JONESBORO — The break-up of a group of Clayton County commissioners, known in some circles as “the gang of three,” may be the most significant result of this week’s county commission elections, according to several residents.
Commission observers have long argued the county’s fortunes are determined by only three of the five commission members, including Vice-Chairman Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick. It is a group praised by some and loathed by others but they have a perceived reputation of voting together on items.
That will end in December because of attorney Shana Rooks’ victory over Ralph in this week’s commission District 3 run-off. It was one of two commission races that ended with the defeat of an incumbent. Former county police chief Jeff Turner defeated incumbent Chairman Eldrin Bell this week as well.
“I’m tickled by the results,” said Clayton County Republican Party Chairman Carl Swensson. “I think that’s the one good thing to come out of this election because the triumvirate has been splintered.”
The impending changes on the Clayton County Board of Commissioners has been cheered from people inside and outside the county. The defeat of Bell and Ralph has brought praise from Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt, state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), transportation advocates and Swensson, who also runs a citizens watchdog group devoted to following the commission’s every decision.
“Getting that District 3 cat out of there — that’s done more for this county than I think probably [anything] as long as I’ve been in politics,” said Oswalt, who’s been in office for 40 years. “It’s going to be positive in several different areas.”
Rooks said her election is significant because of the “gang of three” factor. If Ralph had been re-elected, she said, Turner would not be able to get anything done without the support of the voting bloc. She promised she would not become involved in voting blocs once she takes office in January.
“I am an individual with a well-rounded mind who will at all times make decisions that are in the best interests of my constituents,” said Rooks.
There are a lot of factors at play in the changeover, however, including relationships between county and city leaders, the future of public transportation in the county and the citizens’ faith in the county.
One of the most critical issues will be the county’s relationship with its cities. The two sides are locked in a battle right now over LOST and a service delivery strategy agreement. LOST appears headed to arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement by the end of next week.
County and city leaders have sat down at the negotiating table only twice to work out a solution but those meetings were more like posturing sessions than actual negotiations.
“We agreed three weeks ago that we would meet every Thursday, once a week, and we’ve met one time since and they said ‘We ain’t coming back,’ ” said Oswalt.
Turner and Rooks said Friday they would prefer to see the county and the cities work out their differences before the end of the year, when several city police departments will lose their speed-detection device permits because of the lack of a service delivery agreement.
Regardless of the outcome of that fight, they also said they are more than willing to sit down with the county’s seven mayors to address any issues facing the county.
“We have to start thinking of everyone as citizens of this county and do what’s best for them,” said Turner. “We should be working with the cities to help all of our residents. Once we start doing that, then we’re going to turn this county into a place that people speak positively about. Nobody suffers if we work together and cooperate with each other.”
Rooks and Turner said a forensic audit of the county’s finances will be one of the first items they ask for upon taking office next year. Rooks said that goes back to being transparent with citizens.
“I think it’s important to understand the ways in which our county is being run instead of what we perceive them to be,” said Rooks.
Swensson said he feels the “changing of the guard” on the commission will be good for the county and that residents will expect more government transparency from the commission once Turner and Rooks take office.
He also expects to see changes in how the county handles its finances by ending practices such as no-bid contracts and more openness about how tax dollars are spent.
“I am looking for a more fiscally responsible county to emerge from this election,” said Swensson.
Turner has already pledged to get SPLOST projects dating as far back as 2004 back on track. It was recently revealed that the county has not spent $208 million in SPLOST funds collected over the last eight years.
“We need to see what we need to do to finish out these projects,” said Turner.
Transportation is the issue that lurks like the 800-pound gorilla in the room, however.
The first cheers came from Abdul-Salaam, Citizens for Progressive Transit President Ashley Robbins and the Georgia Sierra Club Director Colleen Kiernan. The three women have formed a group which is advocating for the county to bring public transportation back to the county by joining MARTA.
The county commission voted to shut down the C-Tran bus service in 2010. While a majority of voters supported joining MARTA in a non-binding referendum held later that year, the commission has not called for a binding referendum.
It remains to be seen how Turner and Rooks will handle public transportation. During the campaign, they said it was important, but neither said it was an issue they planned to tackle immediately upon taking office.
Still, transportation advocates argued this week that the transportation issue played a key in bringing down Bell and Ralph.
“These commissioners just would not listen to voters,” said Kiernan in a written statement. “We will now have fresh faces on the Clayton County Commission and we look forward to working with them.”