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Candidates for Atlanta City Council take stage in “speed date” forum

May 9,2017

Source: Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Come November, the mayor’s office won’t be the only thing up for grabs at Atlanta City Hall.

Much of the 16-member Atlanta City Council could also be brand new.

Eight council members — half of the roster — are either running for mayor, city council president or have decided not to seek re-election. Most of the remaining sitting members have opponents who could potentially snatch their seats away from them.

On Monday, an Atlanta business coalition — the Committee for a Better Atlanta — tried to wrangle candidates hoping to sit on the council next year. About 40 people, including incumbents in several districts, took to the stage at the Metro Atlanta Chamber and answered questions on some very weighty subjects, such as how to address homelessness, ethics at City Hall, police recruitment and retention, and solving Atlanta’s transportation problems.

But because there were so many candidates — City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, for instance, had nine rivals on stage for her District 4 seat — each was only given 30 seconds to answer.

Moderator Dave Huddleston, a reporter at Channel 2 Action News, told the candidates to think of the event as “speed dating.”

“The purpose of this first step was not to get into depth,” said A.J. Robinson, a member of the coalition and president the downtown business group Central Atlanta Progress. “It was kind of a ‘meet and greet.’ The process will become more in depth as we move toward November. But you have start somewhere.”

The group will hold a forum for mayor and city council president on Thursday

How the council race plays out could be critical to the next mayor. Much of whatever the next leader of the city’s highest office hopes to accomplish — be it the expansion of MARTA or addressing the issues surrounding a federal bribery investigation of City Hall — will need support from the council.

“The council can stand in the way of a new mayor,” said David Shock, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “That’s where the dynamic gets most interesting. There could be a lot of tension.”

The changes come as term-limited Mayor Kasim Reed is in the last year of his second term. The city is on an upswing in several areas, including a reserve fund that has grown to $175 million and a burgeoning tech industry that has created thousands of Intown jobs. Voters also agreed last year to raise the Atlanta sales tax nine-tenths of a penny for road and transportation improvements.

In addition, big projects such as the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and more than a dozen apartment buildings have put construction crews to work while the city’s hospitality industry has seen record visitation numbers.

The city’s increasing success has not been felt equally, however. Some Atlanta communities lack the close by grocery stores, bank locations or other quality-of-life mainstays enjoyed by others. At the same time rents and mortgages are increasing as Intown living gains in popularity.

Councilmembers Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mary Norwood, Kwanza Hall and Council President Ceasar Mitchell are giving up their seats to run for mayor. Councilmembers Felicia Moore, Alex Wan and C.T. Martin are leaving their seats to compete for city council president. City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean announced late last month that she will not seek re-election.

Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance, said the turnover will be good. He said the current council has been criticized by many for being a rubber stamp “nod squad,” a term that has stuck with the council on and off for years dating back to former mayor Bill Campbell.

“A shake up would be good,” he said. “The council could use more independence.”

Koblentz was said he hopes future forums will be smaller to allow for longer, fuller answers and follow up questions. The Northwest Community Alliance, which will hold its last mayoral forum May 17 with Bottoms, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and former Workforce Development Agency director Michael Sterling, limits the number of candidates its hosts at one time.

“This way you get past the sound bites and political cliches and get to know the candidates,” he said. “What do you gain from two or three minutes?”