Wednesday, October 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> Forum reveals differing views

Leader staff writer

Besides either bashing or defending the city’s economic consultant, what were the agendas, platforms or issues espoused by Jacksonville City Council aldermen and office seekers at Thursday’s chamber-sponsored forum?

First, most of the chamber questions were all different versions of “do we or don’t we need an outside economic consultant?”

The questions restricted what the aldermen could say and basically put them into two camps: Yes, we need the consultant, or no, we don’t, but there was more to the candidates.

Aldermen Terry Sansing and Bill Howard, both running for re-election, focused on the positives like the new joint education center and the public facilities training complex. They wanted to continue the improvements and growth.

Candidate Freddie Booker pushed for better lighting, both as a safety issue and a way to improve the looks of the city. She also wants to work with everyone.

Unopposed candidate Barbara Mashburn is a proponent of more neighborhood watch programs, citing that when she and neighbors started one in her area crime dropped 70 percent.

Candidate Rizelle Aaron wants to focus on city finances and making ordinances less restrictive.

The Rev. James Bolden III also made it clear that he was about saving money and working together.

Jim Moore, who has attended more council meetings than any of the other candidates, also wants the focus on economic development.

Roger Sundermeier wants to focus on preserving and increasing small businesses.

Twitty made it clear she was a “let me see it in writing and study it first” before jumping to a decision.

Celeste Williams, a member of the 100-plus audience, said after the forum, “I was surprised by a couple of the candidates. They were different from what I thought they would be. I agreed with them more than I thought I would. I think they’ll care about the whole city, the affluent and the needy part, not just one side because it takes all of it to make a city. That’s life. You’re not going to have all good or all bad.”

After the chamber questions, the audience asked questions. One mother, asking for her daughter, asked what can be done for young people in the city.

Sundermeier said the city had some fine outstanding facilities like Splash Zone and the Boys and Girls Club, but he added, “We need to bring in more family friendly, kid friendly businesses, have safer parks and perhaps bring the skating rink back.”

Howard, who used to spend his youthful days at the old Gray Theater in the Sunnyside area of town said things are tougher for kids these days and was open to input from the kids themselves.

Bolden went a step further, saying a committee needed to be formed with the young people as members. “What us older people think is fun is much different than what young people think,” he said. “You know the saying, ‘Out of the mouth of babes…’”

Booker said there is a lot of space and a lot of empty buildings that could be used for youth activities. “We’ve got to work with the kids.”

Mary Twitty, who is a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said that the parks department offered a number of youth programs and activities. She would like to see a bowling center open in town.

Mashburn felt the city could build and open up more basketball courts and sports areas.

Aaron wanted to take the economic consultant’s salary and use it for more basketball facilities, and then take more of the consultant’s pay to get a skating rink and a bowling alley. Aaron was exaggerating to make his point as the consultant’s costs fall between $50,000 and $80,000.

Sansing said the city has added programs and activities. Most recently he said the city opened up a canoe trail, “and there’s a paintball facility, shooting range, archery and let’s not forget the skateboard park right outside this community center.”

Moore, who operates the Stonewall pool, said he didn’t feel comfortable with his daughter playing paintball or taking that trail with snakes. “But I know when the pool is open we are covered with young people, and when it closes, where do they go?”

Another audience question was how could the city “grow” the north Hwy. 67/167 corridor when the area doesn’t have sewer.

Sansing explained that when a developer does the infrastructure necessary for a project, the city will do everything in its power to meet or match the needs. He added it’s the developers who bring in the infrastructure, not the city.

Sundermeier said the city was landlocked with just a few options for growth.

“We have to make those spots very attractive and prepare the land for growth,” Sundermeier said.

Moore, a member of the planning commission, piggybacked on Sansing’s explanation and said as plans are developed, the infrastructure and all the needs are worked out and that nothing is approved until those details have been agreed to.

Bolden, a member of the water commission, added that developers and the commissions work out the plans and that it is a smooth transition.

Mashburn and Twitty both concurred with Sansing.

Aaron said the city needed to work with the businesses in a partnership. But he was concerned with the types of business that came in with the north corridor annexation.

“Sex shops, strip clubs, liquor stores,” he said, adding that they were draining protection services from other parts of the city.

After the forum, Mahalia Watson, a member of the audience, said, “I did not know you could vote for more than one. I do think it was exciting to see them play off each others’ answers.”

Even though aldermen serve a particular area or ward, they are elected at-large.

Audience member, Jerry Reichenbach, said, “We’ve lost basically every manufacturing job we’ve had except maybe two. The state has things tied up where you can’t do this, you can’t do that. We should maybe have more than just the one (forum). Maybe in two week there ought to be another one. I’m not sure every one of them should have answered the same question. We’d have got a lot more questions out here. “

Two more candidate debates or forums are scheduled: One at Reed’s Bridge and one at the senior center later this month.