For an hour, moderators from the Downtown Augusta Alliance and CSRA Business League posed questions to incumbent Matt Aitken and challengers Bill Fennoy, Denice Traina and Stanley Hawes at the debate, held at the Augusta-Richmond County Library.
Asked how the city might measure up as being “pro-growth and progressive,” Fennoy, a retired health educator who lost to Aitken in a runoff three years ago, said despite downtown’s additions – he named the library, courthouse, dental school and convention center, all of which have opened or will during Aitken’s term – the benefits aren’t felt by all.
“There’s a lot of improvement being made that hasn’t had an impact on improvement of people in the district,” Fennoy said.
Among those improvements, “since the TEE Center is here, as a commissioner I would do whatever I can to promote (it),” he said, but added: “If you look at TEE Centers across the country, they are a total failure” and Augusta “put all our marbles in one hat.”
Considered the candidate to beat by some political observers and the one who would restore Augusta’s balance of five white and five black commissioners since consolidation 16 years ago, Fennoy also has the support of former District 1 Commissioner Betty Beard. She attended the debate and said it was Fennoy’s recognition “of the needs of the entire First District” and his willingness to “shift funds where they are most needed” that gained her support.
The next question, written by former Commissioner Bernard Harper, was how to foster better relationships with small businesses downtown.
Aitken said he’s been “engaging in these kinds of conversations” with small businesses outside “our own little groups” that many tend to stay within. “When we can come together like we’re doing now,” he said, “we’re going to be a city to be reckoned with.”
The Augusta Convention Center, with 13 conventions booked in 2013, means “12,000 people that weren’t coming last year,” Aitken said. “That’s something we need to celebrate.”
Repeating a campaign mantra of improving Augusta Public Transit to connect people with jobs and other necessities, Traina said it is foot traffic that downtown businesses crave most.
Asked how to cope with abandoned houses and junk cars that plague District 1, Traina said, as former Harrisburg Neighborhood Association president, she is well-acquainted with the issue and the problems it drives including prostitution, drug dealing and other illicit activities.
“The city tells us we only have so much money” to demolish blight and haul it away, she said, suggesting contracting with a demolition company and salvage yard to deal with it regularly. Even with 188 houses recently slated for demolition citywide, there are likely four times that many in District 1, Traina said.
Hawes, the longtime president of the Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association, a title now held by Fennoy, said dilapidated properties ought to be the top priority and absentee landlords should be pursued more vigorously.
Asked about spending Augusta’s discretionary share of transportation sales tax funds on a greenway for low-speed vehicles, the candidates agreed they would have to evaluate whether the expenditure was permitted. Voters approved a list of projects to fund through the special purpose local option sales tax that did not include a greenway, but a portion of the money is considered “discretionary” and may be used for other transportation projects selected by city leaders.
“I would be opposed to it until we really modernize mass transit,” said Traina, the co-founder of the Augusta Green Party.
Asked if he would shift more funding to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Fennoy said it might require “creative funding” and perhaps incentives to get deputies to live in District 1. Aitken said economic development is the key that will raise “the dollars to deal with the social issues in this city.” Traina said making neighborhood watch programs a priority in all neighborhoods would help, while Hawes said he would find the money.
“If the sheriff needs some money to do his job, my job is to find it,” Hawes said.
Responding to a question about mothballed properties, Aitken encouraged reporting problems to authorities, “whether it’s code enforcement, drugs or whatever it is.” Hawes said he has reported many issues over the years and only sometimes seen results.
Traina suggested arts groups be allowed to paint boarded up houses.
Fennoy said the mothballing system didn’t seem to work when mothballed houses stand with grass 7 feet tall around them, housing vermin that plague neighbors’ homes.
A final question about privatization of city departments drew no positive comments except from Aitken, who called it “the culture of the land right now” to increase efficiency in government.
“Are we going to close the library because the library did not make money?” Fennoy asked. “Newman Tennis Center? The pools?
About 60 people attended the debate. Among them, former commission candidate Juanita Burney, who was raised in District 1 but no longer lives there, said she was impressed with all the candidates except the incumbent.
“I think it was a good debate,” Burney said. “Right now I think I could live with anyone but Matt Aitken. I think he’s made some things happen, but not for the taxpayers of this city.”