By Joel Hall
Upset with the direction the county has taken in the last four years, four challengers have entered the race to be the next chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners.
Each intends to unseat incumbent chairman, Eldrin Bell, who is running for re-election.
All four have said they can provide the county with more visionary, competent and effective leadership.
Those challenging Bell include: Lee Scott, a private real estate investor and businessman; Earl Randall, a former chief of staff for the Clayton County District Attorney's office; Phaedra Graham, an educator and former mayor of Riverdale; and Virginia Gray, veteran District 2 BOC commissioner.
Some of Bell's challengers believe the county has taken a few steps backwards, during Bell's tenure, and they say lower property values, higher taxes and higher crime rates are the result.
Lee Scott, 59, said, despite the county electing a former Atlanta Police chief as BOC chairman, the board has been ineffective in bringing down crime.
"It was thought that the old guard could at least make the crime go down," said Scott. "The oddity is that murders have more than doubled and other crimes have gone up. All of our major businesses have gone."
Born in Harlem, N.Y., and raised in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Scott has lived in Clayton County for the last 20 years. He said he "fell in love" with the area after visiting a family friend involved in ministry and "thought it was a good, wholesome environment" to raise his family.
Scott believes poor residential and financial planning in recent years has brought the county to a standstill. A businessman who said he worked his way up to executive positions with Ford Motor Company, Marine Midland Bank, and American Express, before turning to private real estate investments, Scott believes his business sense can steer the county in the right direction.
"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "The business community does not support this administration. They may mean well ... but they make wrong calls all the time. We need more experienced business people in these positions. We need to get back to business."
Eldrin Bell, 73, on the other hand, believes that despite many hardships, the county has made many strides within the four years he has served as BOC chair. During his administration, he said, the county has been able to "correct the growth pattern" of the county, with a new zoning ordinance;establish ethics legislation where it was once "virtually nonexistent;" and create three yearly budgets with no millage increase.
"It's easy to stand on the outside and throw rocks," said Bell. "We have moved this county forward. I started off with huge challenges ... but I have been able to work them and start some things that are very important to the county.
"I've had an opportunity to get many things started" and "now I want the opportunity to complete them," he said. "I love a challenge, and this, indeed to me, is a challenge, for which I have the energy and maturity."
Born in Jackson, Ga., Bell was raised in the Pittsburgh Community of Atlanta. He rose through the ranks of the Atlanta Police Department, starting as an officer in 1961 and working his way to police chief in 1990. He served as chief for four years and later won the 2004 race for Clayton County BOC chairman.
Throughout his time in office, Bell has been a champion of improving regional transit, serving on the boards of several important transit initiatives. His service includes: chairing the Southern Regional Accessibility Study of the Atlanta Regional Commission; serving two times as chair of the state's Transportation Planning Board; and serving as vice chair of transit and transportation for the National Association of Counties (NACo).
Bell describes his style of leadership as "hands-on" with "sleeves rolled up" and said that he works in "almost daily consultation" with Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson to help ensure that "[The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools] restores our children to their earned state" of full accreditation.
On the matter of the schools, Scott believes the county should "embrace our schools," and said the board needs to take a greater leadership role in the accreditation issue.
"Our county deserves it's accreditation," said Scott, who served as chairman of the 2004 SPLOST III (Special Local Option Sales Tax) campaign, which secured millions of dollars in tax revenue for the public schools. In addition to working toward accreditation, Scott said that he would help create a "Youth Employment Program," which would "give our children skills they can market," and by doing so, "reduce crime."
Scott believes the county can make better use of it's financial resources, by more aggressively seeking tax revenues from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, opening public schools to recreational activities in the summer, and fixing "up the houses we have" before creating new housing developments.
Earl Randall, 50, who, until last December, worked directly under District Attorney Jewel Scott, wife of Lee Scott, was inspired to run for BOC chair by what he believes is a kind of "let's-make-a-deal," "closed-door" politics presently taking place in county government. He believes "it's time the citizens have access to an open forum, with the county commission board, which is supposed to be serving them."
