Smyrna candidates, incumbents sound off at candidate forum

Smyrna City Hall in article about Smyrna millage rate

by Arielle Robinson

Diversity, small business, and lobbyists were among the topics three Smyrna candidates running for election discussed at a forum hosted by the Cobb Democracy Center, Cobb Alphas, Cobb AKAs, and the Marietta-Roswell chapter of Delta Sigma Theta last Thursday evening.

The room was packed and took place in the Smyrna Community Center.

Every city council seat, in addition to the mayor’s role, is up for election next month. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, and early voting has already begun.

The event moderator noted at least twice that all candidates, including incumbents, were invited to the forum.

Despite this, only three candidates showed up—product management director Ken Hymes and sitting Ward 4 and Ward 5 Councilmembers Charles “Corkey” Welch and Susan Wilkinson, respectively.

Also, notably, all three candidates have a history of opposing certain projects that Mayor Derek Norton and the majority of city council have supported, such as aspects of the downtown redevelopment.

Hymes is new to politics and is running against incumbent Norton and retiree Alex Backry.

Welch is running against lobbyist Michael Power.

Wilkinson is running against real estate agent Suz Kaprich.

Welch and Wilkinson are the two longest-serving city councilors, both initially elected to their seats in 2011.

Candidates were allowed to make timed opening and closing statements. The forum had candidates first answer questions written by the hosting groups and then took audience questions. Candidates’ answers to these questions were also timed.

The first question asked candidates how they would work or what they have done to ensure that Smyrna is an inclusive place where government decisions reflect the diversity of the city.

“What I’ve done…is to spread the word about Smyrna to my friends, my neighbors, my community—be they Black, white, Asian, Latino, because I felt this is a wonderful place to put down roots, to grow a family, to grow a community. And so I continue to be an ambassador of sorts, if you will, about living and working right here in Smyrna, it’s a great place. And I continue to do that in every organization, as well as on my job…What can we do to continue that momentum? I think it starts with groups such as yourselves here today,” Hymes said.

The question was then directed to Welch.

“Many of you probably don’t know, but in 1988, National Geographic described us [Smyrna] as a redneck community…” Welch said.

Welch said he hopes that Smyrna has outgrown that label.

“I firmly believe that we’ve shed the redneck [description], [but] one thing at a time,” Welch said. “What I mean by this is, a city council can enact ordinances all day long, but every one of us here is responsible for what we do on a day-to-day basis to make that issue go away.”

Without anyone asking him about it, Welch brought up why he voted against a non-discrimination ordinance in 2020. He was the only councilmember to do so.

He said that the language around “gender identity” made him pause.

“I believe that no person should be discriminated [against] based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender, or any of the others, but there was a term in that clause for gender identity. 

“…Gender identity made it lawful for some man to identify themselves as a woman and go into a restroom where my wife and my daughter is. That infringed upon my rights, and I do not believe that that was right. So I voted against the issue. But every one of us has a responsibility to each individual as far as discrimination goes.”

[Note: a 2018 UCLA School of Law study showed that there is no proof that allowing transgender people to use public amenities that match their gender identities leads to increased danger]

When the question was directed to Wilkinson, she said she had the most diverse ward in the city, and she has always taken that seriously.

She said that she has been part of the process of the Habitat for Humanity homes built in her ward, among other projects.

“I also was involved in bringing a company into partnership with the City of Smyrna called Rebuilding Together,” Wilkinson said. “They are an organization that uses volunteer help to help people, seniors, and the disabled, and those who need to be able to stay in their house…” 

She said the city has entered a partnership with Rebuilding Together which has been able to help “numerous” Ward 5 homes.

“I also think inclusion comes with transparency, so that’s something I would like for us to work on and improve,” Wilkinson said. “I think it’s fine already but I think we could also improve.”

The next question asked how candidates could support the growth and success of small businesses or what measures they have taken to do so already.

Welch said something that the city council has done to make things easier is simplifying the process of submitting a business license and applications for permits, which can be done online. It previously had to be done in person. Welch also said that he releases a weekly newsletter that has new businesses listed. He also mentioned city support of various businesses, including those in the downtown.

Wilkinson agreed with Welch on this issue, and added that the city works with the Smyrna Business Association to support small businesses and there was an event where small businesses were recognized by the city.

Hymes said that he frequently visits and supports small businesses around Smyrna. He said that if he were to be mayor he would support bringing a business incubator to the city.

“So not only bring new business in and give them a foundation from which they can grow. But if you have an existing business…you can also bring them your resources to help you grow your business,” Hymes said.

During a question about fiscal responsibility, Hymes took the chance to explain his views on what the city spends its money on.

“My issue today is that we have several projects—look around—they all have two things in common, they’re all over budget and they’re all past due. And they’re continuously past due, and we continue to give away our reserves and pouring more and more money out. So as mayor, my commitment to you is to manage the budget [on a] timeline so that we make the most of our taxpayer dollars,” Hymes said.

Welch said Hymes made a good point and that the city needs to be more aware of “needs versus our wants.”

Welch said he is concerned about the city’s current spending and that many projects, from a SPLOST standpoint, are over budget. He said that was partially due to COVID-19 and increasing SPLOST revenues.

“We’ve got to buckle down and take care of our budget and finances,” Welch said.

He said that with the potential costs of some projects, the city may not be able to maintain its 8.99 millage rate.

