There are two posts up for grabs on the Hall County Board of Commissioners in the July 15 election, and both incumbents are facing opposition from much younger candidates.
Commissioner Deborah Mack, a 62-year-old retiree, will be defending her District 4 seat against 27-year-old Ashley Bell, a local attorney and Gainesville native.
Bell blasted Mack at the public budget hearing June 24 for spending more money on travel than any of the other commissioners. He said the commissioners should cut as much of their own spending as other departments. "District 4 (Mack) comprises 65 percent of all travel done by this commission," Bell said. "No one person should be allowed to spend 65 percent of the budget."
The county commission budgeted $18,000 for commissioner travel in the 2008 budget, a reduction from the $21,000 budgeted in 2007. In 2007, Mack spent nearly $8,000 traveling, compared with less than $2,000 spent by all other commissioners combined.
Bell said he would like to see less county spending overall.
"I’m going to be the type of county commissioner that’s as excited about saving money as Deborah was about spending money," he said.
Like Bell, Commissioner Bobby Banks has expressed discontent with the amount spent on travel and feels the amount currently budgeted should be cut.
"I don’t think that’s a good way to spend county taxpayer money," Banks told The Times. "Just because we’ve got $18,000 in the budget doesn’t mean we’ve got to spend it."
Mack has said that she feels the contacts she has made and information gained through traveling have benefitted the county.
"A more informed person can do more to help their constituents," she said. She said she has shared information and ideas she’s learned during the trips with the commission, including ideas to revitalize the neighborhood around Black and Cooley drives and a prescription drug card for employees.
Travel records obtained by The Times indicate that she has traveled to Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the National Association of Counties conferences during her term, including trips out of state to Hawaii and Washington, D.C. Other commissioners have made limited trips, including several attending a conference in Savannah.
During the June 24 meeting, fellow commissioners Billy Powell and Steve Gailey thanked Mack for traveling to the conferences and other events to represent Hall County. County Administrator Jim Shuler and Commission Chairman Tom Oliver both have told The Times that they don’t have a problem with the amount of travel Mack has taken on behalf of the county.
Officials in other Georgia counties said that it isn’t unusual for one or two commissioners to take more trips than the other members of the commission. But the amount allotted for travel varies widely from county to county. In 2008, Athens-Clarke County, which is similar in population to Hall, allocated $10,680 in travel expense for its 10 commissioners, but smaller Jackson County budgeted $7,093.
Three of the state’s biggest counties budget even more for travel: Fulton County budgets $24,042, Gwinnett budgets $35,600 and DeKalb budgets $43,405.
Clarke County has lowered its travel budget to $5,600 for 2009.
All of those counties also are involved in the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the National Association of Counties.
Mack has been the District 4 commissioner since 2002, when she was elected to complete the remaining term of Frances Meadows, who died in office.
"I share the concerns of the people. I live right in the heart of the district," Mack said.
She said she believes the most important part of being a commissioner is "making services to citizens that will improve their quality of life," she said.
Housing and public safety are among her top priorities.
One of the projects she’s most proud of during her term as a commissioner is the project to rehabilitate Black and Cooley drives.
"It’s helping to bring that neighborhood back together," Mack said. "Even though it’s a Hall County project, it’s brought other people in like the construction classes from the city and county schools, Habitat for Humanity, the Homebuilders Association ... everyone that’s involved in housing programs, it’s brought them all together to help that neighborhood out there improve their living conditions."
Mack said she would like to continue projects she has started with the current commission if re-elected.
Bell said he has a different approach, and believes commissioners need to take responsibility because "the buck stops with the county commission."
Bell said he would like to reach out to people in Gainesville, located in District 4, and let them know they have a county commissioner.
"People in this city don’t even know they have a county commissioner," Bell said. "This commission needs to be an asset, an ally to the city of Gainesville."
Bell said he is not afraid to look at the tough issues and take a stand.
"Deborah has not used her opportunity well to handle some of the issues," he said. "She’s my commissioner."
District 2 post
Like Mack, current District 2 commissioner Billy Powell faces a much younger opponent.
Powell, a 51-year-old commercial Realtor, said he believes his time as a commissioner and life experiences give him an advantage over his 33-year-old opponent, Chris Masters.
Powell also said he has an advantage because he will be able to continue and finish projects he previously started on the commission.
"I’ve got the groundwork," he said.
Powell said one of his most significant accomplishments while on the commission was his work with the county’s new jail.
"I had a big hand in bringing that in on time and under budget," he said.
Powell was elected in 2004 and said he and the other commissioners have worked well together over the last few years.
"I think we have a great working commission right now," he said.
But District 2 opponent Chris Masters, a 33-year-old publisher, said he thinks its time for a "change of guard."
"If I’m elected I’m going to focus on the people who elect me," Masters said.
Masters said he would abstain from any vote that was a conflict of interest and would bring "real financial responsibility."
"It seems like for the last four years they’ve forgotten about the fact they’re supposed to keep spending down. They’ve increased spending by almost 40 percent in that time," Masters said. "The spending has gotten out of control."
Masters said if elected, he would like to have time at commission meetings to allow the public to address their commissioners about any concerns. Currently, the public can only comment on items that are on the agenda.
"It almost seems like a violation of free speech. I am for open government," Masters said.