opposition wins a majority of seats on the council.

“Our city is strong,” Day said. “I think everybody is committed to do well for the city.”