Six Atlanta mayoral candidates discussed Buckhead’s role in the city, ethics investigations in the city government, President Donald Trump and MARTA expansion at a Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods forum on Oct. 18.
The organization invited six of the 12 candidates running for the mayoral election. One of the candidates, Laban King, has dropped out of the race.
The six candidates invited were: District 2 Councilmember Kwanza Hall; Post 2 at-large Councilmember Mary Norwood; former city Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman; former City Council President Cathy Woolard; current City Council President Ceasar Mitchell; and District 11 Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Candidate John Eaves, the former Fulton County chairman, expressed concerns that he was intentionally being left out of the forum for political reasons.
“The right-wing is trying to hijack the mayor’s race to elect Mary Norwood by influencing the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s decision to refuse to let qualified candidates on the stage to debate,” Eaves said in a press release.
The council decided in February 2017, before Eaves announced his campaign, to limit the forum to the six candidates who raised the most in campaign contributions based on the latest filing, which was the Sept. 30 filing, excluding any personal loans.
It would also allow an additional candidate to join if they were within 20 percent of the top six candidates’ average contribution total. Buckhead Council Chairman Tom Tidwell said the average was around $900,000.
According to the Sept. 30 filing, Eaves had raised $205,147.
“The right-wingers stopping me from tonight’s debate, only want to talk to candidates who have raised upwards of $1 million,” Eaves said in the release.
District 2 Councilmember Kwanza Hall was one of the candidates invited and reported he had raised $617,485 in the most recent filing.
Eaves accused the organization, which is made up of most neighborhoods in Buckhead, of attempting to sway the election and bending to partisan politics.
“It is not the decision or right of any person or group to intentionally suppress the vote and attempt to undermine a voter’s right to chose the candidate of their choice,” Eaves said in the release. “Shame on the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods for allowing right-wingers to influence your duty to have a fair and open process during this election cycle.”
Tidwell had no comment on Eaves’ accusations when asked by the Reporter.
Jim Galloway, a political columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moderated the debate, which was held in the North Atlanta High School auditorium and attended by about 150 people. The forum was streamed live on the Buckhead Council’s Facebook page and the group’s video is posted above.
The questions were submitted by Buckhead Council member neighborhoods and a full list was given to candidates prior to the debate. Galloway chose several questions from that list on topics including transit, Buckhead’s role in the city, ethics and working with President Donald Trump.
Buckhead’s role in the city of Atlanta
Ceasar Mitchell said that Buckhead’s wealth is “critical” in supporting the city.
“Buckhead is unlike any other place in town from a financial standpoint. [Buckhead is] critical to helping the city. It’s a part of what makes our city thrive,” Mitchell said.
Cathy Woolard said the tree canopy found in Buckhead’s neighborhoods is “instrumental” in helping collect stormwater runoff and providing green space.
Mary Norwood drew on her experience living in Buckhead since the 1970s and said while many believe the city fixes roads in Buckhead more than any other place in the city, most of the improvements are done by private parties.
“When you look at Peachtree Road, that’s private money. That’s the Buckhead Community Improvement District,” she said. “Neighborhood streets have just as many potholes in any other place in the city.”
Ethics investigations and the city’s procurement process
Galloway asked how the candidates, if elected mayor, would deal with the ethics investigations in the city’s procurement process, which creates contracts with private vendors for city projects.
A criminal investigation into contractors bribing city officials has resulted in the sentencing of two contractors. The city of Atlanta’s former chief procurement officer Adam Smith has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from city contractors.
Peter Aman said he would put city contracts with vendors online and record conversations with vendors.
“We’re going to make sure we have one of the most transparent governments in the country,” he said. “Not everybody in City Hall is corrupt…but we do have a culture of corruption in the city.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, who began her opening statement by quoting the poem “Annebel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe, said she would call for an audit of the procurement process and create an online bidding process to be more transparent.
“It is unfortunate that we have a few bad apples in the city,” she said.
Kwanza Hall also called for an audit of the process and said that the city needs to end the habit of relying on the same contractors for city projects that it has used for decades.
“There’s a lot of people that need to go,” he said.
Working with President Donald Trump
Galloway asked how the candidates, who are running to represent a city that overwhelming voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, plan to work with President Donald Trump and the federal government to secure federal funds for transit expansion.
As an independent, Norwood said she has never been registered with either party and has always worked with both parties.
“It’s important the mayor of this city sets a tone for working with everyone,” she said.
Hall said he would like to meet Trump in person before judging his character and said, as the councilmember representing Midtown, he often works with Republicans living and working in the area.
Infrastructure is not a partisan topic and getting federal funds to improve Atlanta’s infrastructure will rely on creating a strong proposal, Hall said.
“Roads, bridges, sidewalks. None of them are Republicans or Democrats. It’s about putting together the right proposal,” he said. “I don’t have a reason to fight our own president.”
Candidates’ plans to expand transit and reduce traffic congestion
Woolard said she believes expanding MARTA to Emory University, which will possibly annexed into the city of Atlanta, using money from the TSPLOST would not be appropriate. Atlanta voters that voted for the tax did not vote to expand MARTA to Emory, she said.
“That’s a real ethical problem,” she said.
To reduce congestion, Woolard said amenities need to built in all parts of the city so residents do not have to travel as far.
Bottoms said the focus needs to be on developing all parts of the city, not only in the northern areas that have been the focus of development.
“We have a city that is out of balance,” she said. “People are flocking to Buckhead because there are not viable options in the other parts of the city.”
“We need to make each community a destination,” she said.
Mitchell said he believes a monorail line would work well in Buckhead because of the way the commercial district is set up.
He also said metro Atlanta needs to create a unified transit system so more commuters would be able to take transit into Atlanta instead of driving.
Providing affordable housing options in Buckhead is also critical so that more people will be able to live near where they work, he said.
Aman said he would prioritize getting the city’s traffic lights on a centralized network so the lights could be adjusted with the flow of traffic.
“We need to use the camera network that we have paid for,” he said.
Expanding the bus network into Buckhead neighborhoods, reconfiguring intersection and creating turn lanes is also needed, he said.