About 40 people showed up at Vineville United Methodist Church on Thursday to hear candidates from districts 6, 7, 8 and 9 answer questions at a forum held by the League of Women Voters.
The candidates are seeking office during the Sept. 17 election for the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government.
Unfortunately, none of those residents were from District 6, so the debate among Robert Abbott, Chhor Chav, Ed DeFore and Adah Roberts was canceled shortly after it was supposed to begin.
However, candidates in the other districts were able to interact fairly easily with potential voters, covering a wide range of topics -- attracting business, reducing crime, cleaning up blighted housing, to name a few -- in what was mostly a conversational atmosphere.
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District 9, with Macon City Council President James Timley and political activist Al Tillman vying for the seat, had the biggest crowd, while at the District 7 table, the number of candidates -- Eric Arnold, Barry Bell and Warren “Scotty” Shepherd -- outnumbered the two residents from their district. However, that allowed for the greatest interaction among candidates and voters.
As Shepherd pointed out, it’s the only district that doesn’t have a single candidate who has held or currently holds an elected office in Macon or Bibb County. Shepherd said he thinks no matter who wins the seat next month, the district will have a better voice than it has had in the current structure.
“We’ve not had a person in the last 20 years come from the (sub-south part of Bibb County),” said Shepherd, a former supervisor in the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office. “All of the representatives live in east Macon.”
The three candidates tended to agree on most issues. With a significant amount of area in the district, all believe District 7 is ripe to attract new business and industry, thus creating jobs. By attracting industry, Shepherd said, it would add to the tax base.
Bell, a golf course manager, said he wants to see an extension of Interstate 16 through the district. By bringing jobs, it could lead to a reduction in crime.
Arnold, a software programmer, said his two goals for the area are to remove blighted housing and bring jobs to the area.
“There’s lots of empty space and land,” he said. “We’re one of the most spacious districts. There’s a lot (the new commission) can do as far as tax strategies and business ordinances.”
All three said there need to be new approaches to tackling crime.
Arnold noted that crime statistics are going down in Macon, and wants to see improved recreation opportunities for young people, as well as mentorship programs with volunteers.
Bell said the fact that people with multiple arrests are in and out of the Bibb County jail means current programs aren’t working.
“We need better citizens, not bigger jails,” he said. “When you see a person who has been in and out of jail 20 times, it means the penalty is not working. We need to make kids grow up. We need recreation to build their character.”
Shepherd praised the efforts of Bibb County Sheriff David Davis, whose office will oversee all law enforcement in the unified city and county.
District 8 candidates Regina Davis, Charles Jones and Virgil Watkins had similar ideas to improve the new government, but different approaches to making those changes happen.
For example, Watkins and Jones -- who both currently represent Ward IV on the Macon City Council -- talked about how the new government can work together better than the old ones have.
Jones said if he sees he doesn’t have support on an issue, he’ll back down rather than cause tension over a fight he can’t win.
“I’ll agree to disagree,” he said. “There’s no sense in fighting a fight you can’t win. We need to respect each other.”
But Watkins took the opposite tack, saying he’s willing to fight for what he believes in, even if he can’t convince others to support his idea.
“When right is right, even if I’m on the wrong end of the vote, it still feels like the right thing to do,” he said.
Davis, a real estate agent who hasn’t held office, said it’s important for the new commission to get off on the right foot and respect each other.
“Macon has built a great foundation,” she said. “There have been a lot of improvements over the years, but there’s still a lot to do. To make this city what it should be, it’s going to take a level of respect and us working with each other.”
When asked by an audience member about duplicating services, Watkins said the city and the county have already eliminated a lot of crossover thanks to the Service Delivery Strategy.
Jones said it was important to learn from the mistakes of other unified city and county governments in Georgia when it comes to combining departments.
Davis said she didn’t have a direct answer when it came to services, except to say that it’s important residents don’t lose any services.
The Timley-Tillman race already has been a contentious one, with a challenge to Tillman’s residency in the district ultimately struck down by the Bibb County Board of Elections. Earlier Thursday, Macon Councilman Henry Gibson filed an injunction over that decision in Bibb County Superior Court.
The debate, however, focused mostly on the issues and challenges facing the new government. Timley touted his record while serving on council, noting he had an ordinance passed to address copper thefts all over the city.
Timley said the city’s structure is vastly different than what the new government’s structure will be, and commissioners won’t be able to have direct interaction on how the sheriff handles law enforcement.
“Crime-fighting is up to the sheriff,” he said. “The commission doesn’t have the ability to direct crime-fighting. (In the new government), we can talk to department heads, but we can’t direct them.”
Tillman said the current approach to crime hasn’t been working, and suggested more community involvement.
“We have not been smart on crime,” he said. “We’ve tried to be tough, but not smart. We need to form partnerships in the community and get people involved. That’s what I’ve been doing with Unity-n-Community.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.