Economic development and the region’s upcoming transportation referendum kept popping up as DeKalb candidates faced off during a recent political forum.
The forum, sponsored by the South DeKalb Business Association, gave candidates from various races in DeKalb County a chance to present their platforms before the July 31 primary and referendum.
Among the candidates at the forum were some of those vying for Board of Commissioners’ District 5 seat currently held by Commissioner Lee May.
Kenneth Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church, and Andre White, publisher of The Sentinel newspaper, are trying to unseat May, who has held the position for six years.
May said, “The issues that are the most pressing for me are economic development and fighting for the [fastest-growing] and largest district in DeKalb County. It represents where the new development for DeKalb County is occurring.”
May said he has been “fighting for the I-20 rail project and making sure that “we are not left behind.”
“These are some of the things I have been fighting for,” May said. “I hope and pray that my leadership has been one that you’ve been proud of. I’m not saying I made all of the right decisions…but I made decisions that I believed were right for District 5 and DeKalb County.”
Samuel, who has pastored Victory for the World Church for the past 25 years, said he is running for the commission seat because of the “continued grid lock and polarization” on the Board of Commissioners.
“When I look at what is happening in Washington, I see our federal government stymied even from passing a budget. When I see the same kind of thing happening on the local level, it makes me very disturbed.
“We’ve got to build coalitions,” Samuel said. “We’ve got to get past politicking. I’m in the race to build more collaborative help.”
White, publisher of The Sentinel for 23 years, said he wants to “restore faith in government to the fifth district and for the people.”
“It’s time to put an end to the cronyism, the apathy and childishness that’s represented in many of the decisions that we’ve watched happen,” White said.
“As a father and as a businessperson, I understand many of the issues that many of the people in the community are faced with, and think it’s time we restore faith of government with the people.”
Responding to a question about the district’s top issues, Samuel said he understands the opinions of opponents of the referendum who want heavy rail to Stonecrest Mall, but the transportation Referendum is “very much a regional issue.”
“We have to understand that traffic in DeKalb…is not just a DeKalb problem. It’s a regional problem. We have persons passing through our county clogging up our streets, decreasing our quality of life with the amount of time we spend in traffic.
“We cannot renege on our responsibility to take leadership in this endeavor,” Samuel said. “It would be like paying into a life insurance policy 20 years and then deciding you’re not going to keep it because the premium goes up.”
To White, economic development and crime are the top issues in District 5 and most communities.
“They are kind of a hand-and-glove situation,” White said.
“When we look at undesirable type businesses in the community that help to bring about a certain amount of crime, we look at how economics are impacted by that.”
Community leaders need to “do what we can to work within the community to encourage a more watchfulness in the community,” White said. “We have to have a better rapport with the police department and public safety.”
To stimulate jobs growth, White said better leadership is needed to determine the needs of the community and point residents to training and various opportunities.
“We have to be more proactive,” White said.
May said, “You would think that transportation is my No. 1 priority because, yes, I’ve been very critical about the I-20 rail.
“But public safety actually is my No. 1 priority because I don’t care how much economic development and job creation you have, if we live in an unsafe community, it’s for naught,” May said.
May said the county has 200 police positions that are not filled—“90 of which…[the county government] uses for salary savings, which means you can’t hire for those positions.”
“We can fill all of those positions, make sure we get these officers on the streets as well as provide for more code enforcement officers,” May said.
In the race for Board of Commissioners’ Super District 6, May’s chief of staff Edmond Richardson is challenging incumbent Kathie Gannon.
On the transportation referendum, Gannon said she will vote “yes.”
“It started as a ‘no,’” Gannon said. “I was annoyed like everyone else [because] we’ve been paying our penny for a very long time.”
Gannon said one reason she changed her mind is because “it’s a phenomenal feat that 51 percent of the money…will be going to transit.”
“Another reason is because the list that we do have is a well thought-out list,” Gannon said. “DeKalb County will put in a certain amount of money—about a billion—but will get more money back.”
Gannon said this is not the time for the county to stop supporting MARTA.
“Without this additional funding, MARTA will not survive,” Gannon said.
Richardson said he could not support the regional transportation tax.
“You are as strong as your weakest link,” Richardson said. “If we allow south, central and east DeKalb to be left behind, we risk becoming East St. Louis.
“We have paid for 30 years a penny and now you’re asking us to pay another penny. Asking us to subsidize all of these other regions is asking too much.”
Richardson said that 70 percent of the transportation tax funds would be spent north of the city of Decatur.
“That is unfair,” Richardson said. “As a commissioner, you have to represent all your communities, not just core areas.”