Is it hot in here? asked City Council candidate Joel Russell. His reference was to the temperature, but some in the crowd would have likely said it referred also to their expectations for change.
The forum Thursday night was the first of five for candidates running for mayor, the City Council and the Board of Education.
“I want to see dynamic change and there’s people out here that can do it,” said Harold Ray, who lives in Ward 3 but came to the forum to support his brother, a Board of Education candidate in Ward 4. “I see a lot of young people coming up who’ve got spirit.”
Many in the crowd came with specific interests in mind.
Retired government and economics teacher Shirley Alverson said she attended the forum to hear what the candidates had to say and make up her mind about who would win her vote.
She had some very definite priorities she wanted to see addressed — the school system and development at McClellan and downtown.
“When I first came to Anniston, this was THE school in the area,” Alverson said. “Our career tech, that was one of the best in the state…I’m looking for those days to come back.”
Some of the audience’s concerns were addressed. Moderator Mike Stedham asked the same questions that had previously been sent to the candidates by the groups organizing the forum: GETT Moving, REAL Men of Anniston, Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and Women Empowered. But the floor was never really opened to the audience to ask their questions except by Board of Education candidate Glen Ray as the meeting was ending.
Patricia and Al Vanderpol said they were still undecided on who to vote for. Al Vanderpol said he thought the biggest issue facing Anniston is race relations, but that was never addressed in the questions. Patricia Vanderpol said poverty in Calhoun County was something she wanted to hear the candidates talk about.
“Nobody talked about the poor at all,” she said. “Everybody talks about bringing jobs, but nobody talked about the number of people that eat at the Soup Bowl every day or the number of people that come through the door of the homeless ministry every day.”
But the two did say the forum gave them an interesting view of the personalities, backgrounds and styles of communication of the candidates. They also praised the Question and Answer publication put out by the groups on Tuesday.
The candidates took the opportunity to express their opinions. While Ray did take a few jabs at incumbents, most of the comments were focused on what the candidates wanted to do in office.
One question that highlighted the differences in the philosophies of the City Council candidates was how would they reduce the crime rate in Anniston.
Millie Harris said that she had spoken to Anniston Police Chief Layton McGrady about the issue.
“It takes two years to train a police person,” Harris said. “By the time they have been with us for two years, they’re out the door for better pay.”
The city needs to match the pay of surrounding communities and increase its police force to entice officers to stay, Harris said.
Arthur Fite said the crime rate was tied to education and to joblessness.
“If we can bring industry here and grow this town, take care of education, that crime problem will diminish markedly,” Fite said.
Brian Harmon said focusing police resources on community policing and crime hot spots, as determined through crime data collected in the community, would help reduce crime.
“It’s time that we take that step forward and look at some really innovative and ambitious solutions to our greatest problems and for crime I think it’s predictive analytics and community policing,” Harmon said.
Marcus Dunn, the current Ward 4 councilman, said consistent investment in the city’s youth would help prevent crime.
“We’ve got to get our kids today to believe in themselves,” Dunn said. “We need to give them skills. They need to have skills, trades for work.”
Russell also would invest in the city’s youth.
“We’ve got to get our kids educated,” Russell said. “We’ve got to give them a reason to get educated and we’ve got to get them jobs here.”
School board incumbent Bill Robison and Ray expressed some of the same priorities for the system, but differed in how they would get there. For instance, when asked how they would like to improve the elementary schools, both noted they would consolidate the number of schools.
“I just think we have entirely too many,” Ray said. “We need to get all these kids together and the teachers together.”
Robison said consolidating the schools would allow the school system to better utilize its resources and he would like to see some of the savings go toward summer educational programs. The elementary schools test reading in the winter and again in the spring and there is nearly universal improvement from the elementary students, Robison said.
“But what happens from spring in second grade to winter in third grade? They go down,” Robison said. “It probably is due to the fact that these kids don’t get guidance and help and reading support throughout those summer months. So, they lose ground.”
As the meeting ended, one of the two audience members Ray invited to ask questions directed pointed comments at Robison.
“You’ve been there for about eight years, haven’t you?” the questioner, who did not identify himself, asked. “I heard in several comments that you made there, ‘We’re working on it.’ How long does it take to fix it?”
Robison, who has served on the board for 12 years, said that was an excellent question and he challenged the resident.
“Part of it depends on the availability of resources,” Robison answered. “Part of it depends on the citizens participation. Part of it depends on the leadership within the system, not just the board. The board can only do so much about setting policy.”
Robison invited the resident to attend the Board of Education meetings and see what goes on and then criticize.
Candidates from Ward 3, for both the City Council and the Board of Education, will speak at a forum next Thursday at South Highland Community Center at 6 p.m.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.