Norcross City Council Candidates Forum Recap

The two councilmen and two challengers talked on city topics such as parking, the tobacco ban, public transportation and bridging the gap between Buford Highway.

Many citizens and members of the city attended the 2012 Norcross City Council Candidates Forum on Thursday to watch the incumbents and their challengers talk about questions concerning city issues.

Councilmen David McLeroy and Ross Kaul were on the panel with their opponents: super-volunteer Arlene Beckles challenging McLeroy, and former councilman Keith Shewbert against Kaul.

Downtown Development Authority boardmember Chris Collins moderated the event at the Norcross Cultural Arts and Community Center, and it was sponsored by the Tomlinson Law Office and hosted by the Progressive Development Committee and Gordon Tomlinson.

After the opening statements, nine preset questions and five audience questions were asked. A number of topics were discussed in the forum, but here are the major points:

Addressing the growing demand for downtown parking: Opponents McLeroy and Beckles agreed Norcross doesn't have a parking problem. McLeroy added there could be some additional parking, and the ideal location would be the Norcross Cultural Arts and Community Center by leveling the parking lot to add more spaces. Living off Beaver Ruin Road, Beckles pointed out that the council recently approved the addition of eight parking spaces to Norcross City Hall, and there could be designated parking spaces for downtown employees in order to give more upfront parking to customers. 

Kaul and Shewbert disagreed together, though, saying the parking problem is serious and the merchants could have more business if it was fixed. Kaul, who's on the parking committee and spearheaded the initiative to add eight spaces to city hall, echoed Beckles' proposal for designated employee parking. As the owner of 45 South Cafe, Shewbert applauded the efforts to find "pockets" for parking instead of one big area. But, one bigger parking area that could be developed is around Lillian Webb Park, he said. There are developers who want to build at the top of the field but won't because of the lack of parking.

How historic preservation is important to the economic success of the city: All the candidates were more or less in unison with one another. Many said how important it is, but government shouldn't be controlling it. It can be too restrictive, as seen in the city's historic structures guidelines in the past. Shewbert said government should encourage it instead of mandating it; Kaul pointed out that he doesn't want a "pink house on the corner," and a group of constituents should come together and present to the council on how they would like things to look, instead of just government making all the decisions and suggestions; McLeroy pointed out that the Architectural Review Board can help with preserving what needs to be preserved; and Beckles said she took initiative when she told the DDA and the developers of her neighborhood, Creekside Park, how the homes should be comparable to the downtown's 1920s look. 

How to ensure projects have the approval of the citizens before being passed, citing the controversy among the tobacco ban ordinance and having no dogs in the park: Having spearheaded the tobacco ban effort, Kaul said that the council worked on it for six months before it passed. The council talked about the issue three times, he said, and the proposal also was given to the city's legal department more than once to change it. After the ban passed in May, many people were angry that the government was telling them that they couldn't smoke, so Kaul asked the mayor and council to repeal it and to have the next initiative be constituents-driven.

Shewbert, who was a major opponent of the ban, claimed that the effort did not take place over six months but instead three and a half weeks, from Kaul talking about it at a casual PDC meeting, to being on the agenda for a policy work session, to passing at the monthly city council meeting. Shewbert said the ordinance was inspired from Duluth's smoking ban in parks, and that's not the way it's supposed to be. He said he believes in a citizen-driven government, and he doesn't believe Kaul does.

During the next question about improving pedestrian and bike mobility, Kaul took the end of his turn to reiterate that the tobacco ban had been indeed in the works for six months, as listed on the agendas for policy work sessions and city council meeting.

McLeroy, who voted against both the dog park and tobacco ban issues, and Beckles said they listen to the citizens and people before making their judgements.

Plans to improve safety of pedestrians and cyclists in crosswalks around Norcross: Sitting on the Safe Routes to School committee, Beckles pointed out that the committee is working hard on improving the city's walkability, especially Summerour Middle School. Also on the SRTS, Kaul has applauded the city on how it's doing on its LCI study, which has implemented many walking and biking trails in the plan.

Shewbert agreed that the LCI can be a major asset when looking at walkability, especially in east Norcross. He noted one part of a Buford Highway study that he took part in eight years ago that would greatly benefit mobility by connecting Beaver Ruin with Medlock Bridge Road. It would transfer I-85 traffic to Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and make downtown streets safer for pedestrians, he explained.

McLeroy pointed out that the city should keep SRTS and its plans, but the city also needs to educate those walking along Buford Highway because many people there "cross where they want to" and don't know the consequences of not using a crosswalk. McLeroy said he helped with putting the crosswalks downtown with brick inlays years ago, and the yellow signs around town tell people where they can and can't cross.

Bridging the gap between Buford Highway, especially the recent annexation of the east side of the highway and the culture clash: McLeroy said the city has made efforts to make connections and allow the "other side of Buford Highway" to feel more connected with the older part of the city, but he realizes something more needs to be done. He offered talking to the people over there more, face to face. 

Living on the east side, Beckles said she talks and listens regularly to her neighbors, which other city members should do. She was in favor of annexing that side of Buford Highway when it was on the table this past year, in part because many people over there said they felt "left out" from the rest of the city. For National Night Out, an event she helped build and promote, she said half of the 400 people who attended were from this area. 

Kaul, who led the annexation effort, noted that the people who once were against the annexation now are pleased with it because of the police protection and such. The city's tax digest increased because of the annexation, too, he added.

Shewbert agreed with talking and listening to the needs of the people in the newly annexed area. Having spent much time in the area and building relationships with many of the neighbors, he said, he's familiar with the some of the area's issues.

Later in the forum, an audience member asked about the support of spending city funding on real-time translators for city meetings and advertising for those services. Since the question was directed at McLeroy, he said he would support it if and when people start inquiring about it and saying that the city needs it. Beckles countered saying that some of her campaign signs are already in Spanish and she also has a Spanish hotline for her candidacy. If she could afford it, she said, she would have done it for the forum that evening, too. Ross pointed out that there are 64 different languages on the city of Norcross website, and he'll likely be taking Spanish classes soon alongside the department head. Shewbert agreed with the other candidates, and added that the city needs to find a way to accommodate everyone who attends the meetings.

Supporting limiting terms for elected officials: McLeroy said he would like the citizens to determine if the city needs to limit the number of terms for councilmembers. Beckles and Shewbert had the same idea that they both support term limits because new people mean new ideas. Kaul said he has mixed views on the issue, but it bottled down to having no limits: As long as the citizens trust the councilmember and he or she is doing the job, that person should stay on the council for as long as he or she wants to.

What did you think of the Norcross City Council Candidates Forum? Tell us in the comments.

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