ALBANY — The time is finally at hand for Albany City Commissioners-elect Bobby Coleman and B.J. Fletcher to remove the “elect” from their titles. Each will be sworn in during Monday’s special called business meeting at the downtown government center after being chosen over incumbent commissioners in the 2013 municipal election.
Both Coleman, a medical transport specialist who will represent Ward II, and Fletcher, a businesswoman who will claim the Ward III seat, admitted during a joint sit-down at the downtown Hilton Garden Inn that they’re anxious to begin their tenures.
“I wish Monday would have come a month ago,” Fletcher, who ousted incumbent Christopher Pike, said. “Bobby and I have talked about this, and we’ve been a part of it since the election. We’ve both been getting calls from our constituents and from others throughout the community who’ve brought their concerns to us.
“I can tell you I woke up this morning to Cutliff Grove and pit bull issues. People are asking me questions about the things that came up at Tuesday’s commission meeting. They want to know what I know about them and I’m sure they want to know if I’ve done my homework.”
Coleman, who defeated incumbent Ivey Hines in a runoff election after finishing a close second in the general election vote, said he’s told people who’ve contacted him since the election the same things he told them during the election.
“I think the fact that B.J. and I were both voted into office is an indication that the people of Albany wanted change in their government,” Coleman said. “They did their part. Now we have to do ours. But B.J. and I can’t do anything by ourselves, and neither should this commission be expected to. We have to have input from the people. We were elected to serve them.
“All of the commissioners come to the table representing different sections of the community, and while our focus is on the wards we represent, I believe all of the people of Albany are looking for the same thing: economic recovery, safety and a measure of common sense in government.”
Both Fletcher and Coleman expressed respect for the other members of the commission they will join Monday, promising to work with that group — including Ward I’s Jon Howard, Ward IV’s Roger Marietta, Ward V’s Bob Langstaff, Ward VI’s Tommie Postell and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard — once they take their seats on the board.
“I’m just going to work; I’m going in listening, learning and waiting for my opportunity to lead,” Coleman, a lifelong resident of Albany, said. “I have no preconceived agenda. But I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: I always have been and always will be my own man. I will listen to anybody, but I want it known that I am not intimidated by any man. Period.”
For the first time publicly, Coleman also answered critics who’ve questioned his relationship with former City Commissioner Henry Mathis, who coordinated the new commissioner’s campaign.
“I do want to answer that question, because I’ve heard that kind of talk,” Coleman said. “Henry Mathis is one man with one vote. I won the election by getting a majority of the votes. I wonder if these people (who question my ties to Mathis) are asking the same thing of any other commissioners.
“Anyone who is concerned about me being my own man, I’d like to tell them that government is about learning from people with knowledge. Why would I not reach out to a man like Henry Mathis who knows the way government works? Who on this commission — or any commission — doesn’t reach out to others? That’s part of government.”
Fletcher acknowledged that she too intends to seek the help of others as she settles into her role on the commission.
“I’m not going into office trying to convince people I know everything,” she said. “There are issues that are tough to get your head around. I intend to use every resource that’s available to me, and that includes people who have knowledge of a particular issue. The Water, Gas & Light Commission is a tough one, and I’ve already reached out to (state representative) Carol Fullerton and to (interim general manager) Tom Berry. I’m doing my homework.
“I’ve also reached out to the Chamber of Commerce and to (Albany Herald Sales Manager) Ken Boler asking them to make the commission meeting agenda available to the public so that the people will have an opportunity to get involved. But I’m going to expect something from my constituents as well. I’m going to reach out to them for their input, but if I go to a meeting where there are some hard-core issues and they’re not there, that’s not going to sit well with me.”
Fletcher vowed she would not vote on an issue until she understands it as well as possible.
“I do not intend to be a flip-flopper,” she said. “The way I see it, there are only two reasons to flip-flop on a vote: Either you didn’t understand the issue and someone convinced you to change your mind or you got bought.”
