By Rebecca Gaunt
Tracey Viars is up for reelection in November for the Kennesaw City Council Post 2 seat, but communications coordinator Anthony Gutierrez is aiming to take her place.
Viars has served on the City Council since 2018. Gutierrez previously ran for Post 1 in the 2022 seven-way special election in which Lynette Burnette was victorious.
Kennesaw City Council is a nonpartisan position. The election is Nov. 7.
Participants answered questions via an email questionnaire.
Commissioner – Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission
How long have you lived in Kennesaw?
I’ve officially lived here for three years now, but it feels like seven including my time at Kennesaw State.
At a recent city council meeting, you mentioned wanting to enact runoff elections for the city. Why?
Last year’s special election we saw the winning candidate receive 18% of the total vote. A system where a candidate can hold an office despite not receiving 82% of the vote is a system built to fail. Run-off elections were created with this in mind because they ensure that whichever candidate wins does so by receiving 50% of the vote, plus one. A true majority, not just a plurality. In a study done by the CRS it was found that over 80% of Americans have a favorable view on run-offs and believe they have a positive impact on our elections. It’s rare to find an issue where 4/5 people can agree on something. Here in Georgia, we already practice run-off elections for state and federal races. Voters should have that opportunity in our local races as well. A common [critique] of run-offs, especially with those in power, is they’re too expensive. To this I say, can you ethically put a price tag on democracy and true representation? Those who sit in democratically elected seats and complain about the cost of democracy, should do their constituents a favor and resign.
Another [critique] is the reduced participation from the main election to the run-off, which is a valid argument. Luckily there’s already a popular solution growing rapidly throughout the country from local races all the way up to presidential: instant run-off voting. A topic I studied thoroughly and wrote about for my senior thesis. IRV, like the name suggests, is an instantaneous runoff election where voters rank their preferred candidates rather than only selecting one. If no candidate receives a majority the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their voters’ 2nd choices are selected, this continues until needed. With IRV not only is it cost effective since there only needs to be the one election, it also does away with the spoiler effect allowing people to vote for their preferred candidate and not just voting against the person they don’t want in office, and of course a candidate needing a majority of the vote. Run-offs are popular, effective, and when done right, a free way to ensure candidates win with the backing of the majority.
What do you see as the most pressing issue(s) for the city?
Fortunately, because of the other questions in this interview I’ve been able to discuss my top priorities in a fuller manner, those being: stopping the gentrification of Kennesaw, energy independence, and run-off elections. Some of my other policies I would like to highlight are term limits, fiber optic internet, and a sunset clause on all new ordinances. Did you know 5/6 Americans believe term limits have positive effects (PPC). Not only is it popular, but it also prevents career politicians, and allows new and fresh ideas to take part in the discussion. I believe both the mayor and city council members should be limited to three terms giving them twelve years total to enact what they promised. If you can’t get done what you need to in over a decade, you don’t need to be there any longer. As for fiber optic internet, did you know this new service offers internet speeds 10x faster than traditional cable? Did you also know over 60% of Kennesaw residents have zero access while the other 40% are basically only given one choice? It’s crazy to think that in a city in 2023, with a major university I should add, that our internet infrastructure is this outdated. We need to work with internet service providers and give our residents the opportunity to get fiber optic internet in their homes. In the age of working from home, online schooling, and e-commerce, up to date high speed internet isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Have you ever read about or even been hit with an ordinance violation that just felt completely outdated yet is still active? Sunset clauses are the easiest way to prevent those from flooding our system. A sunset clause is essentially a timer, where once the term has ended is either no longer viable or voted on again for another term. If the ordinance is popular or has a positive impact a simple vote is made to continue enforcing it, if the opposite it dies without having to go through a lengthy process. A 25-year term is a healthy amount of time to judge the effectiveness of an ordinance and decide whether it should continue.
Part of your campaign is “ending the gentrification of our city” and concern about the number of luxury apartments being built. How would you like to see the city council address this issue?
The first and easiest step to stopping luxury apartments and the gentrification, increased cost of living, and increased property taxes that they bring is simple: stop approving them! Right now, in Kennesaw the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1958, a 24% increase from just the last year (Rent.com). This puts us at over $600 ABOVE the national average which is $1343 a month for a one bedroom (Statista). Here in Kennesaw, we used to take pride in our affordability. We were a city you could comfortably raise a family or spend your retirement in peace, but now because of the unsustainable growth caused by the rapid approvals of such complexes that dream and charm is dying. It doesn’t take much to understand that when hundreds or even thousands of new residents quickly move in without proper investments in our roads, transportation, and public facilities that our resources run thin and ultimately taxes will have to increase.
