- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
At the Cliftondale Park Community Center earlier this month, the three candidates to run Fulton County government worked to convince voters that their vision for the county was the one to follow.
Robb Pitts, the former county commissioner, touted his previous experience on the Fulton board. Keisha Waites, the former state representative, highlighted her background working across the aisle at the state Capitol. And Gabriel Sterling, the Sandy Springs councilman, focused on his plans to right-size county government after five new cities formed, beginning with Sandy Springs.
The new chair of Fulton County has the opportunity to shape the future of county government in a unique way. Aside from 7.5 square miles of mostly industrial land in south Fulton, the rest of the county is entirely municipalized. And county leaders would like that one unincorporated swath to follow suit, and join a city.
If it does, Fulton County would become the only county in the state of Georgia that isn’t responsible for city services. That means it wouldn’t provide police, fire, parks, zoning or code enforcement services to its residents. The path Fulton County takes as leaders determine how to fashion a new kind of county government could be a model for other counties as more cities form, and they follow Fulton’s lead.
Pitts, a former Atlanta City Council president who was a member of the Fulton County Commission from 2003 to 2014, said he sees room for Fulton to have a strong voice in a number of regional issues, including transportation.
“Fulton County, I think, is poised for greatness. In order to achieve its true, full potential, it’s going to take leadership,” he said.
At the forum with voters, Pitts said he understands the process the other candidates would have to learn.
“I’m prepared, I’m ready, there’s no on-the-job training for me,” he said.
But Pitts struggled when asked about specific work he was proud of during his tenure in elected office, saying he prided himself on defeating bad legislation. He’d have to think about his own proposals, he said, to pick out his successes.
The other candidates didn’t have the same trouble. Waites focused on a bill she wrote to provide tuition assistance to the children of officers killed in the line of duty, and legislation to make HIV tests routine, as well as to make the Capitol more accessible to people with disabilities.
Sterling said he was a detail-oriented lawmaker who prided himself on finding the unintended consequences of legislation. He also focused on his work to cap taxes in Sandy Springs with a measure that requires a vote from residents in order to increase tax rates.
Waites, who works as a contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said she sees the opportunity to accomplish more at the county level than she did while working in state government. She said she wants to work on a permanent solution to the issue of high property assessments that caused county commissioners to freeze 2017 values at last year’s levels.
Waites proposed giving libraries to the cities to run, not the county, and said there are some services like senior centers that cities may also be better able to provide. Such a move would also reduce county spending.
“We have operated in silos,” she said. “I offer a fresh perspective.”
Waites said she thinks it’s a critical time for mass transit, and said she wants to see it expanded in the county.
Sterling, too, said he thinks it’s important to focus on the ways in which Fulton can be a leader. He said county government is as an umbrella organization that can take care of required services like the jail, while the leaders of Fulton’s 15 cities allow residents countywide to have a louder voice in their futures.
“Fulton County is an amazing place to live,” Sterling said. “We can make it better.”
The county is the economic engine of the state, Sterling said, and he thinks it’s important to bring more high-wage jobs to the county.
Tochie Blad, who lives in Sandy Springs, said she thinks the most important quality in a new government leader is someone who is fiscally responsible. The county is not going to hand the health department or sewer system over to the cities to run, she said, and she wants to elect a new chair who will ensure services are delivered efficiently.
“Our growth will be stifled if we don’t come up with innovative solutions,” she said. “At the county level, they need to continue to focus on the larger issues they control.”
April Ross, an Atlanta resident who attended the South Fulton forum, said she’s ready for “somebody new and fresh” in government. And Deyanna Jones, who lives in South Fulton, said economic development, transportation and affordable housing are the biggest issues for her in the race. But she wants whoever is elected chair Nov. 7 to remember that they represent the entire county.
“I hope ultimately, whoever wins this race really comes to the table prepared to unify north Fulton and south Fulton,” she said.