Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Interested Forest Park residents listen to mayoral and Ward 1 candidates at Wednesday night’s forum, hosted by Teen Council.
By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Transportation, jobs and education topped the issues of discussion during Wednesday night’s candidates forum held at the Parks and Recreation gym.
A special election will be held Tuesday to elect a mayor and Ward 1 representative. Candidates participating in the forum, sponsored by Teen Council, were mayoral candidates Sparkle Adams, Dabouze Antoine and John Finch and Ward 1 candidates Kimberly James and Tommy Smith. Mayoral candidate David Lockheart was unable to attend, said officials.
Adams, who founded Teen Council, was emotional discussing education issues. She said building bridges between the city and the Board of Education and PTAs is a start but the students are more important than the officials.
“You first and foremost need to have a relationship with the students and that’s why I started Teen Council,” she said. “There is not one other person who has put forth the effort to take time with these kids except me. I’m sorry but these are my kids.”
Her two opponents had slightly differing ideas.
“I fought to save the accreditation,” said Antoine. “Clayton County is the fifth-largest school system in the state and the schools are struggling with crime. Most crime happens during the day. We need YMCAs. They helped save me.”
Finch said he favors working closely with schools.
“We need to maintain a great working relationship with all schools,” he said. “I am a graduate of Forest Park High School. Back then, we had Panther pride. I want to bring that pride back.”
According to the Clayton County School System, it ranks sixth in the state with an enrollment of more than 50,000. Antoine rattled off other statistics that didn’t quite mesh with the facts. He said during the forum that 80 percent of Clayton County students are homeless. He clarified afterward he meant that 1,200 boys ages 11 and 21 in Clayton County are homeless.
According to officials, about 1,500 — male and female — students are homeless.
Antoine also told the audience several times that Clayton County ranks No. 1 in unemployment in the state. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, Clayton ranks 52 of 159 counties with an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent as of the end of December. The No. 1 spot is held by Chattahoochee County with 19.3 percent. The state average is 9 percent.
After the forum, Antoine insisted his numbers are accurate.
“Clayton County is No. 1, you can take that to the bank,” he said. “Check with the Department of Labor. It’s No. 1.”
Antoine also said Clayton County is the only county in the state without a YMCA but the organization’s website doesn’t bear that out. He insisted that Forest Park needs a YMCA to give young people a place to go.
“The youth is our future,” he said. “The youth need a place to go, they need a YMCA. Right now, Clayton County is not taking care of its future.”
His insistence that Forest Park Parks and Recreation should be replaced by a YMCA upset several members of Teen Council, who debated the issue with him after the forum. One teen told him she grew up in the Parks and Recreation programs and wouldn’t participate in a YMCA if it were next door to her home.
Antoine told the group he is an educator. After the forum, he refused to talk about where he teaches except that it is in Forest Park.
“I teach in Clayton County schools,” he said. “In this community. I choose not to answer questions about where I teach. I want to keep that separate from this campaign.”
Antoine previously ran two unsuccessful campaigns for Clayton County Commission when he lived in Jonesboro. He hasn’t filed campaign paperwork for his mayoral run, according to the State Ethics Commission, and owes fines from the previous campaigns for either not filing or being a late filer.
Ward 1 candidate James said she home-schooled her four kids for four years but they are in public schools now.
“I think being on Council would give me the authority to walk into any of the schools and say, ‘Let’s work on these issues,’” said James.
Also a Forest Park High School graduate, Smith said he needs to get a better feel for education issues.
As far as attracting new businesses, Smith favored forming a committee. James said she has concerns about a lack of transportation for workers needing to get to those new businesses.
“We need to improve what we have to keep them here,” she said.
Adams, who resigned her Ward 1 seat to run for mayor and has previously served as mayor pro tem, agreed transportation takes high priority.
“We’ve been in the process of getting a city transit system and a high-speed rail system,” said Adams.
Candidates also discussed Forest Park’s role in metro Atlanta.
“Forest Park should be the type of city that should be next to a big airport,” said Finch. “We have a Neighborhood Watch program but we need compassion from our neighbors. How will it work without cooperation from everyone? We need to reach out to Hispanics and Asians who live here, too.”
Adams said officials should accentuate the positives of the city.
“We have no city taxes and no debt,” she said. “When the Clayton County School System lost its accreditation, we had students flocking to Forest Park Street School so they could graduate. We have the first dual-language school ever in the state. I don’t think we promote that enough.”
James said officials need to listen to residents.
“I think there is a negative perception of Forest Park in metro Atlanta but what can we do to change it?” she said. “We need to listen to our residents and help improve how the media perceive us.”
Smith said police need to key in on illegal drug activity.
Polls open in Forest Park at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 7 p.m. Each seat’s term expires Dec. 31 so whoever wins will have to run again before the end of the year. The mayor’s seat was vacated in October when Corine Deyton retired due to health concerns.