The revitalization of Dunwoody Village, overcrowding at local schools and how to best spend the city’s money dominated the line of questions and discussions during a polite and friendly Sept. 22 Dunwoody mayoral and City Council candidate forum.
Besides taking on the tough issues, there were also questions such as, “Where did you take your favorite vacation?” and “What is your favorite national park?” and “ Coke or Pepsi?” These were asked during the portion of the forum when candidates were given the opportunity to ask their opponents a question. Although light-hearted, these questions were intended to avoid “gotcha politics” and show how all candidates are friends sharing the same goal of making the city better.
More than 50 people attended the forum held at Dunwoody High School and sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and the Dunwoody Reporter.
DHA President Adrienne Duncan made opening remarks, noting that the DHA is a nonpartisan organization representing homeowners. The questions asked were decided by the DHA membership and those submitted online by residents that were culled by Duncan and DHA Treasurer John Sparks. Reporter Managing Editor John Ruch asked the questions as the moderator.
Lynn Deutsch and Terry Nall, who both have served on the City Council for eight years, are facing off for the mayor’s seat. Running for District 1 at large are Stacey Harris and Robert Miller. Joe Seconder and Heyward Wescott are seeking to fill the District 2 at large seat.
The winners will be decided in a citywide election on Nov. 5; early voting begins Oct. 14.
District 3 at large City Councilmember John Heneghan is running unopposed for reelection. He did not attend the forum because he said he wanted to give as much time as possible to the contested races.
Mayor’s race: Lynn Deutsch and Terry Nall
When asked if they believed the city has jurisdiction over enforcing building codes on public school system properties, Deutsch and Nall both answered no, the city does not.
Nall said the city has received three legal opinions that are “loud and clear” that the city has no jurisdiction, including one that says the city has “none at all” while another says the city can only enforce fire and erosion control codes.
The question is raised as part of an ongoing debate among residents over how to get DeKalb County Schools to quit adding trailers at local schools to deal with overcrowding as well as poor conditions at the schools.
Nall said the General Assembly needs to pass a law giving local governments the authority to enforce building codes on public school property, a priority included in a recent 5-point action plan he came up with and approved by the council.
“That’s what is missing today is there no statute from the General Assembly that gives us any of that control … and so we desperately need that,” he said.
He noted that Deutsch is currently working with state Sen. Sally Harrell on coming up with such legislation. He said if elected he would like to appoint a mayor’s advisory council that would inform the city on issues they want addressed so the city can then make the request to DeKalb Schools.
Deutsch said the city currently has no ability to make the school district do anything with their buildings. But the “facilities crisis” the city is facing is a symptom of what is wrong with DeKalb Schools “and not the disease itself,” she added.
She said if elected she would convene a meeting within her first 30 days with all of DeKalb’s city mayors and county commissioners representing unincorporated parts of the county. At the meeting she said she would show them the data on how the school district is failing students, including that 99% of the school systems in Georgia have a higher graduation rate than DeKalb.
“DeKalb Schools has long divided us,” she said. “Parent against parent, school against school and north against south, which is the most damaging part of all.”
Uniting local leadership to put pressure on their elected school board members is the best way to fix the problems facing the school district, she said.
On the question on what they have done to improve conditions for local business owners in Dunwoody Village, Nall said during his eight years on council he is constantly visiting those businesses and asking for the owners’ input directly.
That input led to him to initiate moving the annual Dunwoody Art Festival during Mother’s Day weekend from Chamblee-Dunwoody Road to the Dunwoody Village Parkway so the businesses on Chamblee-Dunwoody Road could stay open and attract customers, he said.
He said he has also met with Brand Properties, owner of the Shops of Dunwoody on Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, to learn more about their 10-year plan for the shopping center and how the city can assist. Working with businesses on permitting is also something he regularly does, he said.
Deutsch said she and Councilmember Pam Tallmadge met last year with Regency Centers, owner of Dunwoody Village, Williamsburg at Dunwoody, Dunwoody Hall and Ashford Place shopping centers in the Village to learn more about how the Dunwoody Overlay impacted attracting new businesses.
That meeting led the council vote to make changes to the overlay, including getting rid of the Williamsburg-style architecture requirement, and hiring a consultant to meet with the public to come up with a new, updated overlay plan, Deutsch said.
The two were also asked about the City Council’s vote to approve a zoning variance to allow the city’s contracted developer to encroach into the city’s 75-foot stream buffer to build two athletic fields in Brook Run Park. Several residents have raised concerns about erosion and pollution of the streams due to the construction work and best management practices not being followed.
Deutsch said she voted “no” on that variance request because city staff did not provide enough information or assurances on how to prevent damaging runoff.
Nall said city staff was requested to go to the council to seek the variance just like any other property owner. He called the action a “positive step” because it requires city staff to ensure best management practices are used to protect the streams.
