The 2011 election for the next mayor of Covington comes at a pivotal time for the 13,000-person city, as a tumultuous city council increasingly splits votes, while City Manager Steve Horton, a source of stability, plans to retire within a year.
At the same time, the city remains in strong financial shape - once again running a budget surplus - and has the resources needed to create positive change.
The next mayor will be called upon to unify the council and city and help in the search for the next steward, so that when the economy does turn around Covington is poised to move forward.
Ronnie Johnston and Bobby Sigman both have expressed their desire to be that unifying force and to see the city improved. To help voters decide, The News conducted 45-minute, in-depth video interviews with both candidates, asking them a wide variety of questions about a divided council, the next city manager, the budget, tourism, ethics and, of course, what makes them the best candidate.
The highlights from those interviews have been included below and compiled into short video clips on covnews.com. In addition, the full interviews will be posted online next week.
Old or New
In some ways, the choice of mayor is one between polar opposites.
Covington born and raised, Sigman is a political veteran who's been a Covington councilman, a state representative and run for mayor twice before.
"I've been here all my life. I know how it works. I have state connections. I know my community," Sigman said. "I've been to people's houses, sat at their tables, heard their problems, and I've lived some of their problems."
On the other hand, Johnston is both a newcomer to Covington and the political arena. He moved to Covington three years ago and said he fell in love with the city. For him, being a relative outsider allows him to connect with everyone.
"I've had many people ask me as I go door-to-door... ‘Are you a Keith/Chris, in their camp, this camp?' And I describe it this way, the benefits of somebody who hasn't been here all my life, coming in, I think I'm a great representative of all people," Johnston said. "I have no alliances, I have not been here all my life. I'm also not taking contributions for my campaign, because I want to be the mayor for everybody."
As the former chief operating officer of a family business that employed 500, Johnston believes he's well suited to be equivalent to the chairman of the board of directors for Covington. He also believes that experience makes him the best candidate to deal with prospective businesses and industries, which is a central role of the mayor.
Most importantly, Johnston believes he is a strong communicator who can use his skills and experience to bridge gaps among the council, between the city and its residents and between the east and west sides of the city.
"As I've gone door-to-door meeting the folks of Covington, I'm convinced more than ever one of the problems is communication, and it's big. Everything from what's really going on with utilities, all those issues, people aren't getting the information," Johnston said. "I'm a big believer, most folks that I've met, if you get all the information to them, they'll come to the same conclusion you do. But you got to take the time to make sure they understand all the information."
As a former council member and lifelong resident, Sigman believes he can bring strong leadership to the mayor's office, while remaining true to the citizens of Covington.
"They need someone at the helm of the council to help mend the gap," Sigman said, noting that, if elected, he plans to work more one-on-one with council members to keep them informed ahead of the meetings.
He also pointed to the state connections he made and has maintained from his 1975-76 term as a state representative, and noted that he's not afraid to ask for assistance.
The Mayor's Role
Both candidates agreed that, under the charter, the mayor does not have much power.
Sigman said he would not fight with council members and would not voice his opinion on agenda items unless he had to. However, he made it clear that he had the gavel and would keep control of the council.
Johnston said he believes the main role of the mayor is to be the spokesperson of the city both to the public and prospective industries. He said he plans to spend most of his time talking to people in the community and working to inform them of the city's actions and programs. In addition, he believes he can help the chamber sell Covington to industries and businesses.
Both candidates were asked if they had a clean criminal record and both responded that they did. Specifically, Sigman was asked "Do you have a clean criminal record or spent any time in prison or anything like that?"
He replied, "No, I'm sorry but I have not. I have not. Let's stop that rumor right now. I have not spent time in prison or anything of that nature."
The News conducted background checks of both candidates. The only incident that came back for either candidate was a 1989 DUI conviction for Sigman.
In addition, the Covington Police Department was asked to run arrest records for the candidates, and a 1998 DUI arrest was also found for Sigman.
Looking for a New City Manager
On the topic of the next city manager, Johnston didn't have much to add, saying that he believed the decision would be made by the council as spelled out in the charter.
Sigman, on the other hand, said the decision was too important to be influenced by any local emotions,
"Are we qualified to screen them out, I don't think so...So the wisest money we can spend is to hire a professional firm," he said.
Once the firm narrowed down the applications to 10 or 12 finalists, Sigman suggested forming a committee of Horton, former city manager Frank Turner, Sr., local business leaders and the council to narrow down the candidates to three finalists. The council would then make the final decision he said.
Keeping Costs Down
Sigman said he wants to cut out some of the local bureaucracy and make Covington more responsive to citizens and more open to public input.
He also hopes to help citizens by cutting 10 percent out of city's $121 million budget, eliminating any redundant employees and reducing the stormwater fee. He said the city needs to remain in survival mode until the economy recovers.
Johnston said he wanted to introduce a culture of efficiency, adding that one option is to introduce an incentive program for those employees who saved the city money. In city management and the council's decisions, he wants to see cost-benefit analyses calculated whenever possible to take the emotion out of decisions.
He also wants to make sure that all city employees understand the budget and how it affects them, as well as understanding the direction the city is taking.
Filming and Tourism
Both candidates also said they supported tourism, including filming and other events in downtown Covington.
"I think the filming is great...you would have to be pretty thick-headed to not see where that's very beneficial to the city," Johnston said.
However, Johnston said he understands that not all businesses benefit from tourism, and he said he'd love to find a way to work with productions like the "Vampire Diaries" to see if they could help promote local businesses in some way.
Sigman agreed that filming and events are beneficial to Covington, and he said as long as residents weren't inconvenienced during their morning or evening commutes, he would fully support it.
See More Online
The above is just a portion of the topics covered during The News' interviews with the two candidates. Be sure to visit covnews.com throughout the week to see the full interviews. The News will also be partnering with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce later this fall for a mayoral candidate forum.