After about an hour of discussing how they would help law enforcement and attack crime, the top eight candidates vying to become Atlanta’s next mayor then attacked one another.
They referenced tax liens, brought up unpaid water bills and quoted from a lawsuit.
For most of the 90-minute mayoral debate on Sunday evening, the topics centered on increasing police pay, offering housing incentives to retain officers and providing them better training.
But, with few exceptions, they did not offer significant detail about how they would fund those initiatives.
Then talk then got heated during the WSB-TV debate when it turned to the federal investigation into the Atlanta City Hall bribery scandal.
Mary Norwood, who is leading the polls, noted that candidate Peter Aman was the city’s chief operating officer in 2010 and 2011 at the start of when federal authorities allege that someone in city hall began taking bribes to secure city contracts.
“In 2011, I was not at city hall,” Norwood said. “Mr. Aman was.”
Norwood quoted a lawsuit accusing Aman and current Mayor Kasim Reed of violating city code.
“Hold on,” Aman said, adding that Norword had misrepresented the facts and that the city had won the lawsuit.
Things got uglier from there, signaling a shift in tone and intensity as the contest enters its final two weeks.
Former state Sen. Vincent Fort criticized Council President Ceasar Mitchell for waiting to call for a city hall compliance officer to investigate inappropriate financial dealings a few weeks ago. He said it sounded a lot like legislation he had proposed in January. Fort also noted that City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms had called his proposal a gimmick.
“I did call it a gimmick,” Bottoms acknowledged. She then referenced a federal tax lien against Fort and said he had his state paycheck garnished from his time as a lawmaker.
Fort then pulled out documents from his suit jacket that he said were copies of federal tax liens against Bottoms.
Bottoms said she and her husband fell behind on their bills after incurring expenses while starting a family.
Fort said he had a payment arrangement on his lien. When candidates file to run for office, they must sign an oath stating they don’t owe any public money including state and federal taxes. But it also says they can still be eligible as long as they are on a payment plan.
“Did you sign an oath that do not owe any taxes to the government?” Bottoms repeatedly asked Fort.
The overall field of 12 candidates was whittled down for the debate sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation based on recent polling, which shows Norwood with a lead and Bottoms emerging in second place.
The most likely scenario is that the top two finishers in the Nov. 7 election will head to a runoff in December.
With one poll showing 14 percent of voters are undecided, all of the top eight candidates — which also include Mitchell,Fort, Councilman Kwanza Hall, former Council President Cathy Woolard and former Fulton County Chairman John Eaves — have a shot at being in that final contest.
The debate began with oblique references to the bribery scandal and veiled criticism of the Reed administration.
“City Hall needs an overhaul,” said Eaves. “It’s plagued with corruption.”
For much of the evening, the debate focused on how to hire and retain veteran police officers.
A recent study recommended that Atlanta employ between 2,300 and 2,500 police officers. The city, according to the candidates, now employs as many as 1,800 officers.
The candidates all agreed that too many officers were leaving the city to work elsewhere because of better pay and that the city needed to get to the recommended level.
But Bottoms said the high rate of attrition isn’t only problem. About 25 percent of the police force call Atlanta home, she said.
Hall suggested offering police rental and down payment assistance, as well as allowing them to take home their duty vehicles to lure them to the city.
Mitchell agreed police should be well paid, “but they will also be partners with our community.” He suggested putting officers on foot patrols when they graduate from the academy.
Throughout the debate candidates tried to distinguish themselves from others in the crowded field.
“All these people have been down at city hall,” Fort said. He said the other candidates had a combined 50 years of service with the city. “They have had a chance to bring police officers pay up to par and they have failed. They have failed miserably.”
When they discussed purchasing more police vehicles, Aman said he was the only one who had actual experience purchasing them. Aman also told the audience twice that he helped found the police foundation.
Dave Wilkinson, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said the foundation and Channel 2 plans a second debate before the likely runoff in December between the two finalists.
Despite the jabs, Valerie Calloway Harris, who watched in the studio, remained undecided. But she liked Eaves.
“He just had more of a collaborative approach to leverage all these different municipalities that we have,” she said. “There’s a lot of duplication of efforts. I think for in order for us to be successful as a region, we’re going to have to collaborate on [public safety].”