Candidates square off in political forum

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Candidates running in the upcoming City of Madison elections on Nov. 7 gathered for a forum last Thursday to make their case to the public to vote for them. Sponsored by the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce and the Morgan County Citizen, seven candidates answered a series of policy questions in front of a packed crowd at the City of Madison’s meeting hall.

On the panel sat Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, Kathi Russell, who is running for mayor, Robert Lanier, who is running for Mayor, City Councilwoman Chris Hodges, Woody Burriss, who is running against Hodges for the District 5 seat on the City Council, Jennie Newton and Eric Joyce, who are both running for the District 2 seat on the City Council.

The candidates took on a myriad of issues including housing and business development, zoning procedures, reducing property taxes, government transparency, improving the relationship between the City of Madison and Morgan County government, business recruitment, deterring truck traffic through downtown, and preserving the historic district.

Madison Mayor Fred Perriman recounted the achievements and strides Madison has made during his four years as mayor, including the construction of the Silver Lakes senior community, the new Canaan Corner Store, The Gilmore House, new sidewalks throughout the city, and the conversion of the Northside Water Plant into a pumping station. Perriman also noted that the city has balanced the budget for the year and was able to rollback the millage rate and that the city has received numerous grants and accolades during his time as mayor. Perriman pledged that if he is reelected he will work to have restrooms in all city parks, more workable housing units for people of all incomes, more recreational activities for young people, and more businesses downtown.

“It has been an honor to serve as Madison’s mayor for the last four years and I would love to get the chance to continue serving as mayor so we can finish what we began,” said Perriman. “We are moving in the right direction. Don’t stop us now.”

But Perriman’s opponents made the case that Madison needs new leadership to solve ongoing problems facing the city.

Candidate Robert Lanier promised to be a “strong leader” with “a pro-business” agenda if elected.

“The Mayor and City Council must represent all of the people, not just a few, which is what we have happening now,” said Lanier. “We need economic development. We need the stores full downtown, and yes, we need more housing, no question, but we need to do it in a way that does not abuse the Historic District.”

Lanier also noted he intends to change Madison’s reputation for being too difficult for incoming businesses.

“We have got to stop saying no to new businesses,” said Lanier.

Kathi Russell argued that only a change in leadership and direction could fix Madison’s problems.

“As much as we love this city of ours, it isn’t all blissful,” said Russell. “We cannot pretend that these problems will go away on their own.”

All three of the mayoral candidates were asked about the pending Foster Street project, a controversial proposed 24-unit housing development behind the historic Thomason Miller House.

Perriman declined to comment due to the upcoming vote on a rezoning request by the developer to accommodate the project.

Lanier said he supported the project in theory, but not with that many houses and not if the project requires a rezoning.

“I have no objection to the Foster Street project on its current zoning designation, as it is presently zoned and without any variances,” said Lanier. “I would be glad to support 14-16 units, but I am opposed to destroying the integrity of a nationally-registered historic area.”

Russell remarked that while she supports more housing, that the city council must protect the current property owners’ interests.

“We need more neighborhoods and more citizens and children to fill our schools, and we need houses for them to live in. But we need good, solid projects to do that. The residents here have a right to be protected. We are supposed to be protecting the people who are already invested here and protecting the historic district,” said Russell. “A new strong mayor and city council will help along in this situation.”

Russell also stated her support for term limits on city boards, decreasing the speed limit through downtown to deter truck traffic and making changes to Madison’s city staff.

“It is time to clean house,” said Russell.

Perriman warned that reducing the speed limit through downtown would not only result in tickets for truck drivers but for everyday drivers as well.

“You have to be careful what you wish for,” said Perriman, who also noted the City of Madison as limited options to deter truck traffic through downtown since the roads are under the jurisdiction of state and federal agencies.

The candidates vying for the open council seats also laid out their goals for the City of Madison if elected.

Incumbent Chris Hodges focused on enhancing Madison’s walkability through adding more sidewalks and trails throughout the city and expanding the “public arts” to both further beautify Madison and draw tourists. Hodges also noted she aims to advocate for more public parks and better Internet service. Hodges touted her life-long experience in Madison and her desire to make Madison better for her children.

“These are simple things we can accomplish to attract young families as well as help our aging population and improve upon our wonderful quality of life,” said Hodges.

Woody Burris promoted a platform of “economic development” but also pledged not to support policies that would impose “urban planning tools” onto “rural areas.”

If elected, Burriss pledged to work with Morgan County government on economic development opportunities and see to it that the city’s comprehensive plan is completed. Burriss also pledged to support Morgan County schools in developing further, increasing the staff of the police department, and the creation of a “more ambitious private foundation” to attract “new business” to Madison.

“We love being in Madison and hope to be here for a long time,” said Burriss.

Eric Joyce touted his experience as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission as a valuable asset, especially as the City of Madison tackles housing developments and zoning policies in the Historic District.

“The historic district is the economic engine that brings visitors to our city,” said Joyce. If elected, Joyce pledged to protect the historic district and find ways to keep property taxes low and to see that the make-over project for the West Washington Gateway continues and is completed.

Jennie Newton focused on her problem-solving and conflict resolution skills and a diverse career background, ranging from law enforcement to finance to customer service. If elected, her goals include increasing Internet service and supporting policies that will improve the quality of life for millennial families and seniors.

She promised to “listen to all voices” in Madison and use her experience as an effective communicator to relay the concerns and needs of the citizens to the council as they make decisions that will affect the city.

“My best quality is listening,” said Newton. “And that is what I hope you all remember most when you go to vote.”

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