The three candidates for Fulton County Commission chair cited their experience as elected officials as the reason for putting their hats in the ring to lead the county of more than 1 million people during the Oct. 4 Reporter Newspapers and the Riverside Homeowners Association forum held at Kairos Church in Sandy Springs.

Robb Pitts, former Fulton County Commission and Atlanta City Council member; Gabe Sterling, current Sandy Springs council member; and Keisha Waites, who resigned her seat this year to run for the Fulton chair seat, are vying for the post vacated by John Eaves in his quest to be Atlanta’s next mayor.

From left are Robb Pitts, Gabe Sterling and Keisha Waites. (Dyana Bagby)

The special election for the Fulton County Commission chair is Nov. 7; the person who wins will have to run again for the seat during the general election in 2018.

There were subtle barbs tossed by each of the candidates at each other, but there was also agreement by all on such issues as the need for a regional transportation plan and the importance of working with leaders of each of the 15 cities that make up Fulton County now.

The hour-long forum included each candidate giving opening and closing statements. Reporter Newspapers Managing Editor John Ruch asked the candidates three questions and three questions were selected from the audience of about 50 people.

The race is non-partisan but Sterling is a Republican and Pitts and Waites are Democrats.

Opening statements

Pitts noted his educational background as well as his work for the Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce and Central Atlanta Progress in his opening statement and said because this is a nonpartisan election, people have the opportunity to select the best qualified candidate despite party.

“Fulton County is at a crossroads,” Sterling said, now that South Fulton became a city and municipalities govern nearly all of the county. He said the county’s budget is $991 million and if elected chair he would work to lower that amount.

Waites said as a state representative for the past five years, she has the relationships at the General Assembly to advance an agenda benefitting homeowners and small business owners. She said the fact Fulton County is 100 percent municipalized indicates to her there were “echoes and screams of disappointment” from residents over its government. “I’m here to make sure the little guy has a say and a voice,” she said.

Fulton’s diversity and ways to unite people

The first question dealt with the diversity of Fulton County and for each candidate to give an example how in the past were able to unite people from differing backgrounds to come together for a common goal.

“Sandy Springs is viewed by many as an enclave of rich people,” Sterling said. In reality, though, Sandy Springs is very diverse racially, in sexual orientation and socio-economic status, he said. He said he has worked with Mayor Rusty Paul and other council members to have more housing options available in the city through such policies as zoning. He also noted the city’s “Next Ten” program that included two years of meetings and outreach to residents from the African-American and Hispanic communities as well as to young people.

Waites said there is no better place to learn about bringing people together than in the General Assembly and during her time there she readily worked with people from both sides of the aisle on legislation. She noted the second House member to sign on to her “Fallen Hero Bill” was a Republican. The bill provides college tuition assistance to children of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. “I’ve worked with African American, white, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, gay, straight,” she said. “I can be a consensus builder.”

Pitts said he understands how to work with diversity and boasted of his reputation as both an independent thinker and an aisle-crosser. He said an old joke was that the Fulton commission had “three blacks, three whites and Robb Pitts,” or in another version, “three Democrats, three Republicans and Robb Pitts.”

“I deal on the issues, not personalities,” he said. “Leadership is important, image is important and experience matters.” Pitts said his experience as Atlanta City Council president and president over 18 members puts him in a strong position to lead the Fulton Commission of six members. “I will lead with respect and dignity and be a chair you can be proud of,” he said.

Sterling shot back at Pitts’ comment, though, and said during his time on the Fulton Commission it was well-known for being divisive and dysfunctional. Sterling said he noticed Pitts also did not answer with an example of how he was able to bring people together.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead and we need someone who can say what they mean and mean what they say and not be all things for all people,” Sterling said.

Waites then responded with a slight dig at Sterling and his Republican stance of fiscal conservatism apparently clashing with his support of Sandy Springs City Springs. “If what you talk about is being fiscally conservative, I think to support a new City Hall for $221 million … I think that speaks a lot of fiscal conservatism,” she said. “If we want to have a conversation about fiscal conservatism …t’s important to lead by example.”

Property tax sticker shock

Another question dealt with the shock many Fulton homeowners felt when they received their property tax bills this year. The backlash forced the Fulton Commission in June to rescind the appraisals for residential properties while asking the state legislature for new laws to prevent the pain of 2018.

There are number of services can be streamlined and pushed to local control, such as libraries, she said. While the state constitution requires services such as courts, public safety and public health be provided by counties, Waites said Fulton County needs to get out of the business of providing services that the cities can now offer.

Pitts agreed the appraisals caused a lot of consternation and acknowledged his property taxes went up 25 percent, but he and his wife did not intend to appeal. He said more professionalism was needed in the tax appraisers office.

Sterling said the cause for the extreme rate hikes was because the appraisers were years behind in making assessments and tried to make up for all of those years in one year. “Frankly, there was no mechanism in place for them to do it any other way,” he said. Fixing the appraisal process includes making sure appraisers are professionals while also conducting “stress test” assessments before they go public.

Pitts followed up by saying the other two candidates did not understand the appraisal process and that he was working with state Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) to come up with a solution.

All agree regional transportation plan necessary

All agreed regional transportation was crucial to the economic success of Fulton County, as well as the state.

Pitts said if elected chair he would work to ensure the money received from the approval of last year’s transportation special local option sales tax (TSPLOST) would go to the projects approved by voters in each municipality.

Sterling praised the bipartisan effort that resulted in the TSPLOST approval and its split between Atlanta and Fulton County. He said Amazon’s announcement it is seeking a second headquarters could very well tip Gwinnett and Cobb counties over into agreeing to financially support public transit throughout the region. The main problem the region faces, he said, is the lack of an east-west connector. Public-private partnerships could be a way to fund regional transit as well, he added.

Waites said state dollars are needed to fund public transit and she also agreed public-private partnerships are necessary. She also praised the $1 billion transportation bill approved by the legislature in 2015, although none of that funding went to transit and instead went to a backlog of repaving and repairs.

Other ways to deal with traffic beyond mass transit

While mass transit is one way to address the gridlock motorists deal with daily on the roads, the candidates were asked what other ways could traffic be alleviated.

Pitts said technology and the rise of the autonomous vehicle will be a game changer, adding that Fulton can become the autonomous vehicle capitol of the world.

Sterling agreed that autonomous cars are the future and noted Mercedes-Benz USA, headquartered in Sandy Springs, is a leader in the autonomous car trend.

Waites said the $1 billion transportation plan approved by the legislature to fix roads and bridges meets that goal. She also said traffic light signalization can help.

To watch the entire Facebook Live video stream of the forum, click here.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.