Kinder, gentler Bill Edwards now mayor of South Fulton

Bill Edwards has long been considered mayor of south Fulton. Now, he’s the Mayor of South Fulton.

He will be the inaugural mayor of the newly minted city when it becomes a legal entity Monday. It’s a role he has some familiarity with.

From 2000 to 2014, Edwards represented south Fulton on the county commission. Then, the Democrat had a reputation as a firebrand and fierce defender of south Fulton, who butted heads with Republicans on the county’s north side.

Complaints about how resources were divided between north and south, and the racial and partisan infighting that characterized the board at the time, helped lead to the wave of incorporations that began with Sandy Springs in 2005.

Citing the inequality between north and south, Edwards pushed through the construction of the Wolf Creek Amphitheater on the site of an Olympic shooting venue.

And as cities continued to break off, Edwards said they should be ready to move forward quickly. In one 2008 debate, about ambulance service, Edwards told new leaders to “grow up.”

“Take control of your finances, and do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

Edwards left the board after losing an election to Commissioner Emma Darnell, who was drawn into his district during legislative redistricting. The move was seen as payback from state Republicans who were frustrated with the pair.

Edwards again lost to Darnell last year.

This year, he won a runoff election for mayor of the new city of 100,000 after failing to earn more than half the vote in a nine-person race. He’s the only leader of the new city who’s held elected office before.

“Being away and looking back, it has made me a different Bill Edwards,” he said. “This guy is a little different than the guy who was Commissioner Edwards. …It’s been great years of learning for me.”

His time away from politics, Edwards said, has mellowed him. He said he expects respectability — not hostility — from all leaders. It’s a change for him, he admits.

“There are things I could’ve done better,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to respect everybody. We’ve got to set the tone. We don’t need to shout and fall out and cuss each other.”

Still, some old habits die hard.

Edwards in 2008 voted against giving a fire truck and fire station to the newly formed city of Johns Creek and accused a fellow commissioner of being a mole for the new city of Milton. Now, as negotiations for South Fulton begin, Edwards said he thinks the county is being “petty” about giving up some buildings, including the county’s South Services Center, which he said is mostly empty.

“I think the county could be a little more equitable than they have been,” he said, saying northern cities received more than South Fulton will.

Of course, serving as mayor of a new city isn’t quite the same as being one of seven members leading a county. With all seven city council members looking out for South Fulton’s best interests, Edwards said, it will be easier to gain support for actions than it was at the county level, with commissioners representing their own geographies.

Then, if he didn’t have four votes on the board, everything he proposed was just “conversation,” Edwards said.

The skills needed to be mayor differ from those of a good commissioner, said Michael Hightower, whom Edwards replaced on the county board. Hightower said he thinks Edwards can make the adjustment.

“It’s a different dynamic,” Hightower said. “It’s a new turf.”

One of the main things Edwards brings to the role is a “keen understanding” of the new city, Hightower said. He has always been protective of the area, Hightower said, and he expects that to continue.

LaDawn Jones, a former state representative in south Fulton, said Edwards’ time on the board will likely be beneficial as the city sets its first budget and negotiates with Fulton. He knows how government works, she said, and will therefore be conservative in his spending — making him an able leader.

As with anyone who has been in politics for some time, there are some residents who support Edwards and some who don’t, Jones said. The new mayor will have the challenge of uniting the city, including residents who didn’t want South Fulton to form.

Dyan Matthews, the president and CEO of the South Fulton Chamber of Commerce who was Edwards’ chief of staff when he was a county commissioner, said when Edwards was first elected to the county commission, he went on a listening tour to hear the concerns of those who voted against him. As more people get to know him, she said, they will see what he can do for the city.

Edwards said he wants to reduce crime and illegal dumping and promote economic development. He said the city has a long way to go, but he wants to move it forward.

“What you see is what you get,” Matthews said. “If you’re trying to stop progress, you’re still going to see that other side of Bill Edwards. He’s a fighter when it comes to his community.”

She said she knows the city’s in good hands because it’s not the first time Edwards has had influence in south Fulton.

“Everything in South Fulton has his footprint or his hand print on it,” Matthews said. “Now, he’s come full circle.”

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