ROSWELL, Ga. — The Roswell Community Masjid hosted a mayoral debate Monday, Sept. 20, where incumbent Lori Henry and her challengers, Kurt Wilson and Jason Yowell, offered different approaches to key issues.
The candidates went back and forth for nearly an hour discussing economic growth, balancing traffic and walkability, a potential nondiscrimination ordinance, climate change and transparency. Kinza Tariq served as moderator.
Henry took office in January 2018, becoming the city’s first woman elected as mayor of Roswell. Wilson, a business owner, also ran for mayor in 2017 but dropped out before Election Day, and Yowell, a contractor/developer, has been one of Henry’s most frequent critics.
Over recent months, Henry has come under fire for delays and cost overruns on the Oxbo Road Realignment project, a topic that surfaced at the debate. In February, delays in the project led to a $2.5 million settlement agreement between the city and one of the landowners who sold property to the city for the project. To date, the city has paid more than $71,000 for an independent investigation into the reasons behind the delays.
Since the investigation was launched, few details have been shared with residents. Henry repeated on Monday that she has taken a hands-off approach to the investigation to avoid any appearance of meddling, but as soon as she receives the final report, she will share it with the City Council and residents. She said she expects to receive the report by the end of the month.
However, Yowell continued to criticize Henry. He said that under Henry’s leadership the status quo in Roswell has become dysfunctional.
“And that won’t change with the current elected officials in place and much of the staff leadership,” Yowell said. “If you don’t change the players, you won’t change the game and … you’re going to continue on a trajectory of decline. That’s not what we want. We want to move forward. We want to be better.”
He laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the mayor.
“If you want transparency, one of the first things you need to do is wrest the mute button from the mayor’s hands [at public meetings],” he said. “That is not transparency when the mayor has a mute button. Everybody should be free to hear what goes on in the chambers — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Wilson said he does not blame Henry for the acrimony in the city but that he would create a culture with “huge openness,” so everyone understands what’s going on.
“What most of us want are truth, honesty, character and integrity,” Wilson said. “And when you make a mistake, own up to the mistake. Great leadership makes lots of mistakes, but great leadership owns those mistakes and is the first one to call themselves out. … That’s transparency.”
Henry fought back, listing efforts she’s led since taking office, such as live-streaming public meetings and holding “Coffee with the Mayor” events to meet with residents.
She also touted early into the debate that Roswell remained open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic while other cities shut down. And while others have discussed defunding the police, Henry said, sworn officers with the Roswell Police Department received a pay raise in 2018. Then, in March, pay ranges and pay were increased to be market-competitive for all departments.
Henry said the City Council recently adopted a property tax rate of 4.718 mills — the lowest it’s been in more than 30 years. On the issue of economic growth, Henry said her priority is to hire a new economic development director to work with Roswell Inc. and the Downtown Development Authority.
But Wilson said it is important for the mayor to have a vision to relay to staff, something he believes he can provide with input from residents. Wilson said the city is great at making plans, but the lack of vision has been part of the reason it has failed to execute them over the years.
Yowell said the city needs to be realistic about what economic development is possible.
“The future in economic development is as a destination city,” Yowell said. “As one of our citizens has said repeatedly, we’ve won the geography lottery, we have the history, we have the natural attractions, we have so much to bring people in, and the best thing about tourism money is that it’s money from outside. People are paying taxes that don’t live here.”
On the subject of infrastructure, Wilson said he would like to see the city invest in improving the walkability and connectivity between the east and west sides of Roswell.
“If this is going to become the No. 1 family community in America, which I believe Roswell will be,” Wilson said. “It’s going to take some investment and that investment starts first and foremost along the lines of infrastructure.”
Yowell also claimed that despite transportation being the “lifeblood” of any community, Roswell has turned into a “cut-through community” at the expense of quality of life. He said the Roswell Department of Transportation should focus on facilitating the traffic in the community instead of increasing the traffic volume that goes through it.
All of the candidates said they would support a city nondiscrimination ordinance to protect against discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Henry said a little over a year ago she started a racial equity task force that focuses on what Roswell can do better with its hiring practices and inclusivity.
The candidates said they also support environmental-friendly programs to combat climate change. Henry highlighted the need for additional MARTA bus routes in the city to help.
“I will fight very hard to get MARTA to return many of our bus routes to the city and improve on that because if we have public transportation, which I will say Roswell is very supportive of, that helps us to reduce our carbon footprint,” Henry said.
In closing, Wilson encouraged voters to ask themselves several questions before voting.
“Is Roswell in a better place today than it was four years ago?” Wilson said. “Are you excited about the future of Roswell over the next four, 10, 20 years under the current leadership? Do you see great things ahead for our city? Do you see our elected officials working together? If you don’t believe those things, I am asking you to pursue a different path.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, the seven candidates running for a seat on the City Council participated in a debate of their own. The candidates include incumbents Marie Willsey, Post 4, and Matt Judy, Post 6. They will face Peter Vanstrom and Lee Hill.
Michael Dal Cerro, Yalonda Freeman and Will Morthland are all running for Post 5, currently held by Councilman Matt Tyser who is not running for reelection. Tyser said he plans to run for the District 48 Georgia House of Representatives seat next year.
Both debates were streamed live online. To watch a recording of the events, visit Roswell Community Masjid on YouTube or Facebook.
Early voting starts Oct. 12 and Election Day is Nov. 2.