For the past 50 years, just two men have led Roswell’s government.
With such longevity at the helm, you can forgive residents who largely tuned out local politics. But now, with no incumbent on Tuesday’s mayoral ballot, there is a new exuberance in the city.
It’s even caught Jere Wood, the outgoing mayor.
“It’s wonderful to see the city energized,” Wood said after a Tuesday night debate between mayoral candidates Lori Henry and Lee Jenkins. “This is good for Roswell. …On the whole, a change in leadership is bringing a whole new energy.”
Wood, who is in his 20th year as mayor, was the subject of a lawsuit that claimed he had violated term limits. A judge found that he had, but Wood said he wouldn’t have run for a sixth term even if he had been allowed to stay.
The controversy seems to have revitalized politics in the city, and whether residents back Henry or Jenkins for mayor, they are excited about Roswell’s new direction.
“It’s probably the best local debate I’ve ever attended,” said Jim Coyle, a Jenkins supporter who said his candidate brings a “refreshing” spirit to the city.
Debbie Mecher, who voted early for Henry, said she thinks Henry will be transparent and honest in office.
“Everybody’s tired of politicians saying one thing and doing another,” she said. “Do what you say you’re going to do.”
The candidates themselves are passionate about similar issues: growth and development, traffic and transportation infrastructure, and economic development. But the steps they would take about each vary.
Henry said she wants to focus on filling empty buildings in commercial corridors and bringing developers who will build more offices in the city. Roswell doesn’t need more apartments, she said, and certainly no more development that doesn’t fit with the city’s historic character downtown. She wants to improve the timing on traffic lights so traffic flows more smoothly and wants to restore MARTA bus routes that were cut in the recession. But Henry said she is not in favor of expanding MARTA in Roswell beyond the routes it used to have.
More office space would allow for a greater daytime population, she said, which would help support shops and restaurants. She said the city isn’t focused on economic development, but it needs to come to the forefront.
Jenkins said he’s in favor of preserving the things in Roswell that are worth preserving, but there are some blighted areas that need to be revitalized. He’d like to see more mixed-use developments and more reasons for people who drive through Roswell to stop to work, eat, shop or be entertained.
He’d also like better parking near the destinations people want to visit, and proposed a city trolley and said Roswell needs a more versatile transportation system. Jenkins said he is open to the possibility of expanding MARTA.
The city needs more commercial property to improve its tax base, Jenkins said, and should do more to make people who drive through Roswell stop in the city. He said he’s the best ambassador to bring sustainable businesses.
Their proposals come against a backdrop of frustration. Roswell’s city council, which Henry was elected to earlier this year after serving from 2001 to 2009, has a reputation for infighting.
Henry said she’s aware that the mayor sets the “tone and tenor of city hall” and said elected officials need to talk to each other and disagree respectfully. She said she was “shocked” by the tension when she joined the council.
But during Tuesday’s debate, in response to a question about Roswell’s cultural programming, Henry declared that she was opposed to making Roswell a sanctuary city, implying that Jenkins was in favor of it. The statement elicited shouts and boos from members of the audience, who were watching the exchange in a 600-person theater at Roswell’s cultural arts center that was more than two-thirds full. Jenkins, in response, said he was not a proponent, and will obey federal and state laws, but is open to listening to residents’ concerns and had been open to talking to people about sanctuary cities.
Jenkins said he wants to fix the damaged culture in city hall, and said his work as a pastor has given him experience bringing people together. As a political outsider, he said, he hasn’t been caught up in the city’s dysfunction.
Doug Fernandez, who voted early for Henry, said he values her experience. He thinks bringing high-paying jobs to the city is of utmost importance, and values Henry’s vision. Jeffrey Green, who thought he would vote for Jenkins before the debate, said he supported Jenkins’ “fresh approach to building relationships.”
A 16-year resident of Roswell, Green said he’s just starting to get involved in politics. He said it was “invigorating.”
“People are interested here and now,” he said. “There’s a wave of consciousness happening.”
Before Wood, his predecessor as mayor, Pug Mabry, served 30 years. When Wood proposed the term limits that eventually led to the end of his time in office, he said long-serving leaders become complacent and conservative, while newly elected leaders are more likely to take risks.
Wood, who supports Jenkins, said the new-found excitement about Roswell’s future “is what makes local government the place to be.” But the outgoing mayor said he had lost the “freshness and enthusiasm” residents deserved.
“There’s always a point in time when it’s time to move on,” Wood said. “I’ve had my turn. It’s these folks’, now.”
MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.
- Judicial employees sue Fulton County for back pay
- Fired Fulton Finance Director Patrick O'Connor hired in College Park
- The role of Fulton County chair changes as cities take on more
Never miss a minute of what's happening in Fulton politics. Subscribe to myAJC.com.
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Occupation: Owner, H&B Promotional Products
Political experience: Roswell city council, 2001-2009; 2017-present
In their own words: When asked about a formative experience in her life, Henry said, “My father always told me there is nothing you can’t do as a girl.” She said he taught her,”You don’t ever come to the table with a problem unless you have a solution.”
Why she should win: “Really, experience does matter today in this situation. I have a history of getting things done at city hall.”
Occupation: Pastor, Eagles Nest Church
Political experience: None
In their own words: When asked why he was running, Jenkins said national politics made him want to get involved. He said, “I saw how divisive, how polarizing things have become and I thought there has to be a better way. I was inspired and burdened. …I want to serve people and I want to bring people together.”
Why he should win: “I’ve proven that I love Roswell and I want to see the city be better. Being a political outsider is exactly what our city needs at this time. “