The pair said they are already digging into issues they will face as members of the commission:
— “I don’t claim to be a CPA, but I do have common sense,” Coleman said in response to a question about the city’s $100 million-plus budget. “It doesn’t take a genius to know when money’s being wasted. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to have good common sense.”
— “Small businesses are the backbone of our community and our country, and I’m alarmed when I hear that government agencies have cut local businesses out of the loop to save a few pennies,” Fletcher said. “It’s pretty much a slap in the face when a group calls on you when they have a need, and then you find out they’ve outsourced work to save a few pennies.”
— “I don’t think we can wait around when some of our top officials have made it clear that they have plans to move on soon,” Coleman said. “I believe in that type situation, you have to start looking (for a suitable replacement) immediately. I also believe that you have to promote from within as much as possible. We have people with the ability to lead us right here in our community. If we’ve got to look all over the world to find someone, we might as well just close up shop.”
— “Cutliff Grove is an example of the city needing better oversight on taxpayers’ money,” Fletcher said. “Why are we waiting until now to try and get a handle on this issue? I’ve been told verbally by officials at Cutliff Grove that they’ll gladly open their records, but so far I’ve seen nothing. If the city is going to serve as a bank in loaning money, then we’ve got to operate like a bank. I want to know where every penny is going.”
— “There’s enough talk being done right now; it’s time for action,” Coleman said. “Taxpayers want to know why the SPLOST money they approved has not been used to upgrade the city’s sewer system. They want to know where their SPLOST money is going. I want to know where it’s going.”
— “If the city doesn’t make a decision soon and move forward, we’re going to end up losing every penny (of federal and state funding) that we had allocated for the multimodal transportation project,” Fletcher said. “The people have spoken. They’ve made it clear that they want the multimodal site (at the current bus depot/Destiny Travel facility) to stay in the Harlem District. The folks there have paid their dues, and that’s where the site should be.”
— “I don’t believe I need to put my personal feelings ahead of what the people want, even if it’s something I’m not particularly in favor of,” Coleman said. “That’s why if an issue arises like a vote on an alcohol license or some other issue that might be controversial, I have to vote on that issue the way my constituents would want me to vote. Everyone deserves that.”
— “With as much as a third of the city and county’s property owned by nonprofits, we really need to look into ways to generate revenue,” Fletcher said. “Whether it’s through PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) or other fees, we need to find a way to make things equitable. I know most of the 350 or so nonprofits in our county are legitimate nonprofits doing wonderful things to help others. But some of these places where a few people are making a whole lot of money out of the deal doesn’t really sit well with me.”
Neither Coleman nor Fletcher is looking for any kind of “honeymoon” period as they settle into their new positions on the City Commission. But they both admit that they’re growing more excited about the challenge ahead of them as each minute leading up to their swearing-in ticks away.
“I can’t be everything to everybody; no man — or no man of flesh — can,” Coleman said. “But for someone who’s lived his whole life in this community, this is a pretty big WOW moment for me. The wow is the challenge of tackling the issues that face this community and doing everything I can to get everyone on board.
“I never set out to be a politician, but I see this as an opportunity to give back to my community. I plan to stay in this as long as I make a difference. Once my effectiveness ends, so will I.”
Fletcher said her close friends and acquaintances may not recognize her at early commission meetings.
“You’re going to be surprised at how quiet I am on Monday,” she laughed. “But I believe I’ll best serve my constituents by learning the procedures, learning how the city operates. But I’ll attack this the same way I’ve done everything else in my life. I’ll work at it. Retirement is not even in my vocabulary. I hope to work right up until the day I die.
“And I’m going to be doing that work now for the people of Albany. There’s a spark growing about Albany; there’s a fire coming. I want to be a part of making this community the hub of Southwest Georgia that it once was. I want to be part of the team that rolled up its sleeves and moved this community forward.”