Albert Barker pleaded with local Democratic candidates on Saturday to be courteous to each other this summer as they run for various local offices.
Barker, the interim chairman of the Clayton County Democratic Party, spoke to dozens of people seeking elected offices in the county at the beginning of a candidates forum his party was hosting at the old Riverdale City Hall.
Candidates for one-third of the seats up for election this year are running unopposed, which made Barker’s comments pertinent only to people running for the other offices. Still, the intended message was clear: Try to avoid mud slinging this summer.
“We’ve got a really great slate of candidates here in Clayton County that we really want to push,” Barker told the elected office hopefuls. “We’re going to ask everyone to run a good race, and take your gloves off and do the right thing.”
The 30 candidates who attended in person, or had a representative appear in their place, mainly spent their brief allotted time talking about their own credentials, and their own motivations behind running for office. Still, the forum offered a little bit of foreshadowing about what could be some key issues in some of the key races this year.
Public transportation, for example, emerged as a key issue among the three attending county commission chairman candidates, including incumbent Chairman Eldrin Bell, State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, and former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner.
Local bus service was particularly a touchy subject for Bell and Abdul-Salaam, both of whom have been advocates for a bus system since the county’s old C-Tran bus service was shut down in March 2010.
Bell has been an advocate of a 10-year, regional one-cent sales tax that would pay nearly $100 million over 10 years for a new local bus service in the county. Voters in the metro Atlanta area will vote on approving that tax during a July 31 referendum.
Abdul-Salaam pointed out, however, that she got legislation passed in 2010 that would allow the county commission to call for a referendum on paying a one-cent sales tax to join MARTA. It would have generated $49 million per year in Clayton County for MARTA, and gone past the regional tax’s 10-year window, she pointed out, but she added the county commission has not yet called for a binding MARTA referendum.
“What happens when it [the regional tax money for local bus service] runs out?” the state representative asked. “What happens when it’s gone? Clayton County is probably going to pay five-times more than what we get back [on a regional tax-funded bus service].”
Bell, with a slight hint of aggravation in his voice, responded by arguing that the county would have little say-so in how its bus service money was spent if the county joined MARTA. “It would be irresponsible if you do not get control over what you are paying for,” he said. “The board made a conscious decision to wait to get a transit system which you did have some input on, and which you did have control over.”
County Sheriff’s candidates Jon Antoine, Tina Daniel, Lawrence Ethridge, Godreque Newsom and Rica Wright spent much of their time talking about how the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office should get back to some of its core duties, such as serving warrants, rather than duplicating services already provided by the county and municipal police departments.
“We already have a county police department, and police departments in six cities in the county,” Newsom said. “I am not interested in running an eighth police department. We need a sheriff’s office.”
Although the candidates largely steered clear of direct criticism of incumbent Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, who is seeking re-election, one area where they did criticize the focus of his office was its involvement in county schools.
Under Kimbrough’s leadership, the sheriff’s office has struck a deal with Clayton County Public Schools to provide school resource officers (SROs) for every school in the county. His office has also established “substations,” in unused school system modular classrooms, on school campuses.
Several candidates said the sheriff’s office should let county and municipal police departments handle SRO duties, and remove the substations from school properties.
“I would remove the mobile stations from outside the schools, because they provide a negative connotation about what goes on in our schools,” Ethridge said.
Antoine added that police officers and sheriff’s deputies have “totally different jobs,” with police officers being the law-enforcement officers whose primary job it is to answer crime calls. Deputies, he said, are intended under the Georgia Constitution to protect county and state courts, operate the county jail and serve county papers, such as warrants.
“As sheriff, I would uphold the constitutional duties of the sheriff’s office,” he said.
Daniel said the sheriff’s office could reduce crime in the county, a goal several candidates for the seat proclaim is a high priority, simply by serving warrants issued by the courts.
“The number of [unserved] warrants currently sitting in a drawer is unacceptable,” she said. “It has to be a priority ... by serving those warrants, it will reduce crime.”
Wright, meanwhile, said she feels the sheriff’s office needs to focus on obtaining the accreditation available to law-enforcement agencies, and on reviewing its own department budget. In recent years, Kimbrough has repeatedly gotten into trouble with the county commission because his office has incurred costly overtime costs, which have put a strain on the county budget.
“We will conduct an audit to determine where our overages are, and we will try to ensure we take care of the budget [if Wright is elected],” she said.
Shegale Ralph, the campaign manager for former Sheriff Victor Hill (who is running for the office again), participated in the forum in his place, but only to read his credentials to audience members, and did not participate in a question-and-answer session.
Other candidates who attended the forum included: Incumbent District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson; County Commission District 2 candidates Lisa Tinch and Thomas Houston; Commission District 3 candidates Shana Rooks and Ronald Ringer; incumbent District 44 State Sen. Gail Davenport and a representative of her challenger, former State Sen. Gail Buckner; State Rep.-District 60 candidate LaTenka Riley; State Rep.-District 63 candidate Linda Pritchett; State Rep.-District 74 candidates Charles Davis and Valencia Stovall; State Rep.-District 76 candidate Jeffery Benoit; State House District 77 Rep. Darryl Jordan and his challenger, former Clayton County Democratic Party Chairman Kevin Thomas; State House District 60 Rep. Glenn Baker, and U.S. Congress-District 5 candidate Michael Johnson.
Solicitor General Tasha Mosley, Clerk of Superior Court Jacquline Wills and Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, who are all running unopposed for re-election also attended the forum. Magistrate Court Judge Richard Brown, who is not up for election this year, appeared on behalf of Chief Magistrate Judge Daphne Walker, who is running unopposed, to read a letter she wrote to audience members.