Candidates for the District 8 Macon-Bibb County commission seat describe the district as a true cross section of the city, and they cite public safety, education and development as top issues there.
Two incumbent Macon city councilmen and a relative newcomer are competing to represent the district in the new city-county consolidated government that takes office in January.
Although she has never held public office, Regina Davis, 51, is no stranger to campaigning. Davis ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2008 and for a seat of the Macon Water Authority board in 2009. Davis said the consolidated government is the perfect place for her to present a variety of fresh ideas.
“Those who have gone before me have laid a good foundation, but I think it’s time to start with something new, and I would like to be a part of that,” she said. Davis, who grew up in Unionville and has spent more than 40 years in Macon, said she’s lived in almost every corner of the district and is familiar with the people and issues.
Davis said one pervasive issue is the relationship between residents and law enforcement.
“I think there is a lot of distrust between the police and the community, and we have to work to build that up,” Davis said. “If we can get that across to the community that (police) are not just there to pick on a certain part of the community but to serve the community, that would help the situation.”
Virgil Watkins, 29, said the district’s issues with crime are linked to poverty and education.
“(Law enforcement) can do curfew sweeps and gang units, but until you get into the mind of the person, you’re really not going to stop it,” he said.
There isn’t a quick fix, Watkins said, but getting into the schools is a start.
“The long-term solution to our (crime) problems is just better education. Even though most of it is black-on-black, most of it is not college-on-college. Educated folk just don’t tend to do this,” Watkins said.
Watkins said his goal is to create a better relationship between the city and the local school board. To that end, Davis said higher test scores, better attendance and parental involvement are essential if the city and county plan to attract and keep people.
Charles Jones, 59, has the most political experience of all the candidates. Among other roles, he’s held a Macon City Council seat for 13 years. He said law enforcement has great leaders, and his strategy is to step out of the way and allow them to do their jobs. His goal, he said, is to make sure they have adequate resources to maintain public safety at adequate levels.
“We need to give them everything they need to get this job done. I don’t think anyone in public safety asks for anything unreasonable,” he said.
On the issue of the mandated 20 percent budget cuts over the next five years, District 8 candidates are passionately opposed to it, stating it will force significant cuts, decrease morale and make it difficult to maintain essential services. Watkins said it lacks foresight and that any loophole in the law probably will be used liberally.
“I don’t think it’s wise if we are anticipating our city will grow,” Watkins said. “If we pick up an extra 20,000 people, that’s an additional 20,000 people who need services.”
Davis said the conversation about cuts has to take place simultaneously with talks about job creation, otherwise the city will take a step backward.
“It may be a realistic expectation, but the reality of it is that people will be hurt by that reduction,” she said. “I believe that as the leaders, it’s up to us to create a balance. If we are going to cut things, we need to bring in more jobs.”
Jones said development in areas such as downtown will help to absorb cuts if the new government approaches cost cutting with the balance of revenue building and job creation. However, similar to his opponents, Jones stayed away from specifics.
“I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he said.
The issue of development is linked to blight reduction for the three candidates. Watkins said there are areas of the city that are “an embarrassment.”
“I don’t want people to get lost coming to our city and drive down Madden Avenue and see this part of our city,” Watkins said.
Jones said leaders will need to find “a more friendly way to get people here.”
“What you’re dealing with is not so much contracts but relationships,” he said.
Both Watkins and Jones cite Mercer University football as an example of a strategic move in the direction of development. Tying the changes to other areas along Pio Nono Avenue will be key in maintaining momentum, Watkins said.
Careful not to isolate one area, all the candidates said the goal is to improve the environment and look of the entire district. Davis said it would be shortsighted not to grow other areas.
“It doesn’t really matter if you are trying to create a facade for the city if you have one area that is underdeveloped, because it has an impact on the overall look of the city (as well),” she said.