Public safety, economic development, and the county’s water and sewer system topped the concerns discussed by candidates at the South Rockdale Civic Association Tuesday night in the first local forum of the 2012 election season.
Commission Chairman candidates, Republican Ed Conway, Democrat Brian Jenkins, and Republican Jason Hill attended the forum, as well as Post I Commission candidates incumbent Commissioner Oz Nesbitt, a Democratic candidate, and Republican Tom Harrison. Incumbent Chairman Richard Oden and Post I candidates Jerry Sheppherd and Winston McDonald, all Democratic candidates, reportedly declined the event.
The event, organized by Ed Tracey of edwardctracey.com and Don Meyer, president of the South Rockdale Civic Association, saw a full house of about 40 attendees. Meyer served as moderator and Tracey and Michelle Kim of the Rockdale News served on the panel with follow up questions.
All the candidates agreed public safety was a top priority for county commissioners.
“If you can’t feel that your children are safe at school, that your house is going to burn down because no one responds, then nothing else will work,” said Conway. “You can scrimp other places but you’ve got to have a well trained, well equipped, well staffed sheriff’s department and fire department.”
Jenkins said a “certain element” wanted to take over Rockdale County. He said, “When I become Chairman of Rockdale County, there will be two Sheriffs. Jeff Wigington and Brian Jenkins. We will work together to rid that and send a message to these criminals - not in this county.” He also added, “Our police officers are underpaid. I want to make sure my first priority as Chairman of Rockdale County are paid just like the police officers in Atlanta.”
Hill described finding his business, Still Lumber, robbed last week for the first time in 60 years. “In every business that you’re in, in every neighborhood you’re in, we need you to feel safe,” he said. “It’s looking past statistics and numbers. It’s whatever it takes to make people feel safe wherever they are in Rockdale County,” including working with the courts, city, and sheriff’s office.
Nesbitt commended the Sheriff’s Office and courts in establishing Rockdale’s reputation, being responsive, and being ready. “We have an excellent team of public safety people in Rockdale County and I agree they are second to none,” he said.
Harrison said he would take the politics out of public safety issues. Over the last three years, “there was too much politics, too much drama in what goes on in the day to day operations,” he said. “The second thing, I think we made a mistake in moving the 911 operations away from the sheriff’s department.”
Regarding economic development, Hill said he would lessen the tax burden on residents by making the county more efficient and focusing on the basics, such as public safety, roads, and public works. He said he would lower the salaries of the commissioners and move to a county manager style of government
He would also streamline the experience for businesses with the county and prioritize spending county procurements with local businesses. “We can cut down on the regulations and fees for business… We can do a lot of things to help business.” He pointed out in the long term, the Salem Road and 138 retail corridor would be aided by the non-access bridge proposed in the TSPLOST project list.
Nesbitt said he would reach out to local businesses and get involved with an event like an expo or fair or a think tank.
Harrison said he would work towards a common sign ordinance for the both the city and county, to reduce the frustration for business owners, and examine the county’s code enforcement.
Conway said there needed to be active coordination and mutual respect more than mutual tolerance between the city, county, and other agencies. “What I want is a county that’s safe and reliable. We’re a bedroom community. If we can get the big companies in here, great. But I think we have to face reality. We’re special, we should stay that way.”
Jenkins said he would invest in local businesses and would develop relationships with local businesses.
Although the forum was designed to address issues, candidates still managed to take a few swipes at each other.
Jenkins, when talking about his management style, said, “It isn’t about excuses. It’s about getting it done. I’m not running for CEO. The taxpayers are the CEO. I’m running for Chairman. If my department heads can’t get it done, we’ve got to get rid of them and put someone in there who can.”
He added that several of the candidates on the stage supporting having a county manager. “They’re running for the position, but they don’t want the job. I’m running for the job. It takes a person like me to strengthen Rockdale County. I believe in investing in the sum of all parts. Not the sum of some parts. I’m not running a divisive campaign like my opponent. I’m running a campaign that deals with bringing people together.”
Nesbitt said, when talking about coalition building, “We have to first look at leadership. It’s going to take the right kind of leadership that understands the spirit of welcome.
“It’s also understanding and embracing the change that this county is going through and has gone through the past four years. It is a new Rockdale County. It’s not the place you remember from 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Some of that may be bittersweet, depending on how you look at it. It is about having the right leadership in place to be able to bring people collectively together regardless of whether you’ve been here two days, two years, or 200 years. In order to have effective leadership, you have to be able to communicate with a cross section of everybody in this community.”