FORSYTH -- John Howard II has always liked the idea of being involved in public service.
The political neophyte took that notion to a new level last year when he was elected to public office, making history as the first black mayor of the Monroe County seat.
Until he got serious about seeking public office, the 41-year-old former police officer had never been to a Forsyth City Council or Monroe County Commission meeting, nor had been involved in anything political.
“I’m an absolute novice,” Howard said with a chuckle. “I’ve never held an office for a day in my life. I have a lot to learn about local government. I’ve been a lot busier than I ever thought, but it’s exciting. Truthfully, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had.”
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At first, Howard considered running for a council seat as a way of getting his feet wet regarding local issues.
Howard wavered about whether to even seek office. But by June, once he settled on running, he set his sights on the mayor’s office.
“Several people advised me to start with (running for) City Council, but I thought to myself that if it’s in my heart to become mayor at this time, then go for it,” he said.
Howard said the choice comes from a personal belief in not knowing how much time someone has in life to make a mark, so it’s important to seize the opportunity.
Howard defeated incumbent Mayor Tye Howard -- no relation -- by a mere 151 votes. The election was mired in controversy, given that some 120 absentee ballots appeared to be in the same or similar handwriting. However, in November, Tye Howard decided not to pursue a lawsuit a day before his case was scheduled to be heard in Monroe County Superior Court. At the time, Tye Howard cited the number of votes he would have needed to win as part of the reason why.
John Howard said he was disappointed his opponent dropped the lawsuit when he did.
“I wanted closure,” he said. “I wanted a final decision that said ‘this is what happened.’ My personal belief is that there was no voter fraud. There were (about) 347 absentee ballots, and 279 went to me. ... He was winning by 60 votes before the absentee ballots. I don’t hold it against him, but I don’t believe anyone tampered with ballots or forced the vote to be counted in a certain way.”
The Secretary of State’s Office is in the process of investigating the issue, said a spokesman who indicated the State Election Board may settle the issue in February. Even though the lawsuit was dropped, the State Election Board still has to make a ruling on the matter. The agenda for that meeting hasn’t yet been set.
John Howard’s outlook has always been to look forward rather than dwell on the past, he said. He is zeroing in on a few key issues that he thinks need immediate attention.
“(During the campaign), I asked a lot of questions,” he said. “I asked about the current administration, what was going wrong and what was going right.”
Howard said his top priority is to bring in more jobs to Forsyth, which will ultimately bring in more revenue. To that end, he wants to make improvements in the community in areas such as recreation, which would help draw businesses to the city and county, and perhaps cause more people to move to the area.
He said he has heard a lot of complaints about the city-run cable system. Howard said he plans to spend the next month evaluating the system and coming up with options for improving it.
“We’ll nail down a decision and make a move,” he said. “It’s up to City Council, of course, but we want to show customers that we are taking action.”
He said he’s also interested in improving roads.
One area he’s especially keen to get started on is public parks, especially getting at least one of the city’s pools operational. He said Kynette Park, where he often spent time during his youth, is now run down. The pools at that park and at Forsyth City Park have been shut down because the city hasn’t had the money to operate them and make necessary repairs.
To get those necessary funds, Howard said he and the council will have to plug the holes in the city budget. He also plans to spend the next month or so fact-finding before devising a plan he hopes the council will agree with. He also hopes to work closely with the Monroe County Commission.
Though Howard is a political novice, he’s hardly alone in that aspect. Councilman Desi Hansford said he was in much the same boat when he first won his seat in 2008, and he thinks Howard will do well in his new job.
“He brings a fresh new outlook,” Hansford said. “It’s a new and fresh perspective. He’s got the right mixture -- when he needs to ask questions, he does. When he needs to listen, he does. And he definitely has been participating when he needs to. One thing he said during the campaign is that he would hold everyone accountable -- the council, (city workers) and himself -- everyone who deals with the city. And I think he will follow through with that.”
County Commission Chairman James Vaughn said he doesn’t think the relationship between the city and county will change from the good working partnership they currently enjoy.
“I think the city and county get along fine,” Vaughn said. “We have a lot of projects that we’re working together on, and I expect that to continue.”
While being the city’s first black mayor carries significance for Howard, it’s something he hasn’t dwelled on.
“It means a lot, but truthfully, I have to be reminded of that,” he said. “One day, I was sitting down, and a friend reminded me that I was making history.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.