A forum hosted Tuesday night by the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce in partnership with Dawson County News, Fetch Your News and Smoke Signals gave city council candidates a chance to make their case to Dawsonville residents before they cast their votes Nov. 7.
The forum was the first time the four qualifiers have been sat side-by-side, and the candidates were asked six questions by members of the local news media as well as gave opening and closing statements about why they deserve a spot on the council.
Newcomer Mark French, native to Dahlonega, is a graduate of the then-North Georgia College and State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance. He worked for the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners for almost 20 years, serving the last ten years as the budgeting grant analyst.
He has lived in Dawsonville since 2009.
“The main challenge I see for Dawsonville moving forward is to engage more participation from those that we’re here to serve,” French said in his opening statement. “In doing so, the first thing I would like to do is make sure these meetings are more open to the public. I would like to see the website updated so that those who have a different work schedule than I do will at least have an opportunity to see what’s going on in their community.”
Angie Smith, incumbent and lifelong resident of the city, is also a graduate of the former North Georgia College and State University. She worked as a music teacher at Black’s Mill Elementary School for several years before deciding to stay home with her children, Ethan, 13, and Addison, 9.
She is currently serving her second term on the council.
“My roots here in the city limits go back much longer than I have- four generations in the city limits of entrepreneurs and business men and women here...the county probably much longer than that,” Smith said. “[The] city and the county cannot be separated- they are one in the same in my opinion and when I talk about citizens I also am meaning citizens of this county as well. They are extremely important to me and the decisions that I make on the council...are always in consideration of those who live in the county as well.”
Mike Sosebee, also an incumbent, said that he served in the US Army, is a member of the American Legion and is retired from business. He is married to Mary and has two sons and three grandsons.
Sosebee held a seat on the council from 1980 until 2001, was reelected for another term in 2004, and has served on the council since.
“It is an honor to serve on the city council and I am seeking your vote,” Sosebee said.
Steve Tolson, another newcomer, completed 20 years in the US Army at Camp Merrill in Dahlonega in the 5th Ranger Training Battalion. He is married to Sandra and has three children: Alejandra, 13, Stephen, 5, and Tristan, 3.
He has a master’s degree in healthcare administration and has worked as a medical group manager since retirement from the Army.
Tolson has lived in the city since 2009.
“As a manager, the evaluation of business needs and planning and forecasting the needs for the future and preparing for the [execution] of those goals as well as follow up...is a big part of that,” Tolson said. “I believe that experience can assist the council.”
A question about whether or not having 100 percent fund balance in reserves, as the city currently has, is the best use of taxpayer money, and if that money should be spent on services or infrastructure instead of saved, had most candidates stating they would like to see some attention and money focused on making the downtown area prosper, as well as maintaining a portion for emergencies.
“[We need] to work together with the county government and state agencies to begin a more aggressive revitalization plan for downtown,” French said. “I believe that could be the springboard for our future success and it would also allow us an opportunity to have controlled, quality growth moving forward.”
French also recommended that the city maintain no less than 18 percent in reserves for contingencies.
Tolson said that in order to market the city to bring in growth and businesses, there has to be something to market.
“I think that building a downtown that’s welcoming...we’ve started that project,” Tolson said. “I think there is some room to grow when it comes to navigating the city for instance, making it something that somebody can park at and visit a number of venues, recreational opportunities, restaurants and whatnot, maybe spend some of those funds to supplement some of those businesses that want to set up shop here.”
Smith said that the reason there is so much money reserved is so that the city can more easily supplement the cost of planned projects.
“In our attempts the last few years to save money, it hasn’t been for the purpose just so save money and sit on- we knew four years ago, five years ago that we had a lot of projects that we needed to do,” Smith said. “Main Street Park was one that was brought up to council, the downtown revitalization is another one, those are projects that even though we have SPLOST dollars, at this point that doesn’t cover what the total cost or the total bill of that would be.”
Smith also said that the city council knew that with the city’s growth, there would need to be extra money to hire new employees.
“The money that we’ve saved is not going to be saved forever,” Smith said.
Sosebee passed on the question.
In her address to the candidates and audience, Chamber President Christie Haynes explained how the city council members are crucial to the success of the business community in Dawsonville and in the county.
She pointed out that the 2017-2018 approved budget for the city is just over $5 million. Of that budget, SPLOST and LOST proceeds makeup 42.7 percent, or just over $2.1 million. These funds are directly attributable to businesses within the city, she said.
“These businesses directly generate the income that pays for new sidewalks, improved park facilities and this beautiful building that we’re in today,” Haynes said. “As a resident of the city of Dawsonville, I am grateful to the business community for carrying this heavy load so that city residents do not have to pay any additional property tax. That being said, it is extremely important that we elect leaders that not only recognize the tremendous impact that our business community has but also listen and work with the drivers of our local economy.”
You can view a video recording of the forum on the chamber’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KOz23nbp00.
Questions and time stamps are listed below.
Beyond attendance of city council meetings, what do you believe the roll of a city council member should be? (Begins at 12:47)
Governments have an equal obligation to be fiscally responsible and to provide services to citizens. Currently, the City has over 100 percent Fund Balance in reserves. Do you believe this is the best utilization of taxpayer dollars? If not, what kind of capital or infrastructure improvements and services do you think the city should be providing that it is not already? (Begins at 16:37)
Dawsonville City Charter allows three city council members to override the vote of the citizens by removing a Mayor, should three council members have the power to override the citizens’ votes or should the charter be amended? (Begins at 22:45)
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for new and existing city business owners? What are your plans for addressing these issues? (Begins at 26:33)
Advocates of consolidated government purport the efficiency of a combined government. Would you favor the consolidation of our city and county governments? Why or why not? (Begins at 31:31)
Knowing that not all citizens are able to attend city council meetings, in what ways do you think the City of Dawsonville currently acts as a transparent government entity? Additionally, what other improvements to transparency. such as streaming city meetings on the city’s website, would you support? (Begins at 36:03)