While the other three Republican Primary candidates in the forum, co-sponsored by the Mableton Improvement Coalition and the South Cobb Business Association, sat in place and gave answers that pertained to the whole county when asked what can be done to improve economic development in Mableton, Boyce, a retired Marine colonel and east Cobb resident, stepped up to a lectern and talked about the many times he had visited southwest Cobb, an area that has struggled with crime and economic problems, in the nine months since announcing his candidacy.
“Clearly, once you get east of Oakdale Drive, and get above the East-West Connector, you say ‘Are we still in Cobb County?’ We have unique problems down here,” Boyce said, hunched over the lectern. “Let’s just fixate on one plan and for heaven’s sake let’s just finally do it. No more studies. We seem to have a Six Flags Livable Centers Initiative South Cobb Development Plan. Let’s just do it, and see what happens.”
Boyce also said county employees need to be more involved in southwest Cobb.
“I’m here all the time, and code enforcement’s not down here,” he said. “I’m a Marine. I lead by walking around. … This is not going to be a one- or two-year plan. This is almost going to be generational.”
The other candidates were ready when asked about bridging divides in the community and meeting with groups that have differing views from their own.
Lee discussed putting together 10 years of studies to be implemented by the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority, which he said will help create jobs and improve the quality of life in the area.
“There are many, many parts of Cobb County that make it unique, many strengths, many weaknesses,” he said. “It’s important as the chairman of Cobb County to reach out in the leadership of each community and listen for its needs and what the hurdles are in front of it to help collectively remove those hurdles.”
Retired businessman Larry Savage of east Cobb recalled his days growing up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights movement.
“There are geographic problems, there are geographic misunderstandings. I think there’s a perception problem that there are preferences to one part of the county versus another,” Savage said. “There might be something to that, but the biggest disparity we have is between the connected and the not-connected. And even though I live in a high-end area, I am among the non-connected. And that’s one of the things that created the backdrop for me to decide to run for office was when I decided that I had no influence unless I could hold office.”
Bill Byrne, who served as chairman from 1992-2002, said he has a strong record of hiring people from groups that were traditionally under-represented, including his first appointment in office, County Manager David Hankerson. He also hired economic development director Michael Hughes, who, like Hankerson, is black, and Judy Skeel as solid waste director, the first female department head in the county. Byrne said Hughes and Skeel have political views significantly different than his.
“I don’t see race, I don’t see gender, I am looking for the most qualified that can best serve this community,” said Byrne, who is also a retired Marine. “When you’re in the foxhole, and it’s just the two of you, and the enemy is coming after you, you don’t look to see what color or what gender they are. You cover his or her back and you hope to God he covers yours.”
The loudest jeers of the night from the audience of about 120 people at the South Cobb Community Center came when Byrne addressed a question about backyard chickens. The issue has been raised by residents who would like to see zoning regulations changed to allow chickens to be raised on less than two acres of land.
“Relative to a comparison of dogs and cats, there’s a big difference, most dogs and cats don’t bother the neighbors,” Byrne said. “Chickens start crowing at 6 o’clock in the morning. I think the county code is so for a reason, and unless someone can convince me it needs to be changed, I would support keeping it as it is.”
Savage said he had personal experience with the issue, recalling the chickens his family raised while he was growing up.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to get off of food stamps by having a chicken in their yard,” he said. “But frankly, I think we get a little overwrought sometimes with micromanaging neighborhood situations. If you live in a high-end subdivision with covenants that say you’re not going to have chickens in your yard, than by golly, you’re not going to have chickens. But if you’re living in a normal community, especially around here, where you’ve got a little bit of a rural tinge, I don’t think people will be overly stressed if people have chickens in their backyard.”
Lee said that during his time in office, he’s had more people tell him they don’t want chickens allowed on less than two acres than say the birds should be allowed.
“My concept of a pet is anything that can live indoors,” he said. “And anything that lives indoors must be treated differently than things that have to live outdoors. I think that’s a distinction that must be taken into consideration.”
Boyce joked that he wanted to pass on the question before saying that he would cast a tiebreaking 3-2 vote if the required two commissioners would put an item allowing backyard chickens on a Board of Commissioners agenda.
“You’re going to have to do what I do,” he told chicken organizer Joseph Pond. “You’re going to have to get out here every single day and find the people. You’re going to have to work real hard at it.”
The audience submitted questions on note cards. They were then read to candidates by Joel Cope, Mableton Improvement Coalition president.