The worst part is our city council knows how much these complexes plan on charging and with a little research can see how these corporate landlords extort tenants on their other properties with sudden and predatory rent increases. Unfortunately, our council either lacks the foresight or care to deny them and lets them continue us down the path of unaffordability. They brag about growth and property value but don’t see the struggles we face because of it. We need to invest in single family properties where citizens can own what they live in and affordable complexes that won’t charge $2000 for a studio. If things continue at this pace many of us will be priced out of the homes we were raised in, where we started our own families, where we spent our lives. That’s not something I can stand and let happen, to allow corporate landlords to steal our city away from us. I stand with Kennesaw, not Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Energy independence is also part of your platform. How will you approach this at the local level?
If you’ve been keeping an eye on your electric bill, you’ve probably noticed that they’ve been a lot bigger than they used to be. Like most things in recent times inflation has been hitting all of us hard, our utilities are no different. Thanks to the monopoly of our electric grid, we have little to no ability to fight the up-charging Georgia Power has been hammering away at us, like the recently approved 12% rate increase. The rate hike won’t even include the added fees being used to fund the 3rd and 4th nuclear units currently in development at Plant Vogtle. We pay all the costs, they reap all the benefit, and our bills still increase, not a fair system if you ask me.
Fortunately, there is a way to fight back, like cutting the cord on cable TV. It’s time we cut the powerline and become more self-sustainable. Renewable energies like solar power are at their most affordable and are only getting cheaper, especially with the help from tax credit programs helping eat away at the cost. Homeowners currently can utilize federal and state programs and earn tax credits roughly equal to 30% of the cost of the investment. I believe our city should also offer a program just like this and help our citizens fight back and become more energy independent. With the monthly savings and larger take home pay during the duration of the tax credits citizens can use that money on more important things, whether it’s catching up on debt or taking the family out on a nice vacation. We have the power, pun intended, to become more independent, and it only helps when our local governments see that too and join the fight.
What else do you want voters to know about you?
If you couldn’t tell by now with my in-depth, well researched, and brutally honest answers, I’m not a traditional candidate. I’m not afraid to tell things how it is and point out the flaws in our system, because if no one does nothing will get better. During my life I’ve been fortunate to hold leadership roles from being the president of the largest Latino lettered organization at Kennesaw State to my most recent role on the Cemetery Preservation Commission, to name a few. I’ve worked in all aspects in the political and government world, I’ve seen how things work and how to get things done. What sets me apart the most compared to other candidates is my age (25) and because of it the modern perspective and foresight that comes along with it. I think further ahead than just the next meeting, because I and others my age don’t have that luxury. The choices and votes that happen now will affect us, if fortunate enough, for the next 50+ years of our lives. When on the council, not only will I have short term goals in my voting process, but I will also have long term goals, and even generational goals, because that’s a council member Kennesaw deserves. It’s easy for our council to brag about increased revenue and property value and vote in everything that comes before them. It takes true courage to say these choices they’re making are going to destroy the lives we’ve all worked so hard to achieve. To stand up and fight to keep the heart of Kennesaw alive and not replace it with a parking garage with a tennis court on top.
Tracey Viars Photo courtesy of Tracey Viars
Commercial Real Estate Agent (primary), Marketing Consultant, (secondary), Director of Experience at a local hospitality venue (part time, weekly). My combination of work roles allows me to interact with citizens, businesses and visitors to the city and to experience it from various points of view. I am self-employed and it all works together!
- Member of Kennesaw Citizens Advisory Committee
- Member of Kennesaw Downtown Development Authority (3 years as Chair)
- Events Committee Member
- 5k Race Director for 3 years / Volunteered at 5ks as well
- Active member and volunteer for the Kennesaw Downtown Merchants Association
- Member of the Amphitheater Committee
- (Re) organized and maintained the Dinner at the Depot/Farmer’s Market Event as a volunteer for several years
- Member of the original committee to bring (and maintain) the Kennesaw Beer & Wine Festival
- Liaison for the Smith-Gilbert Gardens
- Stakeholder position in the City’s Livable Centers Initiative Update process
- Stakeholder for purpose-driven design standards for the Cherokee Street Corridor
- Member of Kennesaw State University’s first Community Football Program Committee
- 4-year Director and current Government Affairs Committee Chair for the Kennesaw Business Association
How long have you lived in Kennesaw?
27 years (as a parent, homeowner, renter, volunteer and business owner)
You have served on the City Council since 2018. What do you view as your most significant accomplishments in that time?
