SOCIAL CIRCLE -- Transparency in government, improved public safety, attracting industry and a love of community were the prevailing themes sounded by mayoral and city council candidates during Thursday's political forum in Social Circle.
The forum --one of three political forums hosted last week by the Walton County Chamber of Commerce -- was moderated by Loganville businessman Shane Sale at the Social Circle School Activity Center on Alcova Street.
Each candidate -- four for mayor, two for District 4 on the City Council and three for School Board District 3 -- was invited to give a 2-minute introduction and then a 1-minute closing statement. In a round-robin format, the candidates each responded to six questions submitted earlier by the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Committee and members of the public via email.
Four candidates are vying for mayor to replace Jim Burgess, who opted not to seek re-election. Each touted his affection for Social Circle and pledged to be a good steward of the public's tax money.
Joel Biggs is a relative newcomer to Social Circle and said the city needs a fresh perspective. He said it's important that the city's leaders are active and visible in the community, especially so young people can know who their leaders are.
In response to the first question about how to improve the Social Circle Public Safety Department, which has been the subject of many citizens' complaints and several lawsuits involving city employees, Biggs said the city must get control over the department. He said the budget needs to get straightened out and "we need to talk with all the department heads to make sure they are in control of all their officers."
He added that it is important that members of the Public Safety Department make an effort to get out into the community so they can know the citizens and the citizens know the police officers.
The biggest challenge facing Social Circle, Biggs said, is getting the city's spending in line with the citizens' priorities. He said the public is too often in the dark about many of the city's actions.
"The people should have a say in their community, in what is going on so they can say 'no' if they don't like something," he said. "If we keep the bills low, many may be more inclined to start a business here."
Biggs said people should vote for him because "I have a heart for the people and I care about them. That said, if you need someone to stand up for you, I'm that guy."
Hal Dally is a lifelong resident of Social Circle who said his experience as chairman of the Social Circle School Board and other community volunteer boards, along with his banking and business experience, make him uniquely qualified to move the city forward. He said the city is in good financial shape with relatively low taxes and potential for industrial growth. He said he is a strong supporter of strategic planning.
"I want to make sure we don't raise taxes and still provide the amenities people want," Dally said. "I want to do the things that will bring us all together."
The one area where Dally said he would advocate significant change would be with the Public Safety Department, which now houses the fire and police departments under the same department.
"It's not working out and it seems to breed discontent between the department and that is passed down to the public," he said.
Dally said it's the perfect time with a new mayor and a new city councilman coming on board to set down expectations for the department: to be friendly and to be professional.
He said the people whose families have been in the community for hundreds of years laid the groundwork for what Social Circle has now, including strong schools, industries and a pro-business, competitive tax rate.
Hosea Jackson, who was also born and raised in Social Circle, minced no words when addressing questions about what he hopes to accomplish if elected mayor.
"There's been all kinds of rumors and innuendo," he said. "When I am mayor, I will open all records to the public and I challenge all you candidates here tonight to do the same thing."
Jackson also pledged to have an open-door policy and be a visible member in the community, pointing out that he is retired and will be able to dedicate all his time to the position.
"I will be very active," he said. "I will be available seven days a week."
Unlike the other candidates, Jackson was the only one who said he did not support an upcoming vote on the renewal of two sales tax referenda -- SPLOST and ELOST for education purposes.
"I guess I'm different," he said. "I don't support tax increases of any kind. Once a tax is in place, it stays there."
Jackson added that he disagreed with the other candidates' emphasis on recruiting major industry, and instead said small business, particularly in the downtown area, is the lifeblood of Social Circle.
The one area where Jackson agreed most with his opponents is in taking action to improve the Public Safety Department by implementing a clear chain of command.
Barron Steward grew up in Social Circle but spent many years working in Atlanta and Chicago before returning home. He said he has many creative ideas about how to move the city forward, and has a passion for youth and senior citizens."I love our seniors and I know what it's like to work with those without and those who have. I see both sides of the spectrum," he said.
On the local economy, Steward said the focus should be on small businesses.
"We need to revitalize downtown and get small businesses in here," he said. "We need to create more jobs in Social Circle, and also we should be cutting taxes and lowering utility costs."
Steward said he supports renewal of the SPLOST and ELOST, calling it a "healthy concept," but said he does have some concerns about taking on the expense of some of the capital projects to be funded by sales tax.
