ROSWELL, Ga. — In the first face-off of City Council candidates Sept. 22, the two incumbents defended themselves against claims that they will pursue the status quo if reelected.
Seven candidates running for three City Council seats in the Nov. 2 election participated in the debate, hosted by the Roswell Community Masjid. The organization held a debate for the mayoral candidates earlier in the week.
Post 4 Councilwoman Marie Willsey faced Peter Vanstrom, and Post 6 Councilman Matt Judy faced Lee Hills. Three candidates, including Michael Dal Cerro, Yalonda Freeman and Will Morthland, faced each other as they vie for the Post 5 seat currently held by Councilman Matt Tyser who is not seeking reelection.
Moderator Shafina Khabani asked the candidates about a range of topics including disparities in home values, growth, diversity, and parks and recreation. Some of the questions came directly from residents.
Almost from the start, Vanstrom said this was going to be “a very historic election for Roswell,” putting voters at a crossroads.
“The voters are going to have two very distinct choices to make,” Vanstrom said. “One of those choices is going to be to continue with the status quo. Keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and getting the same results. That would be a vote for my opponent. A vote for me would be a vote for a bold new vision.”
Vanstrom said his goals are to put residents first by improving the city’s parks and gateways and straying away from building high-density apartments. He cited the City Council’s past failures with residential projects such as the development at Sun Valley Road, which was originally planned as a commercial mixed-use site.
If elected, Vanstrom said he would focus on bringing about true business development and business recruitment to fill up the many semi-vacant shopping centers and empty spaces in the community. He and Hills proposed hiring an economic development director to lead similar efforts.
Hills and Willsey both said the city could start by renovating properties wherever possible. For example, Hills said a vacant shopping center could be repurposed for recreational activities such as pickleball. Hills said the city should also be more intentional about the businesses it attracts. She suggested expanding medical and educational campuses.
Another hot topic of the evening was the unified development code adopted in 2014. The document adresses contemporary development and zoning practices. Willsey and Judy said they support redoing the UDC to ensure it reflects what residents want and makes it easier for future investors and partners in the city.
“[The UDC] has been divisive ever since its passing…,” Judy said. “I have been calling on us to throw it out and start over. It’s time we do this – involve our public and adopt a code that protects, preserves, and allows us to refresh the rest of this city. I believe this will help us in East Roswell and as we grow across the city smartly.”
Hills jumped on the opportunity to criticize Judy’s voting record.
“We have to begin with trust and transparency and end up with accountability,” Hills said. “Matt here wants to scrap the UDC zoning and start over. However, our current UDC does have protections for neighborhoods even though he has consistently voted against them.”
Judy said the last thing the City Council needed was pointing fingers at each other.
“It’s very obvious you’re going to see two types of answers tonight – a negative spin on things and a positive spin on things,” Judy said. “I am here to do the positive spin. … As a council member, you have one vote. It’s ineffective without a majority vote. That means you must be a consensus builder. You must work with others to achieve progress.”
Judy and Hills were asked about their plan to improve parks and recreational facilities in Roswell, citing some sentiment that they lag when compared to neighboring cities. Judy said he grew up playing T-ball in the city’s parks, starting when he was 4 years old, so investing in the parks was important to him. He said he called for full investment in the parks at the city’s last Recreation and Parks Committee meeting.
Hills said Judy’s statements do not reflect how he’s voted on the City Council.
“Four years ago, my opponent promised to bolster our award-winning parks and greenways, and yet not only has he completely ignored moving forward from the 2017 parks needs assessment, he voted to dramatically cut the parks maintenance budget last year,” Hills said. “I plan to actually commit to investing and preserving our parks.”
When asked about promoting inclusivity and racial and social justice, Freeman said she would like to see programs that work to improve the relationships between law enforcement and the community, especially with youth. She said people from different professions should welcome youth into their offices to expose them to potential careers.
Morthland and Dal Cerro said they strive to be inclusive on a daily basis, starting inside their homes, and that they would use their own experiences to bring about change in the city. Morthland said his wife is a first-generation American, and Dal Cerro said he is a first-generation Italian American.
“Trying to go ahead and marginalize others, there’s no place for it,” Dal Cerro said. “If I get elected as Post 5 council member, I will be committed to ensuring that we include everybody.”
Both debates at the Roswell Community Masjid were streamed online. To watch the recordings, visit Roswell Community Masjid on YouTube or Facebook.