Candidates for five of the nine new Macon-Bibb County Commission seats answered questions Thursday at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Many of the rivalries for the District 1 through 5 seats are friendly, with candidates such as Gary Bechtel and Harold Young -- vying for the District 1 spot -- saying they agree on most issues.
Others generated a few sparks, such as the District 3 race between Elaine Lucas and Terry Tripp. Asked how to make the city-county government merger smoother and more amicable, Tripp said the new elected officials need to be people who supported consolidation and are willing to work across party lines. Lucas was a vocal opponent of the consolidation charter that voters approved in July 2012 and frequently clashes with local Republicans.
“I thought consolidation was a great idea,” Tripp said. “I think we should have done it 30 years ago.”
In reply, Lucas said she supports greater efficiency but doubts that will materialize.
“First of all, you have to be smart enough to read a consolidation bill and to understand that there are a lot of hidden challenges in it,” she said. Lucas predicted that local taxes will increase and said someone with her experience -- more than 20 years on Macon City Council -- is needed to run the new government.
“You don’t have to have supported it,” she said. “It’s the law now, and we’re going to have to work with it.”
There was a separate table for each district’s candidates, spaced around the gymnasium at Vineville United Methodist Church and in a nearby room. Moderators and members of the public asked questions. Below is a selection from each discussion.
Bechtel, a current Bibb County commissioner, said he expects transportation issues to dominate much of his districts’ needs. He wants to see the current Forest Hill Road expansion plan scaled back.
Young, a political newcomer, said his business and organizational experience will enable him to work well with whoever fills the other commission seats and the mayor’s office.
In the District 2 race, current city Councilmen Henry Ficklin and Larry Schlesinger attended, but Paul Bronson, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 2011, wasn’t there.
Asked how they’d build up neighborhoods, Ficklin and Schlesinger offered different but not conflicting answers.
Special purpose local option sales taxes, like the one voters approved in November 2011, have funded roadwork, schools and many other projects, Ficklin said. That money could tear down or fix up ravaged neighborhoods when the next SPLOST is allowed in 2017, he said.
“We need to have a housing SPLOST,” Ficklin said. He’s now researching more aggressive code enforcement laws, but the city should also ask neighborhoods to help identify the owners of problem properties, he said.
Schlesinger said the city should make it easy for new businesses to start, and encourage them to move into neighborhoods -- but not more liquor stores or similar businesses. It will take involvement from residents themselves to revive areas and work toward a common vision for them, alongside the city and private partners, he said.
“Once people start taking pride in their neighborhood, everything starts to change,” Schlesinger said.
Lucas and Tripp, a former member of the Bibb County school board, were asked how the new government can support education.
Lucas, owner of E.L. High School Home Study Academy, said she’s supported education for years on council. She introduced the legislation that gave police incentives to live in neighborhoods, requiring them to work with schools on youth programs in the area, she said. Lucas said she’s also consistently supported the DARE anti-drug program, AmeriCorps volunteer program and city-funded vouchers for summer sports.
Tripp said many of the new government’s priorities and abilities are still being worked out, but she’d like to see its involvement in more after-school, summer and mentorship programs. She’d seek grant money and volunteers to implement recreation programs that have worked elsewhere, she said. One thing the new government can do is organize more youth leagues for basketball, football and other games, Tripp said.
“They do it in the street anyway,” she said.
The District 4 race matches Realtor Mallory Jones against incumbent Councilwoman Beverly K. Olson and former Councilman Theron Ussery. All three were present Thursday.
Responding to a question on how Macon can capitalize on its rich musical history, Jones said he’s wondered why Macon doesn’t have a radio station that focuses on local music. The city needs to broadcast its heritage, he said.
Olson said the city has many performance spaces and festivals featuring music downtown, such as the 567 Center and Bragg Jam. Macon needs to counter the public impression that downtown is unsafe, to draw more people to those venues, she said.
Ussery said the city, having lost the Georgia Music Hall of Fame for financial reasons, needs to make a renewed effort to get state funding for promoting local music heritage. Much of the General Assembly’s attention is fixed on Atlanta, he said.
The District 5 candidates -- Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins, political novice Jon Carson and City Councilman Frank Tompkins -- were asked how they’d keep citizens involved and informed once the election is over.
Bivins said he already spends much time in neighborhoods, particularly visiting churches, and he’s thought about putting out a newsletter.
“I recently got on Facebook,” he said.
Carson said a tech-savvy friend told him it would cost “next to nothing” for each commissioner to have a page on the new government’s website that could accept and display public comments and officials’ responses. In many cases, the new commissioners will have to make fast decisions, so they’ll need public input quickly, he said.
Tompkins said he attends Neighborhood Watch meetings and regularly sends information to anyone who asks. It was his idea to televise all City Council committees, not just the main bimonthly council meetings, he said. Tompkins pledged to be available “24/7,” and hold “walks and talks” through his district if elected.
The League of Women Voters held a forum for mayoral candidates Aug. 16 at the Macon City Auditorium and will hold another forum 6 p.m. Aug. 29 at Vineville United Methodist Church, 2045 Vineville Ave., for the District 6 through 9 commission candidates.
It will be free and open to the public.