Like the other candidates, Steward said the city's Public Safety Department needs retooling.
"It's well established it has become a problem here and we need to address it directly," he said. "I believe in safety; it's vital for any community. We need to reassess and reevaluate the department to decide what to do."
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 4
Crenan Mills and Steve Shelton are vying for the open seat for District 4 on the City Council. Councilwoman Anne Peppers is not seeking re-election this year.
Local businessman Crenan Mills said owning and operating his own business, along with his vast volunteer experience, make him the stronger candidate in the race.
"I am someone who will make thoughtful, educated decisions on your behalf," he said. "I am the person who can represent you unencumbered by other issues."
Mills said he would be able to weigh in on all matters that come before the City Council, whereas Shelton would have to recuse himself from certain discussions.
"My opponent is involved in a lawsuit against the city and the city manager," Mills said. "He chose to place himself in an adversarial position."
Shelton, the former police chief, filed suit earlier this year against Social Circle and City Manager Doug White claiming he was forced to resign after 25 years employment with Social Circle and that he was a victim of retaliation. His complaint stems from allegations in another lawsuit against the city filed by a former police officer that claimed he was the victim of discrimination. That suit was settled in August.
In light of these problems, Mills said he would advocate dividing the current Public Safety Department into two distinct departments, one for police and one for fire.
"We should not lose sight that crime is down -- the proof is in the pudding -- but we need two standalone departments," Mills said.
Mills said revitalizing the downtown area is one of the biggest issues facing Social Circle and over the next five years he could help the community work together toward that end.
"But we would be fine if downtown is not revitalized because we have a good core of people here," he said.
Steve Shelton said his 25 years' experience working in nearly every department in the city makes him uniquely qualified for the City Council.
"I probably know more about the city's infrastructure than anyone," he said. "I've been here my whole life and I'm easy to talk to. Someone who understands the city needs to be in this seat."
He rejected Mills' assertion that his lawsuit with the city would impact his position, saying he would only need to recuse himself from discussions involving the suit directly.
Shelton said responsible budgeting and transparency in city government are top priorities. He said it is irresponsible of the city to continue to raise utility rates on citizens when so many are struggling financially.
"We need to make sure people can afford their utilities," he said. "We need to be a better steward of taxes and we need more openness and honesty in government."
Shelton said it would be a good idea to review the city's zoning ordinances to encourage more small businesses.
Shelton said renewing SPLOST and ELOST is also a good idea.
"I support both. It's the fairest tax to have anywhere and the easiest way to fund projects," he said.
SCHOOL BOARD DISTRICT 3
John Callahan, Alan Howard and Robbie Groves are candidates for District 3 on the Social Circle School Board. The seat was held by Scott Flanagan, who moved out of the district.
John CallahanJohn Callahan said he has two children in Social Circle City Schools and, therefore, has "a vested interest in the schools here." Callahan said he has a "servant's heart" and has pledged not to accept any outside donations to his campaign and will donate any income earned as a result of his position on the school board back to the school system.
Like the other candidates in the race, Callahan said he strongly supports continuing the ELOST, but said he would like to see the school budget posted online so the public can easily access it. He said he plans to seek public input for any major decision facing the school board.
"I will go door to door to ask about issues," Callahan said. "I plan to be visible and active."
Alan Howard is the father of four, two of whom are currently in school in Social Circle. A former school bus driver when he lived in Newton County, Howard said he would like to pattern his style of representation after former Newton County Board of Education member Rickie Corley.
"I could call him any time to get any question answered and I would like to do the same thing," Howard said.
He said the greatest challenge facing the schools in the next five years is declining revenue.
He said ELOST "is vital for any school system."
"I probably wouldn't be for it if the school system was not doing their job," Howard said, pointing out that Social Circle's graduation rate is over 90 percent, above the state average.
Robbie Groves said she is "very passionate when it comes to children."
She has lived in Social Circle for 12 years and is a Girl Scout leader, a foster parent and operates a daycare from her home.
"We need to keep funding in our schools," Groves said. "If not, our school system will go down."
She said teachers and administrators need support from the school board and the community.
"I'm just a parent, was a foster parent and I do babysitting out of my home," Groves said. "I have a passion for children. I care about our future leaders."