When it came time for the candidate asking the candidate a question, Nall said this is often a tactic used to try to stir up negativity. But he did not want that because, he said, he and Deutsch are friends and will remain friends after the election regardless of who wins.
But he did ask her whom she would turn to if elected mayor when faced with a difficult issue.
Deutsch said her research skills and finding an expert on any situation are one of her strengths.
Deutsch said she also did not like “gotcha politics” and asked Nall, “Coke or Pepsi?”
Nall answered Diet Coke. He also answered his own question by saying if elected mayor he would go to the community and ask for their input on significant issues.
District 2 at large: Joe Seconder and Heyward Wescott
The first question Seconder and Wescott were asked was if they would agree to provide incentives to the owners of the shopping centers in Dunwoody Village so that a “new look” could be made sooner rather than a “piecemeal” plan approved over many years.
Wescott said no, but that he believed the city could make quick improvements in the Dunwoody Village public right-of-way by installing more sidewalks, benches and lighting, like what is now on Dunwoody Village Parkway. He said he would also like to find a way to add green space to the area that is currently filled with vast surface parking lots.
Seconder said the city can “work around the edges” and he would lobby the U.S. Post Office now located in the Village to free up some of its land for green space. The investment of public dollars in Dunwoody Village can only be made if there is a public benefit, he added.
On how to improve poor school conditions, Wescott said the city has to find a way to “put the screws to the county to push them … and at the same time work with them at a collaborative level.”
A roundtable discussion at the county level from Lithonia to Dunwoody is also needed, he said.
Seconder said more accountability is needed from the Georgia Department of Education, which has jurisdiction over DeKalb Schools. City leaders also need to collaborate with other municipalities in the county.
“This can’t be Dunwoody versus DeKalb,” he said.
When given the chance to ask Seconder a question, Wescott said he wanted to point out there was a “phenomenal slate of candidates” in all races.
“We all know each other well,” he said. “Everyone [running] has rolled up their sleeves and helped our city. So I don’t have a question.”
The crowd laughed when Ruch asked Seconder if he had an answer for the non-question.
Seconder said he agreed that all candidates were qualified and helped in the city’s transformation over the decade since it was founded. His question to Wescott was, “Where did you take your favorite vacation?”
The Greek island of Santorini, Wescott said.
District 1 at large: Stacey Harris and Robert Miller
The city’s first and only parks bond referendum failed in 2011 and Harris and Miller were asked if they would support another parks bond referendum in 2020.
Miller said he would support giving Dunwoody residents a chance to vote on a parks bond only if there was a specific list of projects on where the money would go.
He said the city’s expenses continue to increase and the city needs to ensure it “stays on task” to provide the basic quality services the city was founded on.
Harris said yes, she would support another parks bond vote with specific projects. One thing parks bond money could be used for is doing something with the old Austin Elementary School property on Roberts Drive, she said.
When students at that school move into the new building next year, Harris said she fears the city will be left with a “decrepit, old building” and she would make it a priority to come up with a plan and funding for that plan to ensure that building is not an eyesore for years to come.
The city’s proposed 2020 budget showed some “giant red flags,” Miller said when asked if there were items he thought were omitted or underfunded.
More than 40% of the city’s revenue comes from property taxes, he said, and over the last five years property taxes have increased significantly. Expenses have also increased significantly the past five years and the budget shows expenses are going to continue to rise.
The proposed 2020 budget indicates that revenue over the next five years is going to come in at a much slower pace, if at all, Miller said, meaning expenses will outgrow revenue unless the city makes “some serious adjustments.”
Harris said only one intersection improvement is funded in the proposed 2020 budget and there needs to be more intersection improvements funded because they help alleviate traffic congestion in the city. She also noted there was zero funding for what to do with the old Austin Elementary site.
Miller asked Harris what specifically she would do to improve schools in Dunwoody and she said there are currently eight school teams that share one field. She said she would work to make sure the schools are given priority to use the new Brook Run Park athletic fields when they are finished. She also said planting trees around the school trailers to try to hide them from view is important.
When Harris got to ask Miller a question, she said the city had a “great slate of candidates” in all of the city races and believed everyone running for office wanted the best for city. With that in mind, she asked Miller, who travels a lot in an RV, what his favorite national park was.
Miller said he would have to go with Yellowstone National Park because of its diverse ecology. He then he compared this history to the Dunwoody City Council.
After wolves were hunted out of existence in the park, its entire ecosystem was thrown out of balance, Miller explained. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, the park’s ecology returned to a healthy state, Miller said.
With his background in real estate and real estate development, Miller said he would bring to the council a perspective that is not there.
“Dunwoody needs a City Council that represents every character and trait that we need to try and have the best community and best representation we have,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct that Harris said there is zero funding in the 2020 proposed budget for what to do with the old Austin Elementary School site.