The candidates vying for Brookhaven mayor and the City Council District 3 seat staked out fundamental differences on their visions for the city before a standing room only crowd at an Oct. 16 forum sponsored by the Brookhaven Reporter.
More than 100 peopled squeezed into the Turner Lynch Campus Center at Oglethorpe University to hear from Mayor John Ernst and his challenger, Jen Heath. They also heard from Dimitrius Owens and Madeleine Simmons, who are vying for the District 3 council seat that became open after incumbent Bates Mattison decided not to seek a third term.
The candidates answered questions from moderator John Ruch, managing editor or the Reporter.
Early voting is happening through Nov. 1 at the Briarwood Recreation Center in Brookhaven; Election Day is Nov. 5 at local precincts.
Mayor John Ernst and Jen Heath
In his opening statement, Ernst ticked off a list of projects completed during his first term he said curbed development to protect and preserve neighborhoods, including purchases of green space, construction of the Peachtree Creek Greenway, addition of new sidewalks and multiuse paths, keeping taxes low and implementing traffic improvements. A referendum to lower homestead exemptions is also on this year’s ballot.
Ernst touted these projects as successes that he hoped earned him another four years as mayor, but acknowledged what he and the City Council have done is not making everyone happy.
“Together over the last four years, we’ve done a lot of amazing things,” Ernst said. “When I became mayor of Brookhaven I realized I was going to bring good governance to the city and I knew some of them (residents) would not like it.”
Heath, a neighborhood activist, is one of those residents not happy with the current administration. She said she offers a choice to those who feel their voices are being ignored.
“The big thing we need to look at is we are losing sight of what the community of Brookhaven can be,” she said. “We have taken on a mentality that we are a big city and we have to do things the big city way.”
The City Council attempted this year to amend the city charter to allow the mayor to serve three consecutive four-year terms instead of two, but eventually dropped it after community blowback. Ernst favored the move, Heath did not.
If Brookhaven wants to become a regional player and create change to benefit the city in areas such as transit to alleviate traffic congestion, then it needs to be able to have a mayor in office for more than eight years, Ernst said. Neighboring cities Chamblee and Doraville have no mayoral term limits, he said.
“It takes a lot of time to build up regional relationships to move the needle,” he said. “In the end, it benefits the city in the long term.”
Heath dismissed the idea Brookhaven was a “major metropolis” and said being a mayor or other elected official could become like any other job where people “fall into the everyday doldrums” and become apathetic to residents.
“A lot of times they forget why they ran,” she said.
Holding an election every four years reminds office holders why they were put there, she said. And when elected officials are challenged, they are forced to find a better way to represent themselves, she said.
The candidates were asked about Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s $1.5 billion medical campus under construction now at I-85 and North Druid Hills Road and Emory Healthcare’s planned $1 billion redevelopment of Executive Park.
The projects are expected to be major economic boons for the city, but they will also have significant impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhoods and communities. How can Brookhaven’s “small city government” balance community interests against the two wealthy and politically powerful entities?
Ernst said the city negotiated a $69 million community investment agreement with CHOA that requires CHOA to pay for traffic improvements around the residential neighborhoods and some construction costs for the Greenway. CHOA will also be covering major costs to rebuild the bridge over I-85 at the interchange that should alleviate congestion.
CHOA had never been asked to invest in a community like this before and the president was stunned at first, Ernst said. The city is now negotiating a community investment agreement with Emory.
“We are not going to just roll over,” he said. “We held the powerful [accountable] and stood up to them. And it is great to have these great businesses and partners in our city.”
Heath said Brookhaven is a “city of neighborhoods” and how the CHOA and Emory developments impact traffic in these residential areas needs to be addressed with community input. “The community has to have a voice,” she said.
Ernst and Heath did agree on some issues, including fully funding the city’s approximate 3-mile portion of the Greenway that would eventually connect the city to the Atlanta BeltLine. The first mile is expected to open by the end of the year.
They both support passage of a local nondiscrimination ordinance to protect minority residents, including LGBTQ people.
Ernst picked up an endorsement from Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, hours before the forum. He said he and Councilmember Linley Jones have been working on the text for the ordinance and it is expected to come before the City Council possibly as soon as next month.
Dimitrius Owens and Madeleine Simmons
Owens, a real estate broker, said he decided to run for City Council because the current vision for Brookhaven is not what he believed it to be when it was incorporated in 2012.
“Have we lost our focus? Are we moving too fast? Is it costing too much?” he asked.
“The city is moving forward, but it feels more like we are being dragged than us pushing the city’s agenda,” he said.
Simmons said she is running for City Council to ensure accountability to residents and to fulfill their vision that includes more green space, tree preservation, smart planning, traffic mitigation and responsible spending.
As a former member of the Planning Commission, Simmons said she was proud of the city’s 10% inclusionary zoning requirement for new multiunit residential buildings to address workforce housing.
Where to build the city’s new library has been a years-long debate between DeKalb County and Brookhaven, Simmons said. The library is a county service and the city should put more pressure on the county to open the question up to community input so the people who use the library can have a say where it goes, she said.
Many people who use the library use MARTA and are able to easily access it from the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station, she said. This needs to be considered when selecting the site, she said.
Simmons said she opposes building the library in Brookhaven Park because the residents living around the park have spoken “loud and clear” they do not want to lose any green space.
Owens said there seemed to be an “adversarial relationship” between Brookhaven and DeKalb County, and that generated a round of laughter from the crowd.
“DeKalb County has dragged their feet on this for 10 years and now they want to put it in [Brookhaven Park],” he said. He opposes building it in the park.
Owens said there has to be compromise and someone “has to give something to get something” to find a way to get the library built.
“Someone not bringing any baggage to that discussion could probably reach a solution,” he said.
Owens acknowledged he was not familiar with some of the topics discussed and backed off comments he made that pocket parks were not useful after hearing Simmons say residents she spoke to told her they wanted more. He said he would support pocket parks if that’s what constituents wanted.
To watch the full forum recorded on Facebook live on the Reporter Newspapers Facebook page, click here.
This story has been updated to clarify comments Madeleine Simmons made about workforce housing and about the need for community input to decide where Brookhaven’s new library should be located.