BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – Three of the four candidates in Columbus mayoral campaign squared off at a voter’s forum at the Municipal Complex Thursday night. Democrats Carl Lee and Selvain McQueen and Independent Montrell Coburn, as well as Ward 3 challenger Charlotte Braxton Verdell and incumbent Charlie Box, took questions for about two hours.
Incumbent Mayor Robert Smith was not present. He was sick.
The forum was sponsored by 100 Black Women and Delta Gamma Theta sorority.
Each candidate was allowed to make introductory remarks.
“I’m a minority, I’m an inventor, I’m a scientist,” said Coburn. “I brought copies of my book if you want copies of it to learn more about me and what I do. I’ve been here since 1995. I love people. I have a heart for the people and a mind for the job. My priority is to make sure every citizen has equal access to gain wealth.”
“I’m a former chief of police,” McQueen said. “I pounded the streets for over 26 years. I’m compassionate about the City of Columbus. I want to make this a safer place to live, work, visit and play. I want to move our city forward.”
“I am still here after all these years,” Lee said. “I am a native of Columbus. I was born in a shotgun house less that five blocks from this building we sit in this evening. This is my second time running for mayor. I ran in ’97. The issues are still the same after all these years, and so I submit myself again as a candidate. If we deny the problem we have no opportunity to get a solution. As we all know our big problems are economic development, infrastructure, safety. We don’t want to become a mini-Detroit or mini-Gary, Indiana. We must find ways to work with the county to find ways to improve the entire Golden Triangle.”
“I am a 28-year resident of Columbus,” Verdell said. “I am a graduate of Columbus High School, and I am an advocate for the school system and the education system. I am passionate about children and families. I have a heart for the city, and I am not only worried about my family but I am concerned about yours.”
“I am currently serving on the city council in Ward 3,” Box said. “I am looking for a third term. I feel like I’ve done a good job, I’ve been responsive to people in my ward. I am a product of the Columbus public school system. I love the city and I think it’s a great place to live. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
The mayoral candidates were asked what policies they would propose to curtail crime.
“What is going on is a spiritual battle,” Coburn said. “The chickens are coming home to roost. There are things that are spiritual that are going on in this city. I have a mind for the people and can represent you to alleviate some of the things that have transpired in the city.”
“I have the background to get it done,” McQueen said. “This didn’t take place overnight. If you go back and check the record none of this took place until April 5, 2014. That’s when everything went awry. The head sets the standard for everyone else to follow, and if I am elected I assure you that I’ll be straight.”
“If you cut off the head of a snake, it’ll die,” Lee said. “The population of Columbus was once 27,000 and now it is 24,000. We have more crime with fewer people. How in the world can you have effective law enforcement in this community when over the last 12 years we’ve had five or six police chiefs. That’s a problem. If the mayor and the council hire these people then they should give them the opportunity to get the department headed in the right direction. If we deny the truth we shall not be free.”
The moderator asked the candidates to respond again with specific policies.
“How many foreigners do you see opening up stores in specific areas?” Coburn said. “They sell drugs to that area. They are not in the white, Caucasian neighborhoods. They open up their stores and sell poison to our people. That poison does things to the mind. It creates criminal behavior. I would address that to get those stores out of our neighborhoods.”
“My two policies will involve the mayor and the council not interfering in the day-to-day operations of the police department or the fire department,” McQueen said. “Secondly I’m going to ensure they have the training and the backing to do what they need and so we can make the city a safer place to live.”
“Get a chief and get out of the way,” Lee said. “Allow that chief to bring in the law enforcement personnel they need and allow them to do their jobs. When you micromanage…if I’m the mayor and you find me at somebody’s death scene and you find me announcing to the public that there’s no foul play, I’m out of place. No mayor should be at a death scene talking about no foul play even if that is correct. But when you find out later the man’s got a bullet in his head, your’e out of your job.” [Mr. Lee is referring to the murder of “Ham” Davis last year, when the mayor, who was present at the crime scene, told members of the media that foul play was not suspected. An autopsy performed in Pearl at the state crime lab the next day found that he had been shot to death. – Ed.]
