by Robin Kemp
If you want your voice to be heard in your city, today (Monday, October 4, 2021) is the last day that you can register to vote in Clayton County’s November 2 municipal elections.
You can register to vote online at https://registertovote.sos.ga.gov/GAOLVR/welcome.do#no-back-button.
People who are registered to vote can check who their elected officials are at all levels of government, from City Council to Congress, at https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/.
Social media doesn’t count
Petitions on change.org and complaints on Nextdoor or Facebook have limited effectiveness when citizens want their elected officials to do something. By registering to vote and then voting in all elections, you have power over your elected officials and the things that you want them to do (or not do).
The difficulties of due diligence
Georgia’s campaign finance loopholes are big enough to drive a parade of tractor-trailers through, and they favor incumbents, as U.S. News and World Report notes. Finding out who’s funding local campaigns is even more difficult. Although municipal candidates do have to file Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports (CCDRs) several times before Election Day, they can file an Affidavit of Exemption if they don’t raise $2,500 in contributions.
At the state level, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Gov. Brian Kemp “signed Senate Bill 221 — the leadership committee bill — into law without any public notice in May.” Seven days later, his campaign set up the “Georgians First Leadership Committee” to accept unlimited donations–not just for Kemp, but for other statewide leaders, as well. (The bill was captioned “Ethics in Government.”)
The dangers of not voting
In the municipalities in particular, voter turnout is often so extremely low that candidates with very little organized backing win races. A handful of votes–or even a single vote–can tip the scale in a municipal election in Clayton County. This makes municipal elections in Clayton County ripe for those who would manipulate the political process to line their own pockets by putting up candidates for office who they later might claim the candidate “owes” them their vote on future issues (contracts, etc.). In fact, elected officials owe their allegiance to the people of their city or district–not to any shadowy special interest or behind-the-scenes powerbroker. The less responsive a government is to its citizens, the greater the chance it is answering to some other interest.
When large numbers of people don’t exercise their right to vote, corrupt players can take control of local government.
Local corruption is more likely when a municipality or county:
- Has few or no watchdogs (for example, in news deserts)
- Employs family members as staff or as part of contracts
- Public officials flaunt new wealth
- The budget is perpetually low on funds
- Has a lot of run-down buildings and infrastructure
- Has the FBI hanging around
- Offers limited or no transparency (for example, little or no advance notice of public meetings, ignored or delayed Open Records requests)
What happens if a city official is actually involved in public corruption, such as colluding to ensure a particular bidder wins a contract? In Georgia, the district attorney handles local investigations of local (city and county) officials, while the state attorney general investigates state-level officeholders.
Clayton County District Attorney Tasha Mosley explained how a local investigation would be handled:
“If we receive credible information of a crime, that information is turned over to an investigator to investigate,” she said. “If the investigator finds that a crime has been committed, the case file is then turned over to me with an explanation of what happened. A meeting is had with me, Chief and Deputy Chief about what charges should be bought against the official. The case will then be prepared to present before a grand jury. If the public official falls within a certain category, we are required by law to notify the Attorney General of our intent to present a case before the Grand Jury.”
As to whether local cases might be forwarded to state or federal authorities, Mosley said, “The only time I would contact the AG’s office or the feds is if the crimes occurred in multiple jurisdictions or [if there] was a federal crime”–for example, if a local or county official had misappropriated federal funds.
That was before SB 221 passed.
Who’s running where?
Here’s a look at the upcoming municipal races. We’re putting together a candidate survey to help voters decide how to cast their ballots. We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom. As a 501(c)(3) and as a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Clayton Crescent does not endorse any candidate, or campaign, nor does it advocate for any issue other than government transparency and First Amendment issues.
Voters can choose three at-large city councilmembers. Incumbents Pat Sebo-Hand, Billy Powell, and Bobby Lester are in the mix with challenger and former councilman Alfred Dixon and his brother, Cameron Dixon. The Dixon brothers have been doing a lot of grassroots campaigning around town. Take note: this year’s polling place has been moved from the Police Department to Lee Street Elementary. Lester, then on Grady Hospital’s Neonatal Transport Unit, was first elected in 2016. Powell, served from 2007 to 2011, came back in 2013, and has been on the council ever since.
