Candidates heat up Leesburg Council race

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Political followers in this small community agree: It's been a pretty long time since a campaign for a seat on the Leesburg City Council has been as spirited as the one between Web designer Jeff Sexton and telecommunications business owner Rhonda Futch.

Exchanges between the candidates, neither of whom has held elected office before, have been contentious at times as they've sought the votes to claim Tuesday's special election called to complete the unexpired term of former Councilman Steve Kitchens.

"My only regret about this race is that I haven't had an opportunity to meet and talk with each resident of the city of Leesburg," Futch said Friday as she prepared for the final push leading to election day. "This certainly has turned into a more political campaign than what the Leesburg City Council is known for."

That it has, and Sexton -- who ran unsuccessfully against council veteran Richard Bush last year -- says that's not by accident.

"One of the mistakes I made last year was just trying to get my message out through newspaper ads (in the Lee County Ledger)," Sexton said. "This time, because I've had more money coming in and more tools to work with, I've made more calls, put up more signs and made more door-to-door visits.

"I've been studying politics longer than I've been a candidate, and quite frankly I'm just now starting to learn how to campaign."

Futch said one of the key issues Leesburg citizens have discussed with her during her campaign is the need for things to keep young people -- and young families -- occupied.

"We want to keep our kids out of trouble, and a way to do that is to provide them with positive things to do," she said. "That's something I've grown up knowing, and it's even more important now that we have more children and more young families in the community. There is land available in the city and county, and what we as a council must do is find the best use of that land to benefit the residents of the county.

"People want a park, they want bicycle and golf cart paths, they want walking trails and places to picnic. The city -- and the county -- should work with organizations like the YMCA, the Parks and Recreation Department and others to provide healthy activities. When there's nothing for kids to do, the likelihood that they'll get involved in bad things increases."

Sexton, who has been videotaping Leesburg Council (and Lee County Commission) meetings since 2009 and posting them on YouTube, said his promise of a more open government and his pledge not to accept the salary that comes with the council post have resonated with voters he's met.

"People have told me they appreciate my efforts to make the government more open, and they've said my plan to use my salary to improve the city's park is a good one," he said. "They really want a place for their kids to play, but they don't want more tax money used to make the improvements. They already feel they're paying too much in taxes.

"And one of the other biggest concerns in the community has to be attracting more people and more businesses here. We've got to increase our tax base to keep costs down."

Sexton said he's more prepared to serve on the council than Futch.

"I've been at the council meetings; I know what's going on," he said. "Unfortunately, Rhonda's only been to two meetings, and she hasn't even watched the videos I've posted to become better prepared.

"Here's the primary difference between Rhonda and myself: I have the walk to back up my talk."

Futch, meanwhile, said she brings qualities to the table that Sexton doesn't have.

"I've been involved in upper management since I was 21 years old, and 18 of those 25 years I was involved directly with businesses," she said. "I've worked as a recruiter with the Girl Scouts, and I've been involved in organizing. Plus, I'm a people person. These are all strengths needed on the council.

"I have nothing but respect for the members who are currently on the council; they're concerned citizens I've known all my life. I'm the candidate who is willing to work as part of the team to get things done. And that's how you get things done, not by claiming you're going to come in and change everything overnight."

Lee Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson said Friday 42 voters had cast early ballots for the special election. There are 1,489 active registered voters in the city of Leesburg.

"Unfortunately, there are people who vote only in a presidential election," Johnson said. "What they should understand is that local elections have more of an impact on their everyday life. These are the people who decide the issues like road repairs and garbage collection -- the issues that they deal with every day.

"I know both candidates in this race have gone out and talked to voters, have put up signs and have tried to stir things up. I hope that will generate voter interest, but I'm afraid the turnout will be low."

Polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m.