Candidates agree Stockbridge mayor post needs stability

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

Stockbridge need not be the punch line of metro Atlanta’s jokes any longer, asserted all four candidates for mayor in a forum held Thursday night at the city’s convention center.

Each of the four suggested reasons why they should be the next leader to guide the city out of its seven-year history of successes marred by embarrassments, in-fighting, skirmishes with the county and almost unceasing volatility.

“The first challenge is becoming a community, and we must commune to be a community,” said entrepreneur Partha Chakrabarty. “We have to bring everyone together to do that. In the national arena there is divisive political rhetoric. We don’t need that for our city. At the end of the day, we’re neighbors – Republican, Democratic and Independent neighbors – and we all want the same things for our community: Good education for our kids, good jobs and safe neighborhoods.”

“How can we build a stable city? Every time there’s a change in leadership, there’s a change in vision,” said Regina Lewis-Ward, an organizational development consultant and former Stockbridge city council member. “Most citizens would like to see transparency and be able to communicate with their local government. As your mayor I promise open government, results and a commitment to listen, to involve you and engage you, because it’s your city.”

Restoring stability and a spirit of cooperation to city leadership was foremost in the assertions of all four candidates at the Stockbridge mayor candidate forum Thursday. Speaking to an audience of about 100 voters were, from left, Partha Chakraborty, Regina Lewis-Ward, Judy Neal and Alphonso Thomas. Photos by James Saxton

“In the last few years we’ve had more bad publicity come out of City Hall than we could have ever imagined,” said Judy B. Neal, a former employee of the offices of the Georgia Secretary of State and Lt. Governor and three other offices. “We want to get rid of that. We want to look forward to hearing the name Stockbridge on the news.”

“My goal is to restore your faith in this municipality,” said Alfonso Thomas, a former Stockbridge mayor pro tem for two years and one-term city council member defeated in the 2015 election. “I’ll stand on integrity, accountability, and fostering open and transparent affairs with the city, and I’ll encourage the council to adopt goals that reflect that vision.”

The Nov. 8 general election includes a special election for the Stockbridge mayor to fill the unexpired term of Tim Thompson, who abruptly resigned from his office in a December city council meeting that drew statewide attention. The election only fills a one-year vacancy – the unexpired term through the end of next year – so another mayoral election will be required late next year.

Thompson’s departure was just the latest in what has become over the past seven years a revolving door of politicians and government administrators in the city of about 27,000 residents. The upheaval began in 2009, shortly after retired Army officer and political newcomer Lee Stuart ended the late R.D. “Rudy” Kelley’s 31-year reign as mayor. The city council ousted Stuart in 2012, saying he was creating a hostile work environment for city workers and citing six other charges.

In 2013, during the last two months of Mark Alarcon’s mayoral term, he transferred eight city-owned properties to the city’s downtown development authority and forgave the DDA some $6 million in loans. Thompson spent the early days of his term trying to retrieve the money and properties. Then in March 2015 the city council required Thompson to get anger management counseling after he threatened to harm the mayor pro tem in an executive session.

Since 2010, Stockbridge has had no full-term mayor, six city clerks, five finance directors and five city managers.

The candidates said there’s plenty of problems to address beyond the city’s tarnished reputation.

“I grew up in Stockbridge,” said Chakraborty, a 2011 Dutchtown High School graduate who unsuccessfully ran for a Georgia House District 78 seat last year. “Let’s be real, Stockbridge does not have a lot to offer for young adults.”

He said he wants to do something about that and other difficulties the city faces. Born in America to India-born parents, Chakraborty said he got a chance to experience forms of mass transportation and clean energy when he lived for a brief time in Europe. “I got to see how they address some of the same issues that we face here,” he said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t we have this in Stockbridge?’ So that’s why I decided to run for mayor.”

He said he wants to see a revitalized downtown, encourage small business growth and retain more of the city’s sharp young minds beyond college.

Small business owner Lewis-Ward came to Georgia after retiring from supervisory positions at the New York City Transit Authority. She served in volunteer leadership roles and was appointed to fill a seat on the Stockbridge city council in 2014. During her tenure, Lewis-Ward said she started a Stockbridge Citizens Academy, secured funding for playground equipment for special needs children, reached out to small business owners with programs from the Federal Small Business Administration, and collaborated with police, fire, and emergency management services on policy recommendations. She lost her seat in the 2015 election.

Lewis-Ward was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lived in public housing and attended New York City public schools, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer systems from Baruch College of the City University of New York, and is completing a master’s degree in behavioral sciences at Clayton State University.

She said three times in the forum that the biggest challenge the city has is transparency and communication. She said for transparency she’ll initiate a program that allows city residents to review spending and keep tabs on city projects. For communication, she emphasized that she wants to hear from residents “in policy, programs, and anything and everything that we do. I plan to set aside one day where people can come into the office and share with me what your comments are.”

Neal, meanwhile, stressed that fiscal responsibility and careful planning are vital for Stockbridge. “Our paramount goal is to look out for the city’s money and additionally to make certain that every decision we make is a positive decision and not one that’s going to end up in a lawsuit.”

The City of Stockbridge has unique assets, “located in the shadows of an international city, an international airport, with I-675 and I-75 and soon-to-come toll lanes, we are sitting in the catbird seat,” Neal said. “We’re positioned for success.”

Having served as a state agency director and a state authority director, she said, “I have a skill set that mirrors being the mayor. I’m used to managing state government, I’m used to managing federal money and state money, so one of the good things I bring to the job is wonderful contacts in state government. I promise that I will move to work cohesively to build a group that can make positive decisions so that we are positioned for success.”

Future development looks bright for Stockbridge, Thomas said, but expansion must make sense. He said he’d like to see a study of the city’s ordinances alongside a comprehensive land use study to avoid problems like the city had with the Jodeco Road project.

Thomas is president of the Stockbridge Civic Association. He earned the 2015 Stockbridge Community Civic Leadership Award and is involved in community events like back-to-school kickoffs, Hands on Henry Day, the annual Memorial Day march and Black History Month observances.

“My goal as your mayor, along with the city council, is to gain the path to success by putting forth a sound vision,” Thomas said. “(It’s) a vision that everyone must embrace – businesses, citizens, elected officials, appointed boards and staff. We must collaborate to determine where it is we want to go as a city and how we’re going to get there. That’s how we win the future – together.”