By Gabriel Owens, contributor
A mayoral forum was held last night at Atlanta Technical College with 10 candidates fielding questions from a panel of journalists and the audience.
The forum was hosted by the Atlanta League of Women Voters and the local NAACP chapter and was sponsored by the National Pan Hellenic Council of Greater Atlanta. Ten of the mayoral candidates were on the dais (Mary Norwood did not attend), with WSB-TV’s Tom Jones acting as the moderator. The candidates introduced themselves and gave a brief description of their qualifications and plans if they are elected.
The candidates in attendance were:
– John Eaves, Fulton County Commission Chairman
– Peter Aman, Atlanta’s former chief operating officer
– Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta City Council member
– Vincent Fort, state senator
– Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Council member
– Ceasar Mitchell, Atlanta City Council president
– Mary Norwood, Atlanta City Council member
– Michael Sterling, former Executive Director of the Atlanta Workforce Agency
– Cathy Woolard, former Atlanta City Council member and president
– Al Bartell, an environmentalist
– Laban King, an activist.
The opening speeches covered many hot topics of Atlanta and set the agenda for each candidate. Topics included gentrification, crime, government oversight and corruption, and revitalization. Here is a sampling of the candidates’ answers.
One questioner asked about Atlanta’s murder rate and asked if the city is becoming “another Chicago.”
“The city of Atlanta and Fulton County needs to get away from the corporate model of government and turn to the urban model,” Bartell said, a point he repeatedly made throughout the night. “That includes police coming from the community and patrolling the community.”
“It’s already Chicago,” Fort said. “Look at our murder rates, [one of the highest in the country]. This is not a problem of gangs, but a problem of bored kids with no community, along with a mental illness problem we are not addressing correctly.”
Many of the other candidates echoed the idea of local “from the community” policemen and concentration on mental health care, along with expanding the police department and paying officers better.
With the subject of mental health and its relation to crime, the topic turned to a related matter, the growing homeless population of Atlanta.
Aman said he had helped run a homelessness help group and had deep empathy for the problem, and proposed mental health care spending and “day work” jobs for the disenfranchised and unemployed among their population.
Eaves said mental illness is pervasive in the homeless population.
“Seventy percent of the homeless population is mentally ill,” Eaves said. “And the answer often seems to be to throw them in jail instead of mental health facilities. We need crisis intervention, not arrests.”
King brought up the “hidden homeless” problem, which meant those that work a nine to five job but sleep in their cars and elsewhere that they can. “We need affordable housing for these people too, and social services that can get them proper shelter.”
With the ongoing expansion of the Beltline and rising housing costs, the question of gentrification and displacement of Atlanta’s native African American communities was brought up several times.
“Many areas of the city need revitalization,” Hall said. “But that needs equality and inclusion. Two fold, we need to protect our investments as well as protect our traditional neighborhoods.”
Mitchell cited a growing concern about local jobs as a contributing factor in the cause of gentrification. “AT&T is cutting 300 jobs and Coke is cutting 1,200 (although not all local),” he said, making the point that keeping jobs in the city is crucial to helping stave off gentrification.
Another popular topic was corruption and transparency at Atlanta City Halll.
Sterling cited his credentials as a prosecutor and said he was the only one there that had “investigated, prosecuted, and jailed” public officials for wrongdoing.
While many candidates talked about transparency and making all spending documents and reports available to the public, Bottoms was quick to point out that many of these proposals already existed, and the public could easily find them online.
The forum lasted longer than two hours. The mayoral election will be held Nov. 7.