BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – The Democratic Executive Committee hosted a candidates forum Monday night at the municipal complex. Democratic candidates in the mayor and city council races were invited.
Mayoral candidates Robert Smith and Carl Lee were present. City council challengers Troy Miller and Eric Thomas (Ward 2), Whirllie Byrd (Ward 6), Lavonne Latham Harris and Fredrick Jackson (Ward 4) and Charlotte Braxton Verdell (Ward 3) participated, as did Ward 2 incumbent Joseph Mickens and Ward 5 incumbent Stephen Jones.
Mayoral candidate Selvain McQueen did not attend, nor did Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor, who is unopposed, and Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner.
The evening was broken up in to three parts. The mayoral candidates spoke, then the city council challengers, and, finally, the city council incumbents. All groups were given time for opening and closing remarks and took questions from moderators. No questions were taken from the public.
Smith and Lee were the first to take the stage. Steve Rogers and Cindy Lawrence were the moderators for this portion of the forum.
Lee made his opening remarks.
“I am running for mayor as an opportunity for all of us to improve our community,” Lee said. “I am not the answer, we are. I want us to focus on that. If we do a report card on our community over the last 20 years, and we are honest, then we have seen our city go from an A city to at best a C city. That includes the schools. The primary job we have other than security is to educate. We are the largest city in the Golden Triangle, with the largest university in the state, Mississippi State University, and I don’t see any ‘come together right now over me.’ I see the Link creating thousands of jobs in Lowndes County, but a deteriorating tax base. That’s a problem. All problems have solutions, and those solutions lie in us coming together.
“If we continue to deny a problem exists, we look like mini-Detroit. Not being honest about it won’t make it not true,” Lee said. “Any time we have a public school system where one of the school board members has his children in private school and yet chairs the public school board…we already fought those battles. One man one vote principle means that that’s unconstitutional in the United States of America. Mississippi was on the losing side of the Civil War. This is not the Confederacy. This is the United States of America here. We continue to see here in the city…we are the majority African-American, but if you take every board or commission the attorneys all remain from the same gang. If the attorney for the City of Columbus, the utility commission, the housing authority, parks and recreation, none of them look like us, the African-Americans. That’s a problem. We want everybody to participate, not some of us or one of us. This is about integration, not segregation, but you don’t have integration when you have these attorneys making the big money.”
Smith touted his experience in his opening remarks.
“I served 31.5 years in education as a classroom teacher, coach and administrator,” he said. “My platform is simple. First, we want to work with law enforcement to reduce crime. Crime is the top priority now in the city. Secondly is infrastructure. We want to continue maintaining quality streets and paving and curbs, sidewalks and gutters. Education, from the mayor and council’s standpoint, is we want to continue to partner with the city school district and the board to ensure that every student gets the best education available. My concern is also with redevelopment and working with developers and providing adequate homes in a lot of our neighborhoods that have inadequate homes. From a retail development and economic development standpoint is to continue working with the Link as far as trying to attract high-skilled, high-tech jobs, and from the retail standpoint we want to continue working with the Link to create jobs that are not high-tech. Lastly, with the recreation department, we want to work to provide quality activities for the youth, adults and senior citizens.”
The candidates were asked: “What do you consider your greatest attributes in making you an effective mayor?”
Lee was the first to respond.
“Public honesty,” he said. “If you want to get elected or appointed in the public sector and you’re doing that to get rich, you’re in the wrong business. If you want to be rich, get in the private sector. The public sector is no place to have nepotism, the good old buddy-buddy system, which is going on rampantly. Look at the boards and commissions, look at who gets the jobs. I had one young man get fired from the county for drugs, and the next week he got a job with the city. Inconceivable. If you lose your job on Friday with Lowndes County because you get busted for selling dope, how do you get a job the next week with the city when there are people who have already applied for jobs? We have to get serious about the greater good for the greater number. We are way off course here.”
“Character, integrity and trustworthiness,” Smith said. “I have people skills, organizational skills and planning skills.”
The next question was: “What do you want to be your legacy 10 or 15 or 20 years from now?”
“I want to be remembered as a mayor for the people, not just black or white, but for all the citizens of the City of Columbus,” Smith said, “and that you can see progress all across the city, not just talk about progress.”
“If you go throughout the community you won’t find a new sidewalk in this town,” Lee said. “14th Avenue is one of the most heavily traveled roads in Columbus. It still has the same sidewalk it has when I was going to Joe Cook back in ’71. The mayor took the last two years of (former Mayor Jeffrey Rupp’s) term and has served two terms. That’s 10 years, and there’s not a sidewalk. Come on, man. I want legacy to be that we can put a sidewalk down. As I told (former Ward 4 Councilman Fred Stewart) when we un-elected him, you’ve been here for years and you can’t even put a sidewalk down. See you, wouldn’t want to be you, Mr. Stewart. Same thing now. No sidewalk. That sidewalk is sunken. If you can’t compel a sidewalk, where you leading us to, a cemetery? We don’t need help going there.”
