Snellville's two candidates for mayor -- Kelly Kautz and Barbara Bender -- traded a few jabs here and there, but overall the Thursday evening election debate proved informative and respectful.
Led by students, the debate brought out about 250 people to hear the candidates' positions on a number of issues ranging from community pride to crime and safety. Students asked the questions and moderated the event.
Overall, both candidates believe they have what it takes to be mayor.
Bender, who announced her candidacy for mayor first, is running on accomplishments made during her tenure on council: a new police department, a new public works facility, a plan for the town center and more. Moving forward, Bender said she has the right leadership traits to capitalize on the city's momentum.
"Being mayor takes more than talking points," said Bender, during her opening statement. "It takes more than ideas. It takes a vision, it takes a plan, and it takes a leader who has the temperament and the ability to build a team of four votes to actually get the job done and deliver. I will be that mayor."
Kautz, who was the youngest person on Snellville's , is running on how she has listened to the needs and wants of citizens: opposing 's newest venture in the city, opposing higher density housing in Hickory Hills, backing residents who fought against a crematory, and more. As mayor, Kautz said she would be honest when something isn't working to the benefit of citizens.
"I have a history of making the tough decisions," she said in her closing remarks. "It's easy to vote with the crowd. Trust me, it's not easy being the lone vote, the lone dissent going against something when you know it is the right thing to do."
The candidates were polite during the debate, and both received boisterous applause at times. Although cordial, it was clear the two do not agree on a number of things.
The do not agree on their voting records, including opposing each other on issues related to the town center, the budget, and the new Wal-Mart grocery store, among other things. But, most of all, they disagree on who has the best ideas -- or any at all, and who focuses on the issues that are most important.
Kautz ticked off several ideas for the future, including a mini bus service to ease congestion, starting an independent council to help hold officials accountable and using grants to build a community center that could be the stimulus for other financial investments. She also stated several times that she has been a voice for budget measures that did not heavily impact residents, while Bender has voted for tax increases in the past.
In response to a question about transportation, Kautz said Bender lacked ideas besides being an advocate with ties to various boards. She also said Bender is unwilling to show when she doesn't have all the answers.
"I have the courage to stand up in front of y'all and admit when I don't know something, to admit I need guidance," she said, "but at the same token I have offered some simple solutions. Things that we can do right now to help alleviate some of that traffic, while we wait for those in downtown Atlanta to find the answers to the overall transportation problem."
Bender zeroed in on Kautz's inability to win favor on the council, calling her opponent someone who plays in the position of a victim. It takes votes to get things passed in the city, four to be exact, she said. Bender did not apologize for having allies on council -- those she has agreed and disagreed with -- who helped her be on the winning side of some of the city's key decisions.
"What I'm hearing is victim, no one likes me, I can't get something passed because they think that I'm on this side," she said. Regarding herself, she said: "I am an independent thinker. I'm not led by anyone."
She added that Kautz has had trouble getting things passed, not because of who she is, but "because they weren't viewed by a majority of council as being worthwhile items." One she mentioned was Kautz's for businesses that did not amount to much of a tax break, on average.
As far as what they each believe is the city's biggest weakness, Bender said it was development, and Kautz said it was politics.
Although the city is "behind the eight ball in downtown development," Bender said it's not something they cannot work through. In fact, the city is already moving in the direction of bringing higher paying jobs, professional-type businesses and getting people to work closer to home, which eases traffic, she said.
Kautz disagreed, pointing to various residential real estate and businesses throughout the city as evidence that the city has been working on economic development for a long time. On the other hand, "the biggest elephant in the room, the biggest weakness in the city of Snellville is politics." Simply put, there are not enough independent thinkers, she said.
Although Bender and Kautz are fervent opponents, having voted against each other on many issues while they were both on council, the debate showed they could agree on some things.
They both believe in Snellville and want it to succeed, albeit bringing different personalities and ideas. They both agree the is vital and deserves recognition for its hard work. They both believe in as a driver for future progress. Traffic and crime, those too, they both seem to understand.
At the end of the debate, both thanked South Gwinnett High School for hosting the debate and gave kudos to the school's students, some of which were in the audience. In addition, both candidates encouraged the public to vote in November, no matter who they side with.
What the audience said:
Melodie Bell Hill, psychologist and mother of three: "I came into this green because I didn't have very much knowledge about either of them, so that's why I'm here tonight. The verdict is still out." Hill liked positions made on both sides, but she is leaning toward Bender. The most important issues to her: education, safe communities and economic development.
Rita Sabbagh, wife of councilman Mike Sabbagh: "I was very happy to be here to know how each one would answer what they believe in and what they're going to do... I support Kelly 100 percent. I think she's very smart. If I have to vote for anybody -- I have nothing against Barbara, I like Barbara as a person -- but if I have to vote for anybody it would be Kelly. First of all, she's educated, she's a lawyer, she knows the law, she knows what she talking about, and I would trust my city with Kelly more than Barbara."
Geri McMenomy, Bender's friend and Snellville resident for 30 years: "I know her personally. I know her work ethic. I know her commitment, and I guess that's what I value most... She does what she says she's going to do, and I guess that's what I like about her. She's such a hard-working, dedicated girl. And, like getting ready for the mayoral race. She took all these leadership courses. It's not like she just willy-nilly does stuff. She prepares for it."
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