Candidates continue to answer questions at Chamber forum

Published 9:47 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017

By Beth Alston

Part 4
AMERICUS — At the recent candidates’ forum, sponsored by the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, candidates for the District 5 seat on the Americus City Council — incumbent Shirley Green Reese and Kelvin Pless — and the two mayoral candidates — incumbent Barry Blount and Laura Lee Bernstein — had the opportunity to speak.
Moderator Len Hicks also introduced other candidates such as Scotty Barnes who is running for Andersonville City Council Post 1 unopposed. Barnes was not present. For the Post 3 seat, Hicks introduced incumbent Velma Coley and Chris Wooden. Wooden was not present.
Also recognized were Linda Palmer, running for Post 6 in Andersonville; incumbent Lou Chase, running unopposed for District 3 in Americus; and Charles Christmas running unopposed for District 4 in Americus.
The question and answer period continued.
Question specifically for Blount: Why isn’t there a place at the Rees Park playground for children and their parents to use the restroom?
Blount answered by saying the questioner must mean Joyce Myers Park. The moderator clarified that the question is about Rees Park.
“Well, Rees Park is really not a playground per se. It doesn’t have any … there. It’s where people can go and walk and enjoy it. We do have adequate restroom facilities in the building if they’re open. That park has never been intended to … have restrooms. That park’s been there as long as I’ve been alive. None of our parks have restroom facilities. … The only one now that has restroom facilities is Rucker Street. It might be something we can look at later on but you know as far as the cost and things of this nature ….  ”
Question specifically for Bernstein: What is the number one priority for strategic planning? Why does this matter and why is it important?
“With a strategic plan, we’re bringing together the elected officials, and we bring all the stakeholders to the table … ” Bernstein said. “Without a plan in place, a vision for the city, we start haphazardly determining our priorities based on whims. They’re not driven by a plan that everyone is on board with. I think the purpose of the strategic plan and a vision for the city gives something for everyone to focus on. It gives us an ability to transfer and get the funds that will align with that plan and it gives us the opportunity to set attainable goals and realistic goals that the community can hold us accountable for. Did we meet those goals? We can do that … to keep a check on ourselves to make sure that we’re still staying the course and also to make sure that plan is as good as we think it is. It’s a collaborative plan. It’s important to have them and the vision is important because then you don’t just randomly fund things and randomly come up with ideas that never seem to play out. We do a lot of talking in the city, but there’s not much action.”
Blount responded, waving papers in the air: “… I hold in my hand strategic plan 2015-2019 that I welcome you to review. I’ve gone through this. There are 57 items in the strategic plan. We’ve done 23 of them. … This is only half way through the plan. Thirty-one, we’ve started; we’ve got ongoing progress on 31 … Of the 57 items of the strategic plan, we’ve either accomplished them or got ongoing progress of 54 … We’ve done the strategic plan with the funding to achieve those plans so here it is in black and white if you’d like to see it.”
Question open to any individual running for office: What is your position regarding the continuation of First Friday?
Lou Chase: “The First Friday concept, I think that was an initiative of Patrick Kay and his committee. [At this point, Kay, who was in the audience, corrected her, saying that the event was started before he came to Americus.]
“But it has been enhanced; let’s put it that way. I think it’s great … You’ve got to come downtown and participate in some of them … There are a lot of visitors that come specifically to downtown for the First Friday but it also is also a little concerning for the ones I’ve attended that there are not local residents that are attending, so … the opportunity is there. The business owners stay open …  The restaurants, they offer the trolley rides, they have music playing, just the atmosphere. It’s your downtown. Come downtown and enjoy it.”
Blount: “… I think First Friday that was something I really wanted us to do because I thought it would be an opportunity to bring people downtown and meet one another and interact with one another. I think that’s something we need more of. It also gives us the opportunity to have college kids to come downtown. It gives them something to do on Friday night. I encourage you to come downtown and enjoy it the first Friday of each month …. I think it’s a great concept and … Patrick [Kay] has … really enhanced it …”
Question, open to all candidates: How would you mend the relationship and communication between the citizens and our government?