"The type of politics that is going on in Clayton County is truly not what the citizens deserve," said Randall. "There has been no real level of success in the public service department under [Bell]. The current chairman has shown he has no viable plan for overseeing Clayton County," Randall continued. "The other candidates represent business as usual. My candidacy represents hope for a new direction and new vision of change for Clayton County."
Randall, who has a bachelor's degree in criminology and a master's degree in public administration, believes he is well-suited for the roll of BOC chairman. He said that his time spent as a former chief department administrator gives him experience in personnel management, budgeting, and strategic planning.
Randall and Scott are presently embroiled in a lawsuit, however, in which Randall asserts that Scott influenced his termination from the District Attorney's office last Christmas. While Scott has not yet been served with any papers, the lawsuit "is still pending," Randall said.
Randall highlighted domestic violence as being a major issue impacting the county and said that, if elected, he would create a "Domestic Violence Task Force" to set standard operating procedures for police departments and courts on handling cases, and creating a referral system for victims.
Randall said he would work to reduce crime by putting more uniformed police officers on foot and bicycle patrols in problem areas of the county and improving the county's use of it's crime mapping system.
Phaedra Graham, 43, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., and a career educator, served for one term as mayor of Riverdale. Vying for public office once more, Graham believes her experience as mayor gives her unique insight, and the ability to create a "vision of positive change" in Clayton County.
"I .. had governmental experience as an elected official prior to qualifying for the position," said Graham. "This experience gives me a unique perspective to make sound decisions related to the county's resources and finances, as well as to develop positive and creative approaches to address the needs of our county."
Graham said she believes her experience as an educator will allow her to "enhance the development of our community and positively impact the lives of young people." She believes her formal training as a mediator will help her "confidently communicate the county's goals to the citizens of the county, to successfully develop positive interactions between residents and the county, as well as utilize a constructive approach to deal with county issues."
Rather than focusing on what the BOC has not done during Bell's tenure as chair, Graham said that "we can all help to improve our county." She believes her positive (outlook) will aid her in establishing community policing programs, increasing programs for youths and senior citizens, promoting community-planned economic development strategies, and helping the school system maintain its accreditation.
Virginia Gray, 62, is presently the senior member of the BOC, having served three terms as District 2 commissioner. Living in the county for 27 years, Gray's work on a multitude of county boards and organizations spans nearly two decades.
Her major initiatives include work with United Way; Clayton County Alzheimer's Support Services; the Clayton County Family and Marriage Initiative; the Regional Commissioner to End Homelessness; the Southern Regional Medical Center Auxiliary; Keep Clayton County Beautiful; Rainbow House, and several local and national initiatives concerning the senior community. She currently serves as president of Association County Commissioner of Georgia (ACCG).
A certified real estate agent with a degree in elementary education, Gray said, "I do not consider myself to be a politician, but rather a public servant." She believes "the county is suffering from division" and that she has the "sincerity, passion," and "dedication" to bring the county together.
"The board has failed to foster solidarity and/or collaboration," under Bell's administration, said Gray. "I intend to unite the county, if for nothing but the interest of progress. I want only for the county to progress positively, steadily, and efficiently."
Gray said she does "not play favorites," and as a commissioner with 12 years of experience, she is "fully aware of the issues facing the county."
"Most importantly, I am mindful of the county's potential, looking always to capitalize on the county's resources," she said. "I possess numerous contacts statewide and nationally that are readily available for the benefit of the county."
Gray said she has attended a "number training sessions" and seminars focused on problem-solving, budget-balancing, and county management. In addition to bringing unity to the board, she pledged to improve the county's tax revenues, boost the local economy, decrease crime, and help maintain accreditation and local Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards in the schools.
"I lead by example," said Gray. "I hope to set a high standard for others to want to follow."