As the Town of Caledonia grows, elected officials will face new challenges: maintaining that growth, providing the infrastructure to support it and coping with the less positive consequences.
Those were among the issues that topped Tuesday night’s election forum at the town’s community center, with two mayoral candidates and nine candidates for aldermen participating in a two-hour question and answer session moderated by 16th District Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens.
Mayoral candidates Susan Bell and Bill Lawrence are vying for outgoing mayor George Gerhart’s office since his decision not to run for reelection. Current alderman Mike Savage is also sitting out this year’s municipal election, with the remaining four incumbents — Bill Darnell, Steve Honnoll, Quinn Parham and Brenda Willis — fighting to retain their seats against challengers Matt Atkins, Brenda Spotts, Charlie Underhill, David Weathers and Mitch Wiggins.
The nine alderman candidates are running at-large in the nonpartisan election, which will be decided June 4. Mailed absentee ballots are due at Town Hall by 5 p.m. June 3 and hand-delivered ballots must be received by noon June 1.
Around 60 people attended Tuesday night’s forum, which opened with three to five minute statements by the mayoral candidates and two to three minute statements by the aldermen candidates, followed by pre-selected questions. The floor was then opened for questions from the crowd.
In the small town of just over 1,000 people, most candidates emphasized their deep roots and community involvement.
Caledonia native Bill Lawrence served as the town’s mayor from 2005-2009, being narrowly defeated by Gerhart in his 2009 reelection bid. Lawrence, who graduated from Caledonia High School in 1958, lives on his family homestead with his wife, Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board member Rissa Lawrence.
He served in the United States Army, spending the majority of his three years of active duty in West Germany. He retired in 2002 from 18 years in sales and service and currently operates a tomato farm.
Bell, who has lived in Caledonia since 1987, married a Caledonia native. She noted her volunteer work as co-chairman of last year’s Caledonia Day festival and her experience as the owner of two local businesses.
Both she and Lawrence said their work experience has taught them how to budget and work well with others, something Lawrence noted is important in Caledonia, which operates with a weak mayor, strong board style of government.
Both said they support annexation, listing it as one of their top goals if elected.
People on the outskirts of town use Ola J. Pickett Park and shop at the stores, Bell said, and she feels those people would like a voice in local government. She also wants to expand police protection, make improvements to the park and build a new community center.
Both she and Lawrence listed the local schools as strong assets. Lawrence also emphasized the need to support nearby Columbus Air Force Base, which employs many of the town’s residents.
In response to a question about whether local ordinances need to be stricken or added to the books, Bell said she would like to see stronger ordinances to deal with dilapidated structures and overgrown lots. Lawrence said though some ordinances are outdated and may need to be removed, others simply need to be enforced — a responsibility he believes falls to the mayor.
Board of aldermen
Among the nine candidates for alderman, most expressed similar views.
All support annexation, with Honnoll, Willis and Underhill saying they feel it is one of the most important things the town needs to decide in the next four years.
“If we don’t expand and grow, we’re going to die; we’re going to dry up,” Willis said.
But, most of the candidates cautioned, annexation must be done properly, taking into account the desires and needs of those already included in the city limits as well as those on the outskirts who may not want to be annexed.
One thing people need to realize, Darnell said, is that due to the high cost of running sewer lines, newly-annexed residents may still not have access to the town’s sewer system. Other considerations include making sure police and fire services can handle the additional residents, Underhill said.
Wiggins listed traffic congestion as his “hot-button issue,” and Weathers added to that discussion by saying one of his priorities will be to deal not only with congestion around the schools but also to find a way to slow down drivers who treat the streets as a “super speedway,” endangering children.
“There’s going to be kids that are going to get run over,” Weathers said. “I think I’d make that a priority.”
Though some members of the crowd questioned the possibility of speed bumps to slow drivers, Honnoll and others said the devices are a liability, especially on roads used by emergency vehicles, and residents often complain about the noise, Willis said.
Bell and Atkins suggested more police presence, while Parham favored having Town Marshal Ben Kilgore and the deputy marshals write more tickets. Hidden cameras may also be an option to deter speeders, Spotts said.
Darnell, who is involved with numerous children’s activities, including starting the mayor’s youth council, said his pet project has been, and will continue to be, sidewalks throughout town, which will make it safer for students walking to and from school.
The town also needs a bank, Spotts said, and she would make that one of her priorities.
Expanding Ola J. Pickett Park was also a priority among candidates, with Spotts wanting to add a spray park for children and Honnoll saying he would like to find ways to involve senior citizens and those who would like to use the park but are not interested in playing ball.
Many expressed disappointment in the relatively low turnout for Tuesday night’s event as well as for regular town functions like board of aldermen meetings.
Of the 666 registered voters, fewer than 10 percent attended the forum. Monthly board meetings typically only attract five or six people, Parham said, adding that perhaps emails or advertisements in the newspaper would encourage more people to attend.
Several were in favor of developing a website for the town, posting the monthly agenda and receiving feedback through informal web polls.
But the monthly meetings are open to the public and anyone can ask to be placed on the agenda, noted Underhill, a regular attendee.
The bigger problem is apathy from both the elected officials and the voters, Lowndes County District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders said.
Sanders, a resident of Caledonia, said he has held a community meeting every March for the past 14 years. At the meeting, he brings the county administrator, sheriff, chancery clerk, tax collector, coroner and supervisors to give updates from their departments and answer questions from constituents.
“I have yet to have the mayor of Caledonia be at any of my meetings for the last four or five years, and rarely do you have more than one alderman,” Sanders said. “The citizens in the town — you probably don’t have but five or six show up. There’s apathy in the community about wanting to know what’s going on.”
Similar problems exist elsewhere in the city and county, which Sanders said is “not acceptable.”
“I’d like to have a commitment that whoever gets elected mayor and alderman that you at least show up for one of the meetings anyway,” Sanders said. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back anymore. But I’d like to see you there.”
All voters were encouraged to show up at the polls next month. Only 20 percent of registered voters turned out for the 2009 municipal election, election commissioner Ken Byars said. By contrast, nearly three-fourths of voters cast their ballots in the most recent presidential election.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.