The third question: “On Oct. 1 the city will be responsible for developing a parks and recreation program. Will the citizens have the ability to participate in the development and implementation of a new parks and recreation program?”
“I have one of my campaign members working on that task now, identifying specifically what we need in the neighborhoods for recreation,” Lee said. “Let us not lie to ourselves. We have been dealing with this issue since I returned here in 1983. The first thing we need to do is stop lying to ourselves. Here we come up every four years when it’s election time and pretend that we are paving the streets. Same thing with recreation. About every four years we get a comprehensive plan. A plan isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if you don’t get dollars to implement it. We can just save the paper and go back to the last two comprehensive plans. We’ve been steadily losing recreation facilities in our communities. That’s another political tactic, we’ve got to get a plan. Plan for what? Our children and grandchildren are steadily being carted off to prison. Is that in the comprehensive plan? They are steadily getting arrested right in the area where the recreation facilities are and have been. Stop lying.”
Smith said he hoped citizens would participate.
“The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors voted where they want to separate from the city, and (Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority Executive Director Greg Lewis) and other council members have started coming up with a comprehensive plan so when we get to the budget process in the latter part of May we can see what type of money we will need,” Smith said. “When I say comprehensive plan, it will be inclusive and will include youth, adults and senior citizens. And yes, we want input from the citizens of the community.”
The next question was: “We have cracked down on businesses where behavior has become a problem and hurt property values. Should we do the same thing to owners of residential rental properties that are causing problems with arrests, drive-bys, noise, litter and other problems that lower property values in neighborhoods?”
Smith said residential matters fall under the police department.
“With the businesses where we’ve cracked down, it’s been a continuation of problems at these places,” Smith said. “It’s been for a short period of time, like two months or three months if the owner cooperates. From a residential standpoint, that’s totally different. From a residential standpoint if the citizen owns their home it’s different from a person that’s leasing it. It’s not something where the mayor and council can really get involved. The police department will handle it pretty much most of the time.”
“When we say that the problem is the business or the property owner, we are on a thin line of ice there,” Lee said. “Now we’re on the verge of running some kind of police state here. If we keep pushing the line out you’re going to end up in federal court and you’re going to lose. We have a free enterprise system in this country. We are under a capitalist country, not a communist country. You can’t tell businesses how long they can stay open and all this crap. The same thing with property owners. That means that you have a serious management and enforcement problem with the police department. Let’s revisit this. How many chiefs have we had in 10 years? How many police officers did we start with, and how many do we have now? If we identify the problem as the business owner or the property owner, we are in error. The problem comes back to law enforcement, so that means we need to improve that.”
The candidates were asked about the selection of board members, and whether they should be interviewed in public.
“Yes, I would support that,” Lee said. “That’s part of the problem here. All of this stuff needs to be out in the public. These back room deals that are being cut look nasty and dirty. If a person is going to be considered for any board or commission they need to come before the public, not have the person be appointed and then have whispers and calls coming to me about his child being in the private schools or he said he wouldn’t put his child in public schools. Then somebody say he’s the only one who can keep the superintendent in line. Come on, it’s ridiculous. I’m not making any deals with Satan here. We don’t want to go back to the past to where our parents and great-grandparents were, where everything is swept under the rug here. If you’re in public service, you need to do the right thing for greatest good for the greatest number, no so me and mine can get some.”
“I am in favor of interviewing the candidates in public,” Smith said. “But it’s up to the wishes of the mayor and council. But as for me, I am in favor of it.”
The final question for the mayoral candidates was about the school system: “Is the school district’s problems ultimately the responsibility of the mayor and council, and what is the solution?”
“The school board is autonomous,” Smith said. “Once we appoint the board, we have no jurisdiction over them. As far as the school district, if the school district does good then it makes the city look good. It’s a two-way street. We are just a resource for the school district. We appoint the board members, the board members hire a superintendent and he is the instructional leader.”
“Politics is who gets what, when, where and how,” Lee said. “If the mayor and the council have the responsibility for appointing members of the school board, then it is their purview what happens at the schools. If anything is going on with the schools, and you go to the school board meeting, you’ll see the mayor there, but he says they are autonomous. We cannot pass the buck continually as our schools deteriorate and our children get at best an adequate education. Everybody’s going to pass the buck and reappoint them and say it’s out of our hands. Come on, man. We know when we’re being BSed here. The only question is do you want to live with the problem or do you want to solve it?”
