By Joel Hall
Five candidates put their money where their mouths are, and paid the $3,940.41 needed to participate in the race for chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners.
On July 15, BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell will defend his seat against fellow board member, Virginia Gray, businessman Lee Scott, former District Attorney's Office chief of staff, Earl Randall, and former Riverdale mayor, Phaedra Graham. All are Democrats.
If Bell is re-elected, he will enter a second term as BOC chairman. Despite the economic challenges the county has faced in the midst of his term in office, Bell said that under his chairmanship, the county has avoided tax increases for the last three years, generated jobs, and galvanized surrounding counties around transportation issues.
"You spend your first term trying to build a team ,and you will spend your second term getting things done," said Bell. "That's true in almost any office. We've accomplished a number of things that we will be rolling out."
Bell highlighted having more than 40 years of public service experience, several of them spent as chief of the Atlanta Police Department.
"I have a vision for the economic viability of our county," Bell continued. "My experience gives me the ability to do that."
Bell said he will stand out from the other candidates because of his accessibility.
"I hold night meetings ... all of my telephone numbers are listed," said Bell. "I expect all kinds of challenges, but I expect to stay the course."
Gray, who is experienced in her own right, has served on the BOC for more than 11 years as a commissioner, and was recently sworn in as the 2008-2009 president of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
While the board has approved many resolutions this year, Gray believes the board's efforts lack forward motion. She believes the board would be better served with her at the helm.
"I have served on this board for [11-and-a-quarter] years and have seen tremendous progress," Gray said in a faxed statement. "However, we seem to be currently lacking progress with things being approved, but not moving forward. We had to struggle to pass a 2008 [Special Local Option Sales Tax] referendum, due to failure to complete current SPLOST projects ... businesses are constantly leaving, but we are not aggressively providing incentives for them to stay."
Gray said she would work to "strengthen" and "implement" the board's policies through "open, responsive, ethical, government," if elected.
While Scott ran unsuccessfully against BOC District 4 commissioner Michael Edmondson in 2006, he set his sights on the chairmanship three-and-a-half years ago, he said. A businessman with executive experience at American Express and other credit-lending companies, Scott said the current board is "mismanaged."
"I think we have a lot of opportunity to improve and to get back to the bottom line," he said. "We can't afford to elect people who aren't business people. We can turn this county around within a two-year period of time ... it's a matter of marketing."
Scott said between 2000 and 2007, the county's millage rate increased from 3.913 to 8.764 -- an increase of 124 percent -- while during the same time period, Fulton County's millage rate went down 22.8 percent.
"[Clayton County] is a business and we have to look at it as a business," said Scott. "We have to ask why we are paying 124 percent more. Where is the money going? ... that is what we have to solve."
Scott stressed a need to create employment training opportunities for youths, design programs to market the county's inexpensive housing stock to retirees around the country, as well as a need to reduce crime. He also said the county needs to be more aggressive in retrieving revenue from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Randall said he was inspired to run for chairman, due to what he views as "closed-door politics," and said he is the only candidate who represents a change from "business as usual.
"As a former county administrator, I saw a lot of 'lets-make-a-deal' politics ... that benefited politicians, but not necessarily the citizens," said Randall. "The type of politics that were going on in Clayton County were truly not what I felt the citizens of Clayton County deserved. I felt I had a responsibility to become a conduit for change."
Randall has been involved in the criminal justice system for 29 years, as both a law enforcement officer and a government administrator. He said the county needs to become more accessible, have more uniformed officers patrolling problem areas on foot or on bicycle, and improve its use of the crime-mapping system.
"One of the things I would like to see happen is the creation of a Citizens' Services Department with evening hours," said Randall. He added that BOC meetings should be televised and available on the Web to improve the board's transparency.
Randall and Scott are currently embroiled in a $1 million lawsuit, with Randall suing Scott and his wife District Attorney Jewel Scott for damages. Randall -- who once worked directly under the district attorney -- was fired last Christmas, shortly after announcing his plans to run for chairman.
Randall said his firing was motivated by Scott, whom he believes wanted to "harm me financially, so I would not have the resources to have a well-funded campaign."
Scott said he had not been served any papers and would not comment on the lawsuit. However, he described the suit as "frivolous and a substitute for campaign capital."
Graham was the final person to qualify for the race on Friday, registering with the Clayton County Democratic Party just 15 minutes before the noon deadline.
Graham's one term as mayor of Riverdale was marred by bitter clashes between the mayor and council over meeting attendance, the need for a forensic audit, and the city's new Town Center project. In city elections last year, Graham lost the title of mayor to Evelyn Wynn-Dixon by a margin of 2-1.
Despite Graham's battles while mayor of Riverdale, she believes her experience gives her the ability to "make a positive contribution" as BOC chairman.
"Government experience is key," said Graham. "That experience really gives you the tools to be able to continue in other positions."
Graham believes that if elected, she would improve the relationship between the BOC and other government entities and reduce crime in the county. She believes she will be "able to reach all voters" and "respond to all concerns.
"I want to see improvement in our county," Graham said.