FOREST PARK — Voters go back to the polls Tuesday to elect officials to fill four-year terms in wards 1 and 2.
Ward 2 has been vacant since council members ousted Karen-Brandee Williams in July 2011. Ward 1 was filled in a special election in March after Councilwoman Sparkle Adams gave up the seat to make an unsuccessful bid for mayor in the same election.
However, the term ends in December so the winner, Tommy Smith, has to run a second time if he wants the seat for four more years.
Forest Park Elections Superintendent Charity Woods said early and absentee voting isn’t as brisk as it was for the Nov. 5 election.
“It’s definitely slower than the General Election,” she said. “We were getting about 100 early votes a week and now we’re doing about half that. Absentee votes have also dwindled off.”
Part of the reason is that the mayor’s race is citywide where the wards are restricted to the residents who live in them. The mayor’s race was decided Nov. 5.
Smith is facing challenger Kimberly James. Newcomer Luke Gawel faces Dabouze Antoine for Ward 2.
Some residents have complained to Clayton News Daily about the number of absentee ballot applications Antoine has returned to City Hall. However, Woods said she hasn’t uncovered anything illegal in the process.
“People don’t like it,” she said. “But it’s not illegal. They’re not beating the system.”
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, a voter can request an absentee ballot up to 180 days before an election.
“If you are physically disabled or living temporarily outside your county of residence, a close relative — mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law who is 18 or over — may apply for an absentee ballot for you,” states the Secretary of State’s website. “The absentee ballot shall be mailed to the voter.”
The website adds that a physically disabled or illiterate voter may get assistance from another voter in the same county or municipality or from the same category of relatives who can make an application for or deliver an absentee ballot.
“Any person who assists another person to vote absentee must complete an oath prescribed by law demonstrating the statutory disability and that the ballot was completed as the voter desired,” according to the website. “Other than federal elections, no person may assist more than 10 voters in a primary, election or runoff. A candidate on the ballot, or a relative of a candidate on the ballot, may not offer assistance during the election to any voter who is not related to the candidate.”
Of 152 absentee ballots returned for counting, Antoine got 73 votes, the bulk of his 133 total and the most of any of the 10 candidates in three races. Gawel came in second in the four-man race with 96 votes. In Forest Park, a candidate must take 50 percent plus one vote to win a race.
Antoine has not returned calls from News Daily.
Woods said anyone can pick up absentee ballot applications and distribute them to voters. However, the ballots are supposed to be mailed back to City Hall.
“Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of an absentee ballot,” she said. “If you can make it to City Hall, you can vote there. There’s no need for an absentee ballot if you can get to City Hall.”
But Woods said she makes allowances for people returning ballots for elderly or invalid parents, grandparents or neighbors, for example.
“They have to show identification, though,” she said. “They have to have a reason why they are returning someone else’s ballot instead of it being mailed in by the person.”
Someone bringing in stacks of completed ballots would not be acceptable, she said.
“Someone coming in with a wad of yellow envelopes — you’ve had your hands on someone else’s ballots,” said Woods. “I know I’ve ruffled a few feathers but I have made sure I’ve been clear on that. I’ve told the candidates that if they use this process to campaign, make sure their people know they can’t bring in other people’s voted ballots.”
There is also a system of checks and balances in place. Nothing is finalized in Forest Park City Hall.
“I know a lot of people are really upset by it but I’ve cleared everything that I’m aware of that I’m supposed to do,” said Woods. “Nothing is approved in the city office. Everything is approved through the county elections office. We don’t verify anything.”
The verified voted absentee ballots are kept under lock and key until Election Night when they are opened under the watchful eye of poll workers and Forest Park residents.
Smith and James have faced off in Ward 1 before. He took the office in March after defeating James by 15 votes. The race was thrown into a runoff when just six votes separated the two Nov. 5, Smith’s 88 to James’ 82.
James said she is a homemaker with a bachelor’s degree in computers. She has been married 16 years and has four children. Her family has been active members of Green Pastures Christian Ministries for more than 20 years.
James said she has lived in Ward 1 for more than 18 years, moving first to an apartment and then into her own house three years later.
“I am very engaged in my community,” she said. “I was elected secretary of the Parent Teacher Student Organization at Forest Park Middle School. I am a regular volunteer at Huie Elementary, Forest Park Middle School and Forest Park High School.”
James said she is also an active member and sponsor of the Forest Park Ministers Association, Clayton County Minister’s Conference and Clayton County Democratic Party.
“I have recently engaged in Mission Forest Park at First Baptist and am looking into other outreach programs that are focused on meeting the needs of our community,” she said.
She said her campaign has been about helping and serving people and making sure the laws that are set forth in this city are for the best interest of the residents.
“Our residents will have a voice through me,” said James. “I will be sure that they get the information and have opportunity to matter when decisions are made. My vote will be a result of the majority of their vote.”
Smith, 56, said he is also looking out for the rights of his fellow residents. A lifelong resident, Smith said he has been quick to respond to calls for service in the eight months he’s been in office.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who contacted me that I haven’t responded to in some form or fashion,” he said. “I consider myself to be hands-on. I’m outgoing and I don’t want to turn my back on your problem, no matter how big or small.”
He is also involved in charitable events in Forest Park. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, Smith volunteered at Forest Park United Methodist Church’s holiday meal for the needy. It was there he encountered a young man with no shoes.
“He was this young kid and his family has been picking up cardboard for a living,” said Smith. “I had these snakeskin cowboy boots I’d only worn a few times and he didn’t have any so I gave them to him.”
He also points to what he’s achieved in eight months as reasons why voters should give him four more years.
“I think they can look at what I’ve already accomplished,” said Smith. “I helped get Atlanta Gas Light to repave and fix the Hendrix Drive project. I also helped with Atlanta Gas Light to get the Cash Memorial parkway deal completed. That’s a big accomplishment. There was also getting Ash Street repaired.”
Smith said the city council is responsible for the day to day lives of residents.
“We try to make it tolerable even though sometimes it’s very tough,” he said.
Gawel and Antoine face off for Ward 2. Gawel said he feels “energized and committed.”
“I have been wonderfully blessed with the opportunity to meet many of the residents of our ward and hear all the personal stories about Forest Park,” he said. “I feel that I have a good pulse of what is going on in the city, hearing what is working well and what could be better. I am up to speed on many of the city’s projects and I know I can help move Forest Park forward by being an effective and positive advocate to the residents’ needs.”
Gawel said he has enjoyed campaigning and has done it without accepting donations.
“I have followed politics for a long time, and I have seen the effect political money has on the process and political decision making,” he said. “I wanted my campaign to be different, so we pledged from the start not to accept any financial contributions. The only people I will work for are the residents of Ward 2, not campaign contributors.”
He said his only goal, if elected, is to be an honest and genuine representative of Ward 2.
“No matter the results on Dec. 3, at the end of the day, I honestly know that God has a plan for my life,” said Gawel. “My only goal, if elected, is to be an honest and genuine representative of Ward 2 on the City Council.”
The polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. All residents vote at the recreation center next door to City Hall on Forest Parkway. Early voting ended Nov. 26. Anyone with questions about voting can call Woods at City Hall, 404-366-4720.