Five Republicans are lined up to replace Helen Goreham for the west Cobb District 1 seat, and two are challenging northeast Cobb’s Joann Birrell in District 3. Goreham isn’t running for re-election and Birrell was a no-show at the debate, citing her mother’s 89th birthday celebration.
Popular topics of the night were the Braves’ move to Cobb, public safety and taxes, but the candidates were almost unified on what they say is a need for change in the Development Authority of Cobb County.
The development authority is a partnership between the Board of Commissioners and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and is exempt from certain open meetings and sunshine laws.
Candidates were asked about the relationship between the authority and the county school board. Developer John Williams sought tax breaks for a new development earlier this year, but the move was opposed by the school board because of lost revenue. Williams eventually gave up on idea.
The first District 1 candidate to speak was 51-year-old Scott Tucker, a retired assistant fire chief.
“It’s very important that everybody has a say in this,” he said. “Business does not add people to the schools, although it does add money to the schools.”
Angela Barner, a 48-year-old real estate agent, said simply the school board should have a seat at the table in the discussions.
Former Commission Chair Bill Byrne, 72, didn’t mince words in his call for the authority to be subject to open records.
“I’ve suggested that they don’t meet in their meeting room downstairs, but they meet right here (in the commission’s meeting room) on TV 23,” he said. “The biggest issue is open records and exposure to the public.”
Bob Weatherford, a 65-year-old former Acworth city councilman, was more measured in his answer.
“If we bring a developer a new opportunity to the city or the county, we need to consult with them if it impacts the school system,” he said. “The problem is, you need to have oversight. Commissioners should oversee their county development authority.”
Glenn Melson, the 51-year-old owner of an insurance company, echoed the other candidates.
“We need transparency,” he said. “We do not need to be making decisions of spending $300, $500, $600 million — how much is it going to be? We don’t know yet — without communication with voters, the school board, business leaders and homeowners.”
Michael Opitz was the first to answer among District 3 candidates.
“Transparency is a big part of my campaign,” said the 67-year-old mediator and arbitrator.
He brought up early talks about the Braves move, in which county commissioners met with the Chamber of Commerce in groups of two done out of public view. Opitz said the commission might have violated open meetings law in making the move.
Joseph Pond, a 47-year-old plumber, weighed in on the issue as well.
“I’d like to blow up the development authority,” he said. “If we are going to have a development authority that is going to control money that should be allocated to schools, schools should have a seat at the table.”
Pond also took a few shots at Birrell during his closing statements. He first read a section of Tuesday’s Around Town column saying incumbents sometimes skip debates because they have more to lose than to gain. Pond said he hopes that wasn’t why Birrell missed the forum, but that “it wouldn’t be surprising.”
Pond also read comments made by Birrell about the redrawing of her district. She didn’t like that it was remapped to include parts of Marietta and Smyrna.
“Perhaps she should challenge Bob Ott for his east Cobb district,” he said.
Opitz brought up problems with storm water runoff several times during the debate, and said Cobb County is becoming “one huge flood plain,” though the issue was never specifically asked of candidates. The commission is looking at charging a fee for stormwater runoff, which some have called a “rain tax.”
Public safety was a big issue for many candidates. Byrne said it is his No. 1 priority, and Melson touted a plan that would give public safety workers a $6,000 raise in 2016. Tucker, a former public safety worker himself, said public safety workers are leaving the county, but not because of low pay. He said they need better equipment and training to do their jobs better. All candidates agreed public safety is a big concern and pledged to do their part to help.
Candidates were also asked under what circumstances they would raise property taxes, to which all said there is no need to raise property taxes right now.
The Republican primary is May 20, and the winner of contested contests will be decided Nov. 4.
The winner of the District 1 primary will face Democrat Derrick Crump, IT consultant, in the general election.