Mayoral candidates address voters at DACC forum
The candidates for mayor and city council in the City of Demopolis stated their positions to voters Tuesday night during the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce’s Mayoral Forum held at the civic center.
The event provided candidates for city council seats three minutes to speak while the four candidates for mayor spoke and responded to a series of four questions, given two minutes for those responses. The event concluded with each mayoral candidate getting two minutes to address the audience. The event moderator was Alan Bishop.
In their opening remarks, each mayoral candidate was provided three minutes to discuss their platform. The candidates for mayor include incumbent John Laney, Aliquippa Allen, Woody Collins, and Andy Renner. Chamber officials randomly chose the order in which the candidates would speak.
Following are portions of the opening remarks from each mayoral candidate in the same order they appeared during the forum.
“I’m a native of Demopolis and a 28-year veteran of the Air Force and currently serve as dean for the School of Business and Technology at the University of West Alabama. I have 40 years of management experience and I have the formal and technical training that is needed for this position.
“While I was in the military I earned three degrees and was promoted to the highest enlisted rank. After returning to Demopolis, I got involve in several organizations and started working at UWA and earned my PhD and Curtis and I opened a business. In each of these positions, I led people, managed resources, evaluated processes and procedures and I made decisions, and believe me not all of them were popular.
“I want to see Demopolis rise. I want to see Demopolis restore the downtown area. I want to see us invest in businesses and especially our people. I want to see us support our schools and first responders. I want us to embrace change so that we can move forward.”
“Several years ago I served several terms as city councilman for District 3. Back then, our city budget was $5 million with reserves of $9 million. Today, our budget exceeds $10 million and we have less than $3 million in reserves and some of that is an IOU.
“It’s not hard for me to explain to you how important I believe it is for our city to get back to strong financial footing. It will not be easy, but it has been proven possible.
“I want to hear opposing sides of any issue. Debate and not argument offers education and understand to all of us. I’m not afraid to make hard decisions, even when those decisions are unpopular. I will work closely with our department heads to understand their needs versus wants and take that information to the council to exhaust every avenue to make it happen.
“In my heart I feel great things are coming our way even if we have to fight to get them. As long as we fight alongside each other and not with each other, we will win.”
“When I ran for office in 2016 I did it for several reasons. The city is a $10 million a year business with 118 employees. I felt that my management skills could help maximize the benefits our citizens were receiving
“I had listened to years to people commenting about the inability of the city to do anything about dilapidated housing. I would hear people talk about how our ordinances and zoning were blocking economic development. I was concerned about spot zoning and the lack of following the city’s master plan. I did not feel the city was moving in a direction that was best for its long-term success. That’s why I ran for mayor.
“I stand on my record of improving safety, property values and infrastructure. This has raised the quality of life for our citizens and made us a more desirable place for businesses. I stand on my record of ensuring our citizens’ money is responsibly spent. I stand on my record of improving transparency of city government and giving citizens more access during city council meetings. I stand on my record of responsible economic development.
“I believe the direction the city is headed will move us into the future. Why return to the past?”
“We realized how critical the coronavirus is and we chose not to spend every waking moment knocking on doors. We’ve done it through social media, through signage, telephone calls … I’m available any number of ways. Anyone is welcome to call my phone. We have tried to be respectful of this virus.
“My first memory of community service, in the mid-60s, my father was the president of the chamber of commerce. They created a program, MAD, “Making Attractive Demopolis.” I remember my father taking the kids to vacant lots telling us to ‘pick ‘em up and clean ‘em up.’ So, we started early with service.
“I’ve been through it all around here. I was very successful in sales and four years later my brother and I bought the family business. It has been very successful. I’ve been honored as Citizen of the Year, my business has been Business of the Year, and last year I was honored to get a Lifetime Achievement Award.
“This community raised me. This community taught me my values, the biggest being good old-fashioned Demopolis common sense.”
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
Question One: Within your first term, what is your specific vision for economic development in Demopolis and our role in working within Marengo and surrounding counties?
