ALBANY — The two women running to become Albany’s next mayor gave their thoughts on topics ranging from the economy to the power of the mayor’s office during a lunch forum at Tuesday’s Rotary Club meeting.
Business owner B.J. Fletcher and former Ward II City Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard each presented their platforms and answered questions from members of the club during the event Tuesday at Albany’s Doublegate Country Club.
Noticeably absent from the event was mayoral candidate and former state Rep. John White, who Rotary officials say was invited and even RSVP’d for the event, but who did not attend.
Attempts to reach White about why he didn’t participate were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Fletcher kicked off the program by explaining her largely jobs-based platform.
“I don’t think any of us can say we’re successful until we get a handle on our job crisis,” Fletcher said, noting that she’s stopped saying that she is a “successful” business owner. “We’ve got to get back on track in this community. I will work with anybody who will get in front of me who refuses to look in the rearview mirror and will do something to help me move the community forward.”
Hubbard opened by offering a summary of her background, including how she and her husband have owned property and convenience stores in Albany, before digging into the meat of her platform which is more general, touching on business and public safety.
“I know what it means to be business-friendly, to have reasonable fees, a responsible sign ordinance and adequate police for public safety so your customers don’t feel scared to walk into your business,” Hubbard said.
Saying that, if elected, she’d be a full-time mayor because she’s retired and could devote her full efforts to the job, Hubbard pledged to make the government more approachable in order to get the public’s buy-in for improving the community.
“I want the government of the city of Albany to be approachable. ... If anyone has an issue they’re passionate about, I want you to participate and help us be part of the solution,” she said.
Following that, the floor was opened to questions.
A club member asked the candidates their position on the Sunday alcohol sales referendum that will be up for a vote this November for people who live within the corporate city limits.
“You’ll find in my record that I’ve consistently voted in a way that shows I believe people should have the right to vote on these kinds of issues,” Hubbard said. “Although personally I will vote against it, people should have a say at the voting booth.”
Fletcher echoed Hubbard’s sentiments without saying how she intends to vote on the issue.
“I think it’s time for people to decide on it,” Fletcher said. “People should always have a voice in how they are governed.”
The candidates were next asked what they intend to do about the area’s 36 percent poverty rate and higher-than-the-state-average unemployment rate if elected.
Hubbard said she supports the efforts of organizations like Strive2Thrive, a joint local government, Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit anti-poverty initiative, but that the pillars of the community have to buy in to make any anti-poverty initiative work.
“I believe in the Strive2Thrive initiative,” Hubbard said. “I believe that with poverty being as high as it is, we have to take it a little piece at a time and that the public really has to be involved. There has to be a lot of education involved so that people make the right decisions to help themselves get out of poverty.
“In terms of jobs,” Hubbard added, “we need to build relationships with our companies and try and grow from the businesses we have and work with mayors and economic groups in our surrounding counties to build a sense of regionalism.”
Fletcher said that she would create a group she called the “A-Team,” which would consist of 11 local leaders and stakeholders, including the Dougherty County Sheriff, the Albany Police Chief, Dougherty County School Superintendent Joshua Murfree as well as representatives from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and other leaders of industry, to tackle the issue in a comprehensive way.
“We need to look at every business in town and reach out to them and give the incentives to hire one new person; you’ve got to give people and businesses an incentive to come here and hire people,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher pointed out how Wal-Mart and Chik-fil-A both had made decisions at the corporate level to put new stores in an area that has been economically depressed, saying that when proper incentives are offered, businesses will come or expand.
“We’re not a business-friendly community or a business-friendly state, and if that doesn’t change poverty will double or even triple,” she said.
When asked how each planned to overcome the fact that while the mayor is the de facto head of the city commission, they get only one vote, Hubbard pledged to work with commissioners to build support for community issues, while Fletcher said that the public has the opportunity to vote in three new commissioners which could change the way the commission does business.
“I have no intention of being a figurehead,” Fletcher said. “There are three other races on the ballot. If you aren’t happy with the way the city is run, change it.”
Hubbard said she respects the city charter and thinks a veto would hurt the process.
“I don’t think (the city founders) meant for one person to have more power than any other on the commission,” Hubbard said. “We need a mayor who will work well with the other commissioners and build from there. I don’t believe I should have a veto over six other commissioners.”
The final question, a tongue-in-cheek quip about whether they would work to bring an Olive Garden to Albany and, more seriously, whether they would bring down the dilapidated Heritage House hotel, met with invigorated responses and applause from the crowd.
“I’m going to get you an Olive Garden and, if I’m mayor, I’ll bring the Heritage House down to the ground,” Hubbard said, energetically.
And while Fletcher, a restaurateur herself, agreed that the hotel should be torn down, her response was more calculated.
“We don’t need just another restaurant in Albany. We need industry to create the jobs that will support those restaurants,” Fletcher said.
“ ’Cause let me tell you, if you just keep bringing in new restaurants without industry, you’ll just keep pulling money away from people like Bo Henry and B.J. Fletcher and others and making it tougher for established restaurants to stay in business.”