- In the mayor’s race, incumbent Angelyne Butler faces challengers Delores A. Gunn, a medical coder endorsed by Ward 4 Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells, and former Councilman Tommy Smith (the husband of Ward 1 challenger Trudy Smith), who ran and lost against Butler, then challenged the election results. Butler, who holds a master in public administration and entered the city’s rough-and-tumble political scene as its first Black mayor, has made a number of bold moves to jumpstart city development, including a massive $41.1 million bond package. Butler’s campaign, which has received $33,350 as of September 30, has bought ads on at least three Clear Channel billboards around the city and sent out large campaign mail pieces. To date, Butler has reported spending $13,778 on campaign billboards: $11,243 to Clear Channel and $2,535 to Billboard Source of Dallas, TX. Among Butler’s top contributors: Technique Concrete, The Collaborative Group, and Oasis Consulting, all of which are tied to Gillem Logistics Center. Some dollar amounts were not fully readable on copies of Tommy and Trudy Smith’s electronically-submitted campaign contribution forms, apparently due to technical glitches with font sizes. Tommy Smith reported $3,492.63 in contributions to date, $2,500 of which was from Zillion Concepts (which shares an address with Rumors Gentlemen’s Club). Tommy Smith also reported spending on a Clear Channel Communications billboard but the amount is cut off due to the font size.
- In Ward 1, incumbent Kimberly James faces challenger Trudy Smith (the wife of mayoral challenger Tommy Smith), a Republican activist and longtime appointed board member in the city. James’ only reported contribution to date was $1,500 from Technique Concrete. Ward 1 candidate Deonetra Riggins was disqualified for writing the address of a burned-down house she no longer lived in as her current address on her sworn affidavit. (Riggins said she still lived in the district and was picking up her mail from the old house.) Trudy Smith, who sits on the city’s Development Authority, reported $1,025 in campaign contributions to date, including $250 from Grace Lockhart, the wife of former Mayor David Lockhart (who Butler accused of having “stacked” previous city appointed boards), and $75 from Jackie Brandon, wife of the late Frank Brandon, who played a major role in the city’s deal to buy Fort Gillem.
- In Ward 2, incumbent Dabouze Antoine, who has served since 2014 and who, along with Ward 4 Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells, sued the city after Forest Park Police allegedly surveilled them for an extended period (the city settled), faces challenger Cliff Pellegrine, a special education teacher at Forest Park High School. Technique Concrete owner Billy Freeman, Jr., whose company has a massive development going up at Fort Gillem and who has partnered with City Hall on a job-training program, dropped out of the race on September 9. Freeman’s company owns several properties in Forest Park, including a house Butler listed on her sworn affidavit as her home address. (The day after Freeman dropped out of the race, Butler refused to confirm or deny whether online county tax records were correct and whether having Technique Concrete as a landlord posed a conflict of interest.)
Morrow has two open at-large council seats. Incumbent Dorothy Dean is running unopposed, while incumbent Renee Saunders Knight is up against challenger Hue Nguyen, who is National Operational Key Account Manager at Kuehne + Nagle, a supply chain and logistics company which was the first business to lease space at Forest Park’s Gillem Logistics Center. Nguyen could prove a powerful player should she win, further strengthening the council’s Vietnamese representation and alliance with real estate agent Mayor John Lampl, who also serves on Invest Clayton’s board.
In Lake City, the election has been cancelled because the only two candidates who qualified to run for two council seats, incumbent Lorraine Hoover and David Brown, would have run unopposed. The city, Mayor Ronald Dodson, and councilmembers are defendants in a pending suit brought by Amerigo Metal Recycling LLC and Camtren Holdings, LLC, which has been the site of large fires in 2019 and in August of this year. The city also is in the middle of renovating its “front lawn” for an amphitheater and working on drainage issues in adjoining Willie Oswalt Park.
The City of Lovejoy is not in an election cycle this year. Bobby Cartwright has served as Lovejoy’s mayor–and as city manager–since 2012. State law prohibits holding two seats at one time, but Lovejoy’s city charter does not.
In College Park, Ward 2 incumbent Derrick Taylor faces challengers Joe Carn and Bob Ellis. In September, Fox 5 Atlanta’s I-Team reported Taylor, who had written an College Park address on his qualifying papers, “saw Taylor or his SUV at the South Fulton house at all hours of the day, on various days of the week.” Taylor said that was his childrens’ house and that he often stays there because of work. Carn is a former Fulton County Commissioner for District 6 who lost to Khadija Abdur-Rahman in 2020. In Ward 4, incumbent Roderick Gay faces challenger Eleanor Cornelius. Gay, who has deep roots in College Park, holds a master of public administration and has served since 2015. Cornelius has chaired the Business and Industrial Development Authority (BIDA).
While part of unincorporated Hampton is in Clayton County, the City of Hampton is completely within Henry County.
The Clayton Crescent is compiling a Candidate Guide for the upcoming elections as a public service. Clayton County voters turned out overwhelmingly for the 2020 Presidential and Congressional races. It’s up to voters to determine whether that kind of voter engagement translates to matters closer to home, which generally have more of a direct impact on citizens.
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