“The path of least resistance is to work with the companies that we already have. We have companies here that can grow if given the opportunities.
“I see the Blackbelt … there needs to be a marriage of resources. Working together we can bring in something even bigger than Marengo County has gotten recently. It takes a lot work and a lot of people working together. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.”
“Economic development to me has always been a team sport in that we have a Economic Development Authority with an executive director. That director has the responsibility of going out and looking for prospects. It is the city’s responsibility to provide the infrastructure and amenities a business needs when they come to our area.
“Another thing is where is that project going? If we have a project moving into the City of Demopolis, I believe the city should step up to the plate and do everything we can to get that industry in … our schools and the city will benefit. However, if that business is not within our city limits, there is no reason we should heavily invest ourselves at the expense of our citizens. It makes no sense. The best you can do for an industry is to improve roads and infrastructure within the city, so when they look here they will see it as a great place to live and a great place to work.”
“I’d like to first respond to something Mayor Laney said. WestRock is not in the city limits and they are one of the greatest partners we’ve ever had.
“I’ve been on industrial development board for the past 12 years. Industrial and economic development is all about preparation. I go back to New Era and was involved in that many years ago and I’m happy to say that I happened to be chairman of the Industrial Development Board when Two Rivers Lumber came here. It’s been a wonderful win for this community … they’re not in the city limits either but I totally support them.
“I have worked with the Marengo County Economic Development Board for the last 6 years and the one thing I know is that we need to take care of home first. We have many small businesses that are struggling.
Where I would start as mayor is at home. Find out what our small businesses need to thrive. Do they need additional training? What is we can do to make us grow and expand?
When New Era closed, there were 300 people out of a job. So maybe we are going after the wrong kind of businesses. Maybe we need more small businesses so when a business closes we don’t all shut down.
Working with the EDB and surrounding counties and go to Montgomery and say ‘Alabama is thriving and we want to be part of the economic engine that is taking place. You look at aerospace, biotech, the automotive industry … why isn’t there any suppliers located in rural communities. There’s money in rural.
Question Two: Our school system is a driving force that attracts industry and commerce to Demopolis. Our children are being educated in buildings that are well over 50 years old. It is time for our city to rally behind facility improvements for our schools. As the mayor, what kind of financial support can we expect for the local school system?
“My position is that improvements to the school system should be financed through the community through a property tax. I do not feel a sales tax is the way to go about it. Reason for that, when you impose a sales tax, you are putting the tax on those who are least able to afford it. In addition to that, sales taxes are very susceptible to economic cycles. If you use a sales tax to float a bond for a school and the economy goes south, the city will be laying off people and cutting back services … you have to keep paying those debts.
“Property tax is much less sensitive to economic fluctuations. What I like most about property taxes is that it gives the people a chance to voice their opinion. The people should decide if they want to finance that kind of an investment.”
“A community that doesn’t have good education and healthcare ceases to exist. It’s frustrated me for a long time that the federal government and state has thrown back into the communities’ laps health care and education for us to deal with … unfunded.
“It’s going to take some out of the box thinking to keep both our healthcare and school systems going. Without education, we are nowhere. Without healthcare, we are nowhere.
“We’re already losing the brightest minds that this community has ever turned out. They are leaving our community right now. We have to find them work and continue that education and healthcare. I do not have an absolute perfect answer. I can promise the council and mayor will not let our school or health systems fail.
“I did serve 4 or 5 years on the Demopolis City Schools Foundation and was chair of the resource committee there. We gave grants to teachers who came up with innovative ideas to better their curriculum.
“One of the first thing I would do as mayor is determine the priority systems for facility repairs. The reality is, it’s not just the school buildings. There are lots of buildings the city owns in which we invest money. Since I don’t know the dollars allocated, I would like to review the entire facility listing of everything we have and determine what order we would put those in and put them on a schedule.
“If we don’t have good schools, we don’t have good heath care, then obviously we’re not going to bring businesses and industry here to help drive our economy.
