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Gainesville council candidates weigh in on issues in 4-way race for seat
Hopefuls vying to fill Figueras Ward 3 post share ideas at forum
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Ward 2 Gainesville City Council candidate Emory Turner speaks during the final Gainesville council debate at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center in Gainesville on Saturday. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Early voting

Where: Hall County Elections Office, lower level, Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Oct. 30.

Saturday voting: Voters may cast ballots 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 24 at the North Hall Community Center, 4175 Nopone Road, or Spout Springs Library, 6488 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch.

It took some time for candidates to come forward after Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras announced this summer that she would not seek re-election to the Ward 3 seat in November.

But soon four candidates emerged in a contest that is proving, perhaps, to be the most competitive City Council race in recent memory.

Ward 3 includes the city’s historic African-American neighborhoods, including Newtown. These days, however, it is also home to a large number of Latinos, immigrants and working-class whites.

Candidates Andrè Cheek, Lemuel Betancourt, Montine Whelchel Smith and Barbara Brooks gathered at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center Saturday morning for a final debate and forum before early voting begins Monday.

Cheek took the opportunity to showcase her studiousness, scribbling notes as questions from the attendance were lobbed at candidates.

“Three things I am focusing on in my campaign are educating our community, economic development and jobs, and support systems that strengthen our neighborhoods,” she said.

Betancourt used the forum as a chance to expound on his ideas about bringing the diverse cultures of Gainesville together.

“We can have the most elegant and well-designed political platform, but I’m concerned about ... the social fabric,” he said, adding that the impact is felt on education, economics and criminal justice. “If elected, I want you to know that’s my main concern.”

Brooks said she would carry her legacy from the Gainesville school system to local governing.

“Having been trained as a social worker, I bring to the table the ability to negotiate,” she said. “I’m a unifier.”

Smith, an associate minister, scrapped her prepared remarks at one point and called for a sense of brotherhood as a way to move Gainesville forward.

“My love has always been to help people get where they need to be,” she said. “We need to come together.”

The Times spoke with each candidate about a few critical issues facing Gainesville in 2015.

Voter apathy

While the city school board and Hall County Board of Commissioners are elected by district, City Council members are elected “at-large,” meaning every voter, regardless of where they live, casts ballots in all races.

Proponents of district voting, however, believe it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council because only voters in a particular geographic area would be allowed to select a candidate from their ward to represent them.

While Ward 3 candidates acknowledged that a day is likely coming when the City Council will be elected by district, a higher priority in 2015 is turning out the vote.

Betancourt, who has said the at-large voting debate should be put to a voter referendum, said residents must also take more responsibility.

“We can’t place the blame for low turnout squarely on government policies, since voting is our civic duty and ultimately each person’s own individual responsibility,” Betancourt said. “But elected officials can, of course, promote awareness of the process by radio, Facebook and other media, and also encourage turnout by supporting options like weekend polling, multiple weeks of early voting with hours beyond 5 p.m. and more convenient voting locations.”

Brooks said she has incorporated get-out-the-vote drives in her campaign, and hopes that more active participation among voters can help ensure that each ward in the city is well represented.

“I am talking with people in my community and around the city about getting out to vote and how important it is to exercise the right to vote,” she added.

Smith agreed that the number of candidates running for the Ward 3 seat shows growing interest among residents about the direction Gainesville is heading in.

“I’m for it,” she said of at-large voting. “One ward does not make up a city. It’s not just one ward. It’s all five wards that come together.”

Cheek said she expects the debate over at-large voting to continue for some time, but so long as people are talking, it means more interest in local government.

“In my opinion, this will be a topic at our dinner tables for years to come, and I’m so glad to be a part of the conversation,” she added.

Housing

Perhaps nowhere is housing a more critical issue than in Ward 3. The pending redevelopment of the public housing complex on Atlanta Street is just one example of the renewed focus government officials and business leaders are placing on both improving the quality of housing in the city.

But a shortage of affordable housing remains a challenge for the city going forward, particularly as population growth brings new workers into the local labor market.

“As a social worker with the Gainesville City School System for over eight years, a significant amount of my work involved identifying places that would accommodate mothers with children who were homeless,” Brooks said. “Gainesville could maximize the utilization of Community Development Block Grants to further create incentives for property owners to participate in providing affordable housing opportunities.”

Smith said housing is the foundation for economic development. Having grown up in the city in the days of segregation, Smith said she knows just how important stable housing is to a child’s educational success.

Cheek acknowledged that housing has long been a challenge for Gainesville, but that public-private partnerships have helped.

“Our City Council should consider entering into joint ventures with public and private developers who are familiar with this process, while relying on the companies who’ve done the research in this area for feedback and guidance,” she added.

Betancourt also said he wants to use grant money to help facilitate private sector investment in quality, affordable housing.

“Our approach in Gainesville is a model for similar cities struggling with the housing issue,” Betancourt said. “We minimize red tape for property owners and make it easy for investors to do business here.”

Taxes

All candidates for Ward 3 said they supported the slight tax increase approved by the City Council recently that produces an additional $700,000 to pay down debt and support local parks. The annual property tax increase would be an extra $35 for a home with a fair market value of $175,000, according to city officials.

The city owes $6.52 million on the old Hall County jail, which it purchased for more than $7 million in 2012.

Smith said she hoped to remove any burden local taxes have on financially vulnerable groups, such as veterans and the elderly.

But she also wants to ensure that the city has the revenue necessary to maintain and expand service levels.