- The city is in its healthiest financial position (possibly ever) going from reliance on the issuance of a TAN (a loan against future tax revenues) to meeting liabilities without a TAN and having a 12-month supply of available reserves despite facing a global pandemic
- Starting and completing multiple phases of Depot Park including the Amphitheater currently under construction
- Starting and completing the new Recreation Center with 11,000 members signed at last update
- Opening and then expanding the Inclusive Playground at Swift-Cantrell Park
- Quality of life improvements like miles of paving, sidewalk and roadway improvements and adding lighting for underserved neighborhoods
- Creating an Entertainment District in Downtown Kennesaw to stimulate the hospitality and retail business growth
- Rebranding downtown to enhance the viability of the Central Business District
- Welcoming many new residents and businesses
- Re-establishing relations between the city and downtown businesses by participating in the organization of the Kennesaw Downtown Merchants Association assisting with programs like First Friday Concerts and The Candy Crawl.
- The city has also benefited from millions of dollars of development, and I’ve personally brought business to the city and kept business in the city through my real estate work
What do you see as the most pressing issue(s) for the city?
I will always see the city’s top overarching responsibility/issue to be keeping a safe, clean, and economically viable place for our citizens to enjoy their lives and for our businesses to remain healthy. Our property values are up, our number of new businesses has increased, and we were able to bring a millage rate rollback this year as financial responsibility and being a good steward of public funds is one of our top priorities. I would like to continue to work to solve our cut-through traffic and pedestrian safety concerns as well as continue to attract quality businesses that offer services to our residents so they don’t have to travel far to fulfill their needs and to keep the money in Kennesaw. Because we lack the vintage early 1900s retail structures that other cities already have in place, everything we hope to offer in that way, we have to build or create at 2023 costs. And for that reason, I’ve always been a huge champion of events and offerings to offset what we don’t have in the way of retail activity in our downtown.
Some other candidates have expressed concerns about affordable housing, gentrification and luxury apartments being built in Kennesaw. From your perspective as someone who both works in real estate and shares personal experiences as a “resident pedestrian” in downtown Kennesaw on social media, do you see this a concern and, if so, what can be done?
I think affordable housing is a topic of concern everywhere, especially for younger families trying to get established. We saw tremendous increases in home prices, land, labor and building supply costs during the pandemic. Municipalities have ways to subsidize housing costs, but the City of Kennesaw doesn’t have a housing authority in place nor do we as a city have a huge amount of publicly owned land that we could use for this purpose. Also, being in real estate, I’m reminded daily of how the principles of supply and demand and greater economic forces control housing costs. I currently reside in one of the downtown “luxury” apartments. While my rent looks expensive compared to rents of years’ past, I simply couldn’t buy and maintain a home in the downtown area for what I rent for and I enjoy the efficiency of living in a small space that’s walkable. The building where I live is full of police officers, teachers and retired people who desire to live maintenance free in a convenient location. Interestingly, there are two sets of residents living in my building who sold or rented their single family home to their adult child so that those children could have an easier entry into the housing market. I don’t believe we have a true “gentrification” problem as we’re not pushing anybody out to build something else. Are land and property values increasing? Absolutely. But the development that has happened here has occurred primarily between private landowners (sometimes 2nd and 3rd generation citizens) who want what they want for their land and developers who are able to pay those prices. With very little supply of land available in our city, vertical building is how those land costs are covered. But these are complex issues, no doubt.
Pedestrian and bike safety and unsafe driving through the city is a major focus for you. What initiatives have you supported previously and are there any planned for the future?
I have pushed for the flashing and strobe lit crossing signals, and marked crosswalks but that hasn’t proven to be as effective as I had hoped. I have also inquired about raised crosswalks (we are doing a traffic study now) and am trying to explore other traffic control measures to make our city more pedestrian and bike friendly. At our core, and from the city’s established history, we are a cut-through town (first for trains) and now for traffic that goes between 41 and 75 and largely from the growth north of us heading south for work and back. I am always talking with other city leaders about best practices and researching ways to improve safety. But we need to have a wholesale cultural change regarding caring about the safety of others and though that’s a nationwide issue, I’d love to see Kennesaw lead the way!
What else do you want voters to know about you?
I’m consistent in my habits and my work. And I’ve given my heart and soul to this city. I served six years as a member of the Kennesaw Downtown Development Authority and now six years as a City Council Member. In all that time, I’ve never missed a meeting! Personally, I exercise daily and haven’t missed a POWERwalk in over 11.5 years! I “walk the walk” and I have long-standing relationships in the community with business owners and citizens. I make myself and my resources accessible to all who seek my help as much as I can, and I have a knack for putting people together who can mutually benefit from an introduction to each other. That’s my superpower.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.