Both candidates then made their closing remarks.
“Please don’t be misled by promises with no action plan,” Smith said. “I’m quite sure that you’re hearing a lot of promises and innuendos about how to do this or do that. There are some problems in the city, just like there are problems in any other city. Crime hasn’t just started today. We’re doing everything we can. With all the negatives, look at the positives around this city from the last three and a half years.”
“We need to have term limits on the council and the mayor,” Lee said. “If whatever I am going to be a part of achieving has happened in eight years, guess what that means? It ain’t going to happen. If I’m mayor for eight years and you don’t have a sidewalk on 14th Avenue, just say, ‘Carl, resign.’ When your mother or grandmother would tell you that you’ve got a string hanging on your skirt, come here and let me cut it off, what I’m trying to do is not to pull the string. I don’t want the city naked. But the emperor has no clothes. He says don’t listen to promises, but that’s what we’ve been hearing for 10 years. We ain’t got a sidewalk. This is not practice here. This is reality.”
City Council Challengers
Each of the six challengers were given two minutes to make opening remarks.
[I am running very low on time, so I’m going to just put in the opening remarks here and for the incumbents. If time and space allow I’ll dip back in to all this next week. – Ed.]
“I am running because I care for this city,” said Troy Miller. “I have lived in Columbus and Lowndes County for more than 30 years. My children were born here. I believe that we can do better than we have done. I believe the representation that Ward 2 had over the past eight years has been woefully inadequate. As a councilman I will value service over self, which is something that we have not seen in quite a while. Ward 2 deserves a councilman that values the residents more than he values a business or anything else. I will give back to the ward. One of the things that I will do is immediately reinvest what you pay me as a councilman. When we were struck by a tornado a few years ago, we were not able to find temporary power for some folks. I will reinvest 10 percent of what you’re paying me to buy portable generators so that resource will be available if needed. Some residents at that time were without power for seven days, and that’s too long to go without power.”
“My platform is focused on solutions,” said Whirllie Byrd. “I am running because I have a grandchild who is just entering public school and I want to make a difference in his life. Although I have not had political office, I have been on the front line and in the background of political life, and as a member of the CVB board I have seen many issues that faced the city. As a board member of the American Red Cross I have seen many issues that adversely affect people on a day to day basis. As a city council representative I will reach more people and be able to solve issues that are as important to you as they are to me. Public safety is a big issue. We need quality and advanced education for our children. I will work diligently for adequate infrastructure, along with paved streets and cover the large open ditches that run through many neighborhoods.”
“I am seeking the Ward 4 council seat because I feel I can be a great asset to the community,” said Lavonne Latham Harris. “All my grands are in the Columbus school system, and I want to work to make our city better. We need some strong leaders to make good progress for our city. It is time for us to come together across the ward as a whole.”
“I serve as youth coordinator at New Beginnings Full Gospel Baptist Church, and I am a commissioner on the 911 board,” said Eric Thomas. “I’m a coach for over 20 years at park and rec and at the YMCA. I am running because I care about the people and I want to see Columbus do better.”
“I have a vested interest in the city of Columbus,” said Fredrick Jackson. “I send my kids to the public school system here. My whole platform is if we can change environments we can change lives. It’s been so long that we have been planting plum seeds and expecting peaches. It’s time for people in leadership positions to do something different to impact our city.”
“I have a heart for this city,” said Charlotte Braxton Verdell. “Part of why I’m running is because I want to be help whoever the mayor is and the city council even better and stronger. I want to see Columbus be all that it can be in education, economics and the community. I want to see people love their city again. I was part of the first unified class of Columbus High School. I was seeing Columbus come together, and that’s what we want to see. Let’s get all these people who are divided from the old and bring them into the new so we can see a better place to live.”
The two incumbents who were also given two minutes to make opening remarks.
“I’ve been living here for over 25 years,” said Ward 2 incumbent Joseph Mickens. “We are trailblazers, and I consider myself a trailblazer. I came in with our president in 2009. I came in on Yes We Can. Yes we did, and yes we can again. I paved the way. (The challengers) couldn’t be here without Joe Mickens. I paved the way for those candidates to run in Ward 2. When I came in it was a predominantly white ward, and I won with 47 percent. Now the demographics have changed, and the ward is 70 percent. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Miller, they owe that to me. They wouldn’t be able to sit here and run today if it wasn’t for Joe Mickens.”
“I was newly elected a little over a year ago,” Ward 5 incumbent Stephen Jones said. “I’m running for re-election. I am married and have three kids. I just want to continue the progress that I’ve made in Ward 5.”