The two-hour event occurred just weeks before voters will head to the polls on Nov. 3 to vote for candidates in nonpartisan municipal races. Local municipal elections include Marietta, Acworth, Austell, Kennesaw and Powder Springs. Smyrna won't have elections because the mayor and council were elected to four-year terms in 2007.
Candidates vying for the Ward 5 seat on the city council are incumbent the Rev. Anthony Coleman, former councilman James Dodd and veterinarian Chris Johnson. Ward 1 incumbent Annette Lewis is unopposed.
School board candidates for Ward 1 are Robert Thanepohn, a Web designer, and Logan Weber, a commodities trader. Ward 5 candidates are Stuart Fleming and Douglas Martin, both businessmen. Ward 1 incumbent, Walter Scott Allen, and Ward 5 incumbent, Jeanie Carter, are not seeking re-election.
In the Ward 5 council debate, the candidates stressed the need for more affordable housing in Marietta in response to several questions related to moving the city through the current economic slowdown.
"There is definitely a shortage of affordable housing here in the city of Marietta. It has been for a certain time," said Dodd, 70. "This is just something that we've got to put a lot more emphasis on, simply because the economy is where it is today."
Johnson, 40, took issue with redevelopment in the city in recent years that focused more on pricey townhomes, condominiums and single-family homes, than affordable housing. He said the city needs to work with redevelopers to get homes between the $180,000 to $300,00 range.
"An idea that was kind of floated was that Marietta would become the bedroom community for Atlanta," Johnson said. "That's fine when we have a good economy. But, the economy is not going to come back to the point where I think that $300,000 and $900,00 townhomes and condos are going to sell."
However, Coleman, 51, said there has been affordable housing added to the Marietta market. He said more is needed, but that building more houses for all income-levels should be the goal.
"I think that in the last couple of years - through these informational meetings - we have done a great job in trying to help people find affordable housing," he said.
When asked how the city should prioritize expenditures, Coleman said the first step needs to be sitting down and meeting with the city manager and finance department since they're the "hubs of the city."
Dodd said it would depend on revenue and the needs at the time. "The city must really function as a city regardless our financial situation," he said.
"If we are faced with a budget crunch, there are definitely things we are going to have to fund," Johnson argued. "You are going to have to fund infrastructure, safety, public services and public works. Those might have to be cut down, you might not be able to fully fund them, but you're going to have to fund them."
A question was also asked about how to keep residents safe from crime and drugs in the ward. The three candidates agreed that it was an important issue.
Dodd acknowledged that drastic measures in the past - such as installing barricades on streets - had an impact on crime when he served on the council from 1994 to 2002. However, he said that educating school children about drugs was an important part in solving the problem.
Coleman said tackling crime and drugs is a collaborative effort between residents, churches, organizations and police. "We can't put it all on the police department," he said.
Johnson said he didn't know a lot about crime, but met with Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn and was impressed by the "proactive nature of the police." He said the best thing the council can do is make sure the police department is accountable to citizens.
Two Cobb service organizations, the Loop Group, a neighborhood organization representing residents who live south of Roswell Street and North of the 120 South Loop, and the Rho Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., co-hosted the forums. The event was moderated by Kennesaw State University management professor Dr. Priscilla Hollman, a member of Marietta-based Rho Zeta Omega chapter.
The format was question-and-answer, with written questions submitted by the audience. Candidates had about a minute to respond to each question. In attendance were two candidates for Marietta mayor, former state Rep. Steve Tumlin and educator Chris Neill. Marietta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Emily Lembeck attended as well.
The city school board candidates discussed a wide range of issues, from diversity within the school system to changing the school calendar.
Weber, 30, was on a business trip in Vietnam and was unable to participate. His wife, Katie, and a representative, Andrew Egan, did attend.
When asked whether diversity was a part of making the school system work, the three candidates varied on the degree to which it mattered.
Fleming, 32, said he believed diversity of thought was more important than race or gender. Martin said diversity was "extremely" important because the student demographics are diverse.
With about 60 percent of students in Marietta being black or Hispanic, Thanepohn, 46, said diversity has to work.
The candidates all agreed that having a stand-alone Marietta Sixth Grade Academy was effective with the system.
On the matter of what school policy each would change first if elected, Thanepohn said he would like to see more done to help parents who desire to send their children to a specific school.
Martin, 56, said the school system is being run well and that he wouldn't change anything.
"The influence of the office is more important than voting 'yea,' 'nay,' or even abstaining," he said. "The school system is not broken. With the influence of the office I do feel that we need more local speakers."
Fleming said he would like the system to progress to the point where all schools are equally excellent, rather than worry about how to get students to particular schools of their choice.
A question of how to change the perception that Marietta schools can't compete with county schools in east Cobb was posed to the candidates. Thanepohn and Fleming said they weren't aware that the perception existed.
But, Martin called on parents and church leaders to become more involved as a community in educating students.
On whether the school calendar should be altered, Fleming said he fully supported the idea.
"We are getting passed by, left and right, by other educational systems in this world," he said. "Research will tell you that summer breaks of 90-days do not help the learning. The difference between socially affluent and non-socially affluent students comes in what they do in their off time."
Martin said he would let administrators make that decision. "The board is to guide and direct," he said.
Thanepohn said the length of the school calendar doesn't make much of a difference in educating students. "I don't know how adjusting the calendar would help," he stated.
In a written statement read at the forum, Weber said he was in favor of school choice and low taxes. He also said he hoped to leverage his experience in international business into sound decision making on the board.
Council members earn $13,000 a year. If they serve on the Marietta Board of Lights and Water, they earn an additional $3,600 annually. School board members earn $576 a month. The board chair earns an additional $104 a month.