Cheek said she believed city officials had been responsible in their cutbacks over the years, and that it only makes fiscal sense to raise taxes to pay down the debt. A hit to the city’s credit rating could be worse.

“Raising the tax was a necessary evil,” Cheek said.

While he supports the tax increase, Betancourt said he hopes the jail will serve as a lesson about saying no to risky investments in the future.

Brooks said it’s important to remember that the city has financial obligations it cannot pass on.

“Fiscal responsibility is one of my concerns,” Brooks said. “We have to balance paying down the debt we’ve incurred, and at the same time maintain all of the services that we provide.”

Economic development

The strategic plan to guide and manage growth around Gainesville’s downtown square, which was recently unveiled, was predicated on identifying just where the city stands in 2015, where it wants to be in 2045 and how to get from here to there.

Brooks said she hopes partnerships between local government and industry will help produce more green spaces, while also supporting local schools, social services and transportation projects.

“Using taxpayer dollars is a useful way of enticing businesses to an area. In this economy, we must leverage all available resources in order to continue along the path of sustainable growth and development,” Brooks said.

Smith said she hopes the city will improve on what it’s already got, and that the 2045 strategic plan for downtown, as well as the comprehensive plan for the entire city, will act as guides.

Moreover, Smith said there are many things that can be implemented right away, such as improvements to crosswalks and the formation of public-private partnerships.

“I want to be a fresh voice and I want to be a strong voice,” she said.

Cheek said she is looking for win-win outcomes, and that encouraging public-private partnerships should be a part of the city’s development plans going forward while using tax dollars appropriately.

“Successful government has benefited from this collaboration,” she said.

Betancourt, meanwhile, called on continuing partnerships with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce in order to recruit businesses and workers.

“We have an impressive menu of incentives to promote Gainesville to potential employers: robust infrastructure, a highly-qualified workforce, excellent cost of living, recreational options and even tax incentives,” he added. “Supporting already-existing businesses in Gainesville by minimizing taxes and red tape is also critical.”

Election 2015 | Gainesville City Council Ward 3

Andrè Cheek
Age: 46 years of age
Family: Oldest of three children and mother of one child
Occupation: Outreach Unit Program Coordinator in the Office of Education and Reentry Services of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice focusing on building safer communities and reducing recidivism among juveniles.
Education: Bachelors of Science in Biology from Clark Atlanta University and Master’s degree in education from the University of Georgia.
Website: www.voteandrecheek.com

What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
I’m a proud Gainesville native and I’ve enjoyed participating as a local citizen on various community boards, including the Civil Service Board, Gainesville Multicultural Committee, AIDS Alliance, Newtown Florist Club and currently with the Edmondson Telford Center for Children. This has afforded me the opportunity to work with local business and community leaders, as well as city and county administrators. With budget management experience, as well as being a Green Belt in Six Sigma Certification (business training focused on reaching financial milestones), I would be an attribute to this current team of leaders.

What are your goals if elected?
Gainesville will continue to experience a growth in its population and diversity. My goals include focusing on economic growth and development while managing traffic and congestion, and looking for opportunities to increase green space development and safer neighborhoods. I want to build relationships with citizens and hear their concerns one family at time.

Lemuel “LB” Betancourt
Age: 49
Family: Three children and grandkids
Occupation: Project manager for electrical industry staffing company
Education: Master’s degree in Christian Education from the Christian University of Philadelphia, and currently enrolled in the Computer Networking Specialist program at Lanier Technical Institute.
Website: www.LemuelWard3.org and www.facebook.com/2015Lemuel

What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
When I asked volunteers and friends this question, there was a common thread in all of their answers: being a good listener who works well with everyone and who is effective at encouraging and inspiring others to take initiative toward improving their lives. I like motivating and encouraging families — and especially young adults — to work hard toward their dreams and to strive for excellence. In addition, being fluent in English and Spanish are also assets given our diverse population.

What are your goals if elected?
If elected, I will keep a close watch on our budget to help us keep waste and inefficiencies down and to avoid unnecessary debt, while also listening closely to residents’ concerns and linking everyone to needed information and resources through good public communication and participation in committees. All of these goals will be toward strengthening our city’s positive image as an excellent destination for recreation; a great place to start or grow a business; and a wonderful place to live, work, buy a home, and raise a family.

Barbara Borders Brooks
Age: 66
Family: Married to James Brooks, three adult children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren
Occupation: Licensed clinical social worker and retired school social worker
Education: Master’s degree in social work from the University of Georgia
Website: www.electbarbarabrooks.com

What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
As a licensed clinical social worker for 19 years, that field trained me to be an experienced negotiator with clear, concise communication skills, and respect for the opinions of others whether I agree with them or not. My focus will be on solutions for long-term community prosperity for all of Gainesville. Having retired professionally, I feel compelled to serve my community as a 47-year resident.

What are your goals if elected?
My goals will be to understand the needs of my ward and my city; to have an appreciation for the process of governing in order to improve the quality of life of citizens; and to commit to the growth and development of the beautiful city of Gainesville.

Montine Whelchel Smith
Age: 64
Family: One child, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren
Occupation: Nursing, business administration and ministry
Education: Studied nursing at Georgia State University and business administration at Kaplan University
Website: www.facebook.com/montine.ewsmith

What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
I feel that now is the time to seek election. I will bring fresh ideas and wisdom to our city. I came back home to help make a difference. To help the forgotten, to give strength to the young, and to help preserve the history of our city. I believe there are workable solutions available to make our city everything we want it to be and more.

What are your goals if elected?
I want everybody to have a good education and homes in any area of the city without being threatened or afraid.

 

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