Shirley Green Reese: “I don’t think there’s a problem with the citizens and the city of Americus. Maybe some may have some problems and if they do, we don’t know about it. I think we have a good communication of all races in this city. And things are going just great as I see. We may have some problems but … you’re going to have problems everywhere in every city, every town, everywhere. But as far as I see it, I see a good collaboration and communication among the different races here in Americus, Georgia, and that’s why I’m back home.”
Blount: “Somebody told me when I first took office, when somebody gets mad about something going on in Washington they say I’m going to write my congressman. Sand if they get mad about something going on in Atlanta they say I’m going to call my legislator. If they get mad about something going on in local government, they go see the mayor. Believe you me they come to see me. They know where I am. I have an open-door policy. If they have something they want to talk to me about, I’ll talk to them. I may not agree with them; they may not agree with me but I’ll be happy to talk with them and I think that’s the only way you can have true communication. … We’re all local here. We all see each other every day … I think it’s incumbent upon us to have communication, to have dialogue, to talk. If there was more talking there night be a few less problems in our country today. I’m all for … transparency and open government and communication.”
Bernstein: “While I’ve been campaigning I hear a lot about the issue of transparency. That is something that I believe we struggle with within our city government. Transparency is something we certainly strive to have, but I think that absolutely it could be more. … When you are a transparent form of government, and your stakeholders and your community is involved, and aware of the decisions that go on, it eliminates a lot of confusion and people feel like their voices have been heard. But we’ve limited that in the city for folks. And that’s something that I did not agree with. We’ve limited the right for people to speak at our own council meetings if it was something that they were speaking on that they didn’t agree with. It had to align with whatever was being discussed at that moment in the meeting. That’s not fair to the citizens because they are the ones that get the information last, and it shouldn’t be that way. It should be part of the process. Part of local government is having dissension. There are going to be people that don’t agree. But I can tell you I didn’t get into this field thinking that I wasn’t going to hear anything except good things about me and what I’m doing. It’s part of it. You set yourself up to get criticized when you come into politics. I think anyone who’s been in politics can agree with that. It’s not fun, but it’s part of our job. But to limit the public from being able to do that is wrong. This is one of our abilities that we have as U.S. citizens and it may not be something that we agree with necessarily, with what’s being said, but it is part of our civil rights.”
Reese, who had already had her time to answer the question, again took the microphone from the moderator. “On this issue in reference to speaking, this is a matter for our entire community here to address together … to produce the best educational experience possible for our kids. This is something the community can decide on.”
Pless: “One of the things about communication is … I think … we can get too complacent or comfortable with our own circle and … based on the experience of that working at the YDC, knowing the how the mindsets of people are, I just feel like I can talk from what we consider the lowest to the highest CEO. I think a lot of time, especially since the time I’ve been campaigning, I’ve heard the voices of the community and their concerns, the middle class as well as the … high class people … All of us live in this community together but a lot of times our people in the projects get left out. We just get focused on one part of the town … I don’t mean that out of … racial thing. It’s a demographic issue. As a representative, just like I’m doing now, I’m not afraid to talk to anybody or to reach out to them to hear their voices. … We’re all American; we live under the same Constitutional rights and if you really love your people you don’t out yourself in one particular sector of town … Our district covers a diverse community and I plan to continue doing that. I love the door to door contacts that I’ve been making and I’ve really heard from side that probably I wouldn’t have ever known if I hadn’t talked to then. I plan to continue that. … With as big a communication through our social media we’re just going to have to reach people where they are so our government can run better. I’ll bring that to the city council and hope that we come together and understand the needs of our entire community, not just one particular section. I think that’s how the government can come together.”
Question, open to any candidate: What is your position on the green energy development as it is and its impact on Americus?