The candidates were asked whether they would implement stricter building codes and ordinances.
“We have a dilapidated property ordinance now,” Box said. “We spend a lot of time each week looking at dilapidated properties. We have someone who has been hired to go out and evaluate them and brings the property to the city council meeting and then we can subpoena the person to come forward to respond.”
“Even though we have something in place, we should also have something that would allow the police to come in and make sure the place is secure and safe,” Verdell said. “Adding officers so the police are more visible and develop these relationships in the community and having them as regulars…I think they need access.”
“I think they need to have appropriate camera systems,” Lee said. “They do not eliminate crime, but they do reduce it. No different than Walmart. If you go in or out of Walmart, you’re on camera. Same thing with these stores, particularly these in high crime areas.”
“We do have ordinances on the books, but they can be improved,” McQueen said. “We should allow public input. Don’t just get with the city attorney and allow him to do whatever needs to be done. We must be mindful that taxes are collected through sales tax as well as ad valorem. I am totally against governmental regulation by shutting people down early. You can’t do that because that person can’t make a living, especially If I, for instance, run a nightclub. I would make sure that it’s equitable across the board. If this store has to have cameras, every store has to have them. What’s good for one should be good for all.”
“I think the ordinance is awesome,” Coburn said. “I think cameras need to put in strategic blind spots. We need to give them a blueprint on how to prevent crime, and a strategic plan to help prevent crime.”
The candidates were asked whether they would establish an office in the city to develop business and economic development.
“The city is at present part of the Link,” Lee said. “My first thing would be to try to establish a healthy working relationship with the Link. City of Columbus dollars are being spent by the Link, and I don’t know what the problem has been and is. If I had been mayor for 10 years and I had not established a working relationship with the Link and yet its director has appeared on 60 Minutes for the world to see, then guess who the problem is? It’s me if I’ve been mayor. Establishing an office and creating a job will not bring jobs to Columbus.”
“We have a genius in Joe Max Higgins,” McQueen said. “We’ve had those businesses within the city, like UT and Johnston Tombigbee. My take is that I have oftentimes heard the city is landlocked. We just annexed. We’re landlocked because certain individuals annexed with thoughts of voting lines. They wanted to get back into office as opposed to annexing open land so we can obtain businesses. We have everything we need. We have waterways, we have adequate highways, we’ve got everything we need to move this city forward, but we can’t fight with the Link or the board of supervisors.”
“I believe we have a problem with budgeting and handling our money,” Coburn said. “People don’t know how to budget their money correctly to live on minimum wage. I’m concerned about our citizens and my number one priority will be my men’s safety, no matter what jobs come in. Are you going to take care of my men?”
PIerre Beard, who is a candidate in the Ward 4 council race, asked the candidates if they would be willing to share their ideas with the incoming administration even if they lose.
“Yes,” Box said. “I love the city and I’ve been involved all my life with the church, with civic organizations, I have tried to give back more than I’ve received. A lot of comments have been made tonight about how bad we are, but Columbus is not a bad place to live. It’s an outstanding place to live. I love living here.”
“The first time I met Mr. Box was after a city council meeting, and the first thing I said to him was that win or lose I still want to work with him after this,” Verdell said. “No matter what I have a heart for this city and I think everybody who is in this race has a heart for this city, and we have to learn to work together.”
“If I lose it won’t be the first time,” Lee said. “And I’m still smiling. I am always willing, I am always offering and volunteering and making suggestions.”
“Absolutely,” McQueen said. “I can only hope and pray that they be receptive to whatever advice I have to give.”
“Proverbs say a fool speaks all his mind,” Coburn said. “Depending on who wins…would the Jews give Hitler their great ideas? I’ll end on that note.”