“I would take a look at the priority system, decide where the school system ranks and in conjunction with the council as well as the superintendent to determine what kind of money the city might provide and on what time frame.
“The question isn’t whether anyone supports it, it is how are we going to pay for it?
“We are still paying a bond issue for a football stadium. Vanity Fair gave us a football stadium 50 years ago and look how well we took care of it. Look at the building we’re in right now … this was a gift and look how well we’ve taken care of it. Look what we’ve spent on it in the last 50 years. The air conditioning in this facility costs the city almost $40,000 a year, whether we rent it or not.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be considered, but we have to understand that we have to begin on a strong financial footing and we just aren’t there yet. I believe a lot of people have worked hard to try and get us there, and we’re going to get there, but there’s no money at this time to do something like that.
“We already have bond issues to pay for. The city is already paying $800,000 a year on debt.
“Seventeen years ago when we built the new high school, we were putting that kind of money back each year for paving. We can’t do that now. Things have changed.
Question Three: People normally look to local city government to provide police and fire protection, street maintenance, water and sewer service, recreational opportunities and money management of its tax dollars. What is your assessment of the performance of the city government in these areas and are you proposing any significant changes in how these departments operate?
“It is very difficult to answer this without have all the financial data in front of you. But, the third part is very interesting, as far as promoting any changes within the departments.
“I keep getting the same question from everybody: ‘If you’re elected mayor are you going to hire a city administrator?’ No, why would you? For example, take the police department. We have a very qualified, very well liked and pretty well compensated police chief. We have a city councilman who is working with the police department assigned by the mayor and the two of them did have the other four councilmen and the mayor to provide oversight. Why in the world would you add another layer of management in there?
“Between our department heads and the councilmen I truly believe they are going to make the best decisions regarding money management for those departments.
“I truly believe that given the time and energy our councilmen — probably the most underutilized talent in this entire town — they are very much underutilize and want to utilize them.”
These are all perpetual issues … the first council of the city dealt with many of these same things. These are issues you work on, but nobody ever fully solves them. But, you have to continue to work on them.”
“As I mentioned, I’ve done a lot of assessments in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to do a full assessment in this particular case. So, I cannot answer how I currently feel about what is happening in these particular areas.
“What I will tell you though, my approach to any department I would have to go in and do an assessment of what is happening right now. The only way anyone could do any realistic changes to the funding is to know where we stand currently. As candidates, we don’t have all the information, therefore I will shorten my answer and say I am not proposal any significant changes until I have all the data. I will also say that given the first opportunity, if this was my first question in office, I would unfold the books and figure out what is going on and then answer in a way that this question should be answered. But, as it is, any answer would be too hypothetical.”
“I will say that everyone before me is correct. Not knowing exact dollar amounts and where the money is being spent … it’s a hard answer to give.
“I understand that we have some infrastructure issues that need to be addressed and because the Water and Sewer Board is separate from the city, they are going to need some money at some point, if they ever do a big project. They have to do it because we are losing an awful lot of water here.
“I don’t know that I’m proposing any changes, but I believe a conversation needs to be held concerning healthcare. We need to discuss whether the City of Demopolis needs to continue owning the hospital building. It was built with bond issue money back in the ‘50s. After a few years the hospital made all the payments on it. The hospital is running on hard times and we all voted on this tax to help them. That isn’t going to be enough. I think we could help the Tombigbee Healthcare Authority help the hospital by letting them own that building. That would give them an asset in which they could borrow against. The city doesn’t need it and if UAB left tomorrow we couldn’t afford to tear it down. Not saying it has to be done, but it needs to be discussed.
“I would also look twice at that ambulance service.”
“The answer to the first part of the question is ‘excellent.’ The answer to the second part is ‘no’ and I’ll tell you why.
“When I became mayor the city clerk was not receiving any form of training at a job that is very unique and specialized. We encouraged her to go to training and today she is the president of the City Clerks Association for the State of Alabama.
“When I became mayor the city had bought two fire engines because they were not keeping track of what was going on with grants. So, they bought to half-million dollar engines. We now have a project manager in our city that tracks ever project we undertake in the city and we look at that each month to see what we are spending.
