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Jonesboro candidates debate past and future

By Ed Brock

Past grievances and plans for the future formed the basis of the candidates for Jonesboro City Council.

In the community room of the Jonesboro Fire Station on North Main Street, the candidates introduced themselves at the beginning of the forum sponsored by the Clayton County NAACP. They sat at a table together, incumbent Council Members Yvette McDonald and Rick Yonce and their challengers, former City Councilman Luther Maddox, exterminator Clarence Mann and Clayton County Juvenile Court employee Pamela Scott. Next to them sat the two candidates in the special election to finish the term of retiring Councilman Clifford “Rip” Sewell, former Jonesboro volunteer firefighter Bobby Wiggins and locksmith Danny Windom.

Incumbent Councilman Wallace Norrington wasn't present.

The future issues that shaped the debate included the possible benefits, or lack thereof, from a proposed commuter rail, giving the citizens a voice in the city government, the initiation this year of property tax in the city, increasing the tax base and more.

As in the past, many citizens again expressed anger at the current council's decision last year to disband the city's volunteer fire department and to outsource garbage pick-up.

During the introductions it became apparent that the race has been polarized by the opposition to Mayor Joy Day and City Manager Jon Walker that arose in force shortly after the dissolution of the fire department.

Maddox, Mann, Yonce and Wiggins oppose the mayor and city manager's plans. McDonald stood in support of them while Scott and Windom took moderate positions.

“I was on the council before, and I did vote for a city manager and I did vote for Jon Walker,” Maddox said. “But the way I see things going now I am smart enough to admit that I made a mistake.”

Mann and Maddox support each other's campaigns and Mann's introduction was similar to Maddox in his criticism of Walker and the current administration under Day.

“I've lived in Jonesboro all my life,” Mann said. “I chose to raise my family here and build my business here because I love this city. I love the way it's always been and I hate to see the things that have happened to it in the last three years.”

Yonce voted to keep the fire department and said he has changed his mind about the way the city is being run.

“I'm concerned about the city,” Yonce said. “It's very important to me. I'll probably live out my life here.”

Wiggins said he wanted to see the voice of the people brought back into the political process.

“I love Jonesboro and I hate to see what's happening to it,” Wiggins said. “I think we should go back to the old Jonesboro.”

McDonald, who voted in favor of disbanding the fire department and supports Day, said she was proud to be on the city council.

“I'm delighted with the way our city is being run,” McDonald said. “I think we have a beautiful city.”

Scott said she has lived in the city her entire life.

“I'd like to see some things change but I'm proud of the city and the county that I live in,” Scott said. “I'd just like to make a difference.”

Windom stressed progress in his opening.

“I'll do whatever it takes to move the city forward,” Windom said.

From then on the debate focused on questions asked by three members of the Jonesboro Pride group that opposes the mayor and Councilwoman Linda Wenz, who is not running in this election and who supports the mayor.

The anti-Day candidates generally stressed more conservative spending, terminating the city manager and opposing the commuter rail and plans to build a parking deck downtown for future train-riders. McDonald and Windom spoke in favor of the rail and the city's Livable Centers Initiative program that aims at revitalizing downtown.

“I don't see the citizens of Jonesboro being burdened with any more taxes to support the rail,” Maddox said. “The citizens of Jonesboro are not the ones who are going to use the commuter rail.”

Maddox later said that downtown Jonesboro lost its vitality after the county courthouse moved within the city from downtown to the new Harold R. Banke Justice Center on Tara Boulevard.

The discussion about the rail seemed to inspire one audience member.

“I've heard a lot about why we can't do it,” the woman said, referring to the commuter rail. “I want to know what we can do (to grow the city.)”

None of the candidates answered except Wiggins who again stressed conservative spending.

McDonald said national statistics showed that people were moving from larger cities to cities the size of Jonesboro and so Jonesboro had to prepare.

“This is moving Jonesboro in a different direction,” McDonald said. “It will put us in a position that will allow (the city) to grow.”

Jonesboro Pride member Roger Grider said McDonald sounded like she was governing for the people who may move to Jonesboro and not the people living here now.

“Of course I'm governing for the people who live here,” McDonald retorted.

Windom said he's already seeing evidence that the rail will bring business.

“There are people who are buying up property on this rail line all the way down to Lovejoy and it's not because they're speculating on nothing coming,” Windom said.

Citizen Emily Blalock said when the Summer Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996 people began investing on the presumption that it would bring business to the area, too.

“And we never saw anybody from the Olympics and a lot of business people took this as real,” Blalock said.

Yonce also said he had come to doubt the potential of the LCI to bring downtown Jonesboro back to life.

“I just don't think it's realistic to expect it to be thriving like it once did,” Yonce said.

The city could still grow, Yonce and Maddox said, by spending money as it became available. Yonce questioned the tendency to take too many grants because they often require matching funds.

“I think we could match ourselves 20 percent into bankruptcy,” Yonce said.

Allen Roark asked the opposition candidates what they thought made them qualified to make better decisions.

“I wonder if people really object to what's going on or do they object to the fact that they're not in power.”

At the end of it all, Windom, who sat at the end of the line of candidates and thus had the final closing, mixed his promise to move forward with an appeal for unity.

“What's more I want to see the people of Jonesboro unite again like we were before all these things came up,” Windom said.