Bernstein: “I can’t speak to all of this because there may have been things that have gone on that I’m unaware of, but I can speak about the recycling program that is in place currently at the city. It was an initiative that was brought about for residents of the city and their desire to recycle at the city. I think that can certainly be expanded. The problem is that the city signed a contract years and years ago that prevents a lot of recycling efforts here … I believe that it’s something that, over time, we can grow a program like that. I also believe that the solar energy piece of the pie cam be furthered. We had an opportunity at one point when I was with the city to use some of our land as a solar field. Someone wanted to come set up the solar panels, maintain them, and pay us rent for … being on the land. We weren’t able to do that because apparently we weren’t able to sign lengthy contracts … because of the contract with the waste authority. That’s something I would like to look at for sure because we do have land as a city that could be developed in that way, especially if there’s nothing else that can go on that land. Somebody who’s paying us to be on the land and maintaining the solar panels that are there, that’s a no-brainer to me. It’s certainly something that we might want to look into because the cities that have these kinds of things in place tend to attract people and businesses because they believe and see that we’re practicing sustainability … ”
Question for mayoral candidates: What is the number one issue facing the city of Americus, and if elected, how would you work to address it?
Blount: “Probably the number one issue facing the city of Americus today is education. We have a problem with education in our community. It’s not just a city problem; it’s a county problem. I say a problem with education; we need to be more open to new ideas of education in our young people. That’s the reason why I’m happy to be on the steering committee to have the career academy because in today’s environment, just because back in the day when I graduated from high school … a lot of kids who graduated from high school could go to work on the farm or go to work in a factory somewhere doing something with a high school education. You can’t do that anymore. A high school education gives you the ability to go to college or a technical college or something like that. But if you’re offered the college and career academy, and I don’t know all the bells and whistles of the college and career academy, it gives an opportunity for kids who may not necessarily want to go to college … an opportunity to learn a skill or trade that will fit with the local business or industry located here in Americus and go to work when they get out of high school. That’s what we need to be opening. We need to open up new horizons for our young people … an opportunity to get an education, an education that they want to … to graduate and get a job … That’s a real challenge to our community. We’re working on the dropout rate … Doing things like that I think it will afford our young people … to get a better education in a field they want to but an opportunity to get a job …”
Bernstein: “Education is certainly an issue in the community. I actually work in a college and career academy right now and, as the mayor said, it’s an excellent way to spark some energy in our young people and to give them even hope to be able to remain in the community and have a job when they get finished with the program. I think education though is just one facet of what is really important here. I think we need to go back to the basics. We need to be an ‘us’ and that’s why I used that as my slogan, putting the ‘us’ back in Americus. I think that we need clear and collaborative relationships with all of our stakeholders, everyone needs to be at the planning table. Everyone who has a stake hold in this community needs to be at the planning table not necessarily literally, but their ideas and their voices need to be heard. When we can come together a community and plan effectively and efficiently for everyone, our city benefits and we can strengthen those community foundations. We have them in place. We can strengthen them with fresh ideas and approaches. We need our young people from this community to get involved just as much as our elderly population is involved. That takes fresh ideas, innovation, energy and collaborative efforts. I taught in high school here in Americus Those children, those students are more than willing to be a part of the community but they don’t understand it. They truly thought the key to the city was going to open up a door somewhere in the city for them to go into … when I helped educate them on the process and what happens in the city and how local government works, they got excited. They wanted to get involved and it’s part of the reason that led me to even run for this seat to begin with, because I was able to connect and to see that the energy and the desire is there but we often times are elitist about it. Nobody wants certain people at the planning table because that suits our interests. That has to change. That attitude has to change or Americus is going to dry up … We need to get some excitement around here and we need some young faces and we need some energy … With that and with the collaborative efforts of all of us and all our community with the same goal, we can achieve it.”
Early voting for the Nov. 7 election started Monday, Oct. 16, and continues from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Nov. 3.
In addition to the mayoral race and District 5 races in Americus, voters who live in the city will also decide whether to permit package sales of alcohol between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on Sundays. City voters approved the sale of alcohol in restaurants on Sundays within the city several years ago.