“The fire department had an ISO rating of four. Today it is three. The city didn’t spend one dime to get from a four to a three, three being better than four. This helps lower fire insurance ratings within the city limits. It was about having leadership who took care of paperwork and watched what was going on.
“The police department has continual training on situations because of their awareness of what is going on this country today. Every police officer on the job is wearing a body cam.
“Public Works and horticulture continues to improve on services. The last city council budget increased the horticulture budget because of the input we had received.
“We just saw our planning and zoning rating go from a nine to a four. The state has an average of six. That shows you what is going on with our planning in making the city attractive and a good candidate for industrial prospects.
“Park and Recreation has improved, hosting the Babe Ruth World Series in 2019 and making improvements (to facilities).
Question Four: Describe your personal managerial style as it relates to employee and stakeholder relations, fiscal accountability, time management, and anything else you feel will be important in the office of the mayor.
“As mayor, my personal management style would be same as most of my career … it’s really consistent time management. What I believe is that individually we do great things but collectively we can change the world. As I have and always will when making a decision, I will include whoever is at the table with me. I will listen and take input … two brains are better than one. Listening to opposing views is always good because that will help you come to a good decision. Often people don’t want to hire people who think differently, but I like to sit at the table with people who don’t think like me. That allows you to see all sides of the coin.
“Relations with stakeholders are important. They have a vested interest in what is going on within our city. We are going to work with them to the best of our ability and make sure whatever issue we’re working on that stakeholders have input as well.
“You can not function if you cannot balance your checkbook. Things will be done in a timely fashion and that’s how decisions should be made as well.”
“I think it is important not to micromanage. I think when we have department heads you should expect them to handle their department; however, I would certainly coach and encourage them anyway I could.
“I believe in working together and working toward a common goal. I like to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am. Like Aliquippa said, I like to hear an opposing view so that I can understand at least where they are coming from even if I don’t agree.
“I could use some help with time management myself.
“In fiscal accountability, I grew up in a little town and worked for a Jewish family and they taught me back then that if you watch your pennies the dollars would take care of themselves.
“It’s time we change the way we been doing it. If it looks like a pig and smells like a pig, it’s a pig and we don’t need to do it. There are several areas we could use improvements.”
“To me time is the most valuable of all commodities.
“My managerial style is allowing the departments to run themselves as far as the department heads. We meet once a week for a staff meeting with all the department heads allowing them to cross-communicate and talk about ways they can provide assistance to each other.
“Every year since I’ve been mayor, the city has returned anywhere from $300,000 to half a million back to reserves. I have a rule of thumb and the council members and I have talked about, from a cash reserve standpoint we never go below $2.5 million. “The reason is because if we have a tornado or hurricane or some other natural disaster, the city has to be able to respond and in order to respond the city will need cash. The council and I have worked very closely to make sure that we always maintain the minimum of $2.5 million in cash. We do have two IOUs from the hospital for $1 million, which we will get paid back over time. If you include that, our city reserves are somewhere between $4.5 and $5 million.
“In the office of mayor the main thing you have to do is have an open-door policy and listen to your department heads. If you do that, you’ll do all right.
“I agree with a lot that the others have said. I know I’m supposed to say something different.
“I am not a micromanager. I am an overseer. You hire people who are smarter than you. You hire people who know more than you do.
“As far as fiscal responsibility goes, a government is very complicated. It took me a while back when I was a councilman in 2000. Business people will say, ‘I bought a product for $1 I need to sell it for a $1.25. The city does not make a profit. You have to re-gear your thinking when watching the money for the city. It’s entirely different, but you have to understand it before you can truly manage it.
“The department heads are the key in all of this. No doubt about it. If the department heads are not managing their people appropriately, their time is wasting. Wasted time is money out of your pocket. But, as mayor you have to provide oversight and know what they are doing. That’s the mayor’s role.”
Each candidate was given two minutes for closing remarks to conclude the event.