The Marietta Daily Journal asked candidates running to replace retiring east Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott a question about sunshine ahead of the June 9 primary elections: If elected, what would you do to improve transparency in Cobb County government?
The candidates include three Republicans — Fitz Johnson, Andy Smith and Kevin Nicholas — and one Democrat, Jerica Richardson.
The district encompasses most of east Cobb and includes Cumberland, Vinings, Smyrna, the Mabry Park area and the Terrell Mill/Powers Ferry area. It has been under Ott’s representation since he was first elected to the role in 2008.
Smith was upfront when asked about transparency in county government:
“I don’t know if there’s an issue with transparency within Cobb county government,” the former Cobb planning commissioner said. “My experience is that there is not. It’s as open and accessible a group as you can imagine.”
As an example, he said a neighbor had called him shortly after the county’s emergency declaration was announced, asking what it would mean for her business. He didn’t know, but he told her he’d find out, and called county manager Jackie McMorris late one evening.
“Remember, this is a time when it probably couldn’t have been any busier for those people, and before 8 o’clock the next morning, she was on my phone,” he said.
Smith acknowledged online rumblings to the contrary, saying he has “seen things posted lately where there was a feeling that freedom of info act requests weren’t researched thoroughly, but I have no idea whether that’s true or not.”
He said transparency often comes down to communication and accessibility — a point of pride for someone whose cellphone number was on his planning commission business card and who will put the number on mailers that will be going out soon.
“If there is a lack of transparency, I would do everything I could to make sure that we understand that we work for the community, and the community has every right to know everything we’re doing,” he said. “If we’re not being transparent, then we’re not serving those that elected us.”
“Transparency should be a standard that we are measured by and not just an aspiration,” said the vice president at Ingenious Med, a hospital software company headquartered in the Galleria.
He said he has a multi-pronged approach to meeting that standard, which includes keeping constituents informed through town halls and newsletters and “making sure that everything is open through the open meetings acts.”
Communication is a two-way street, he said.
“And that starts with first listening to our neighbors and our residents and then providing feedback,” he continued. “And that feedback and the overall direction of this county and District 2 needs to be then communicated very clearly so there can be some debate, and (so) at the end of the day, we’re all on the same page as far as what we’re trying to do. Because only then can we truly be one community standing for and working on these issues that we face.”
Johnson, a retired businessman, said there are some times when transparency isn’t an option, when one’s hands are tied by the law.
But, by and large, “the citizens of District 2 deserve to have access and to know what it is we are working on and what it is we’re trying to work through.”
He said politicians often have a reputation for trying to hide information.
“We’ve seen that happen before, and it’s just not good optics,” he said.
He added transparency leads to better governing.
“If we’re trying to fix a busy intersection, or are trying to deal with a land use or zoning issue,” he said, “you’ve got to go out into the community and say ... ‘What concerns you as a community and how can we help?’
“And then we come back, we put the experts in the room and then we go back to the community (and say) ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve come up with,’ and we get their buy-in,” he continued. “That’s being transparent. Not taking it into some back room, figuring it all out and springing it on your community. That does not work.”
Richardson took a different approach from the other candidates, casting transparency as a matter of accessibility: Is the information the county puts out clear and easy to find? Are meetings scheduled at a time when most people aren’t at work or in-transit?
“(If) you think about our open records request (system), it’s extremely convoluted, and it prevents people from exercising their right to know information that’s public,” Richardson said.
She also suggested creating new tools to make it easier to do things like start a business or monitor certain environmental markers in one’s community.
“Just the same way that we know when a school bus is coming, you (would) know what the water in your area looks like, or the soil quality, or what have you,” she said. “The same goes for starting a business. It can be very confusing to know which permits apply or where to go if you’re new to the state.”
Without suggesting the county often does otherwise, Richardson said it is important it releases information that is credible.
“The worst thing that you can do is to quickly throw information out there and then it winds up being incorrect,” she said.