“And I’m not going to vote to increase your millage rate,” Welch said.

After all the moderator’s questions were asked, the program transitioned into audience questions, which touched upon a few controversial issues within the city.

One audience question asked what candidates would have done differently with regard to the downtown redevelopment.

In January 2022, Welch and Wilkinson both voted against the city’s proposal to sell its land to a private brewery. The majority of the council voted for it.

Hymes said although there was nothing personal between him and the mayor, he took issues with “his ideas and the execution of those ideas.”

“Let’s take the downtown redevelopment,” he said. “I think there were three or four sessions where the public was asked to come and comment on the designs. What’s interesting to me is that there was never an opportunity for the public to say, ‘here’s our idea.’ No, it was ‘here’s our design, what would you change about it?’ And it’s a pattern if you notice that. The aquatic center, again, ‘here’s the aquatic center,’ not ‘do you want the aquatic center?’ So you have to be careful about what question is being asked of you.”

Hymes said he would have opened up the discussion to get more input on ideas and then work with the engineering team to come up with several concepts and “then walk those back through each neighborhood, each meeting.”

Welch believes that the city needed a downtown renovation because it is 25 years old, but he believes the city could have spent about half the amount, spend time studying traffic patterns more, and come up with “a really good project that would have accomplished the same thing by giving us additional greenspace and something that we could have been very happy with.”

One question directed specifically to Welch was about his opponent’s previous connection to a Sterigenics plant.

Residents in Smyrna and other parts of Cobb County have rallied in recent years against the facility, which has released the carcinogen ethylene oxide into the air. The carcinogen is used to sterilize medical equipment.

In 2019, Power was a lobbyist for the Georgia Chemistry Council and was quoted in the AJC at that time saying that ethylene oxide occurs naturally and is created by human bodies, car emissions, cigarette smoke, and tree decay. 

Power is no longer with the Georgia Chemistry Council and currently works with the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.

“What the problem is with Sterigenics from my standpoint is…sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know,” Welch said. “And what I don’t know is how long this had been going on…before we all became aware of the situation? And that’s the problem.

“…I believe he [Power] was wrong to speak up on their behalf because he didn’t know either. But he is still a lobbyist, and we have two lobbyists, our mayor’s a lobbyist and we have one on the city council, and I just don’t think that we need another.”

Councilman Travis Lindley is the lobbyist on city council Welch is referring to.

“And I haven’t seen any conflict [of interest] from Travis in his term,” Welch said. “I don’t know about the other two.”

A separate question asked Welch if he was a lobbyist (he is not, he works for an engineering company) and to name all the candidates who are lobbyists, to which he did.

When the issue of endorsements came up, both Welch and Hymes said they had endorsements from former longtime Mayor Max Bacon. 

Hymes said he also has endorsements from some members of the LGBTQ+ community, certain members from the arts community, and soon hopes to have endorsements from some previous mayoral candidates.

Wilkinson said she does not have any major endorsements. But she did say that there is an option when candidates run for office to sign an affidavit saying that they do not plan to raise or spend more than $2,500 and she signed it. She said she has done it before and last time went a bit over that amount but still plans to stick to that goal this time around.

During a question that asked each candidate their specific vision for Smyrna, Wilkinson replied that she hopes to see Smyrna continue to be a “safe and desirable place.”

She said that she likes some of the programs that have occurred in the city and also added another suggestion.

“I did talk about this in a couple of questionnaires before, I want to see the city do some kind of partnership where we can have some affordable housing for our first responders and teachers,” Wilkinson said.

Hymes said he wants to see what he says is true diversity in the city.

“Where we can have wonderful opportunities for everyone…I see a city where we have planned projects that fit together…we’re not going to do one-off projects here and there and hope that they come together in some sensible fashion. No, we’re going to plan and by the way, that plan starts with input from you. We’re going to listen to the citizens and put the citizens first in every decision that we make,” Hymes said.

Hymes also said Smyrna should have a flourishing arts community and a community where every person feels welcome.

“[A community] where we celebrate our first responders, our teachers, our caretakers, and not only show that when you see them on the street, but show it on their paycheck,” Hymes said.

Hymes said he supports affordable housing and programs to help senior citizens on fixed incomes pay their rent if their landlord raises it.

The question about vision was directed to Welch.

“What I always liked about Smyrna was the hometown feel of the community, just the sense of community that everyone can get involved in and have a part,” Welch said.

He also said that he wants to see Smyrna grow—not necessarily in population size—but as an inclusive community where people can all get along.

“I think that’s the most important thing, is that we do get along and that we have that sense of community and hopefully we’ll see that return because I’m not really interested in bringing 30,000 people to downtown Smyrna for a concert. I want them to come and feel like that they’re a part of this community and that was not necessarily the feeling that I got,” Welch said.

Another audience question asked about how the councilmembers present that evening voted on the brewery issue mentioned earlier in this article and why.

Welch said the reason he voted against the brewery was primarily because he felt that there should not be a brewery next to the community center.

“They are trying to pass this brewery off as a family-friendly establishment and that doesn’t make sense to me,” Welch said.

Welch said he is not opposed to a brewery coming to Smyrna, but he did not like the location.

He also had a problem with the price of the park which is part of the plan with the brewery.

“It started out at $600,000…it went from $600,000 to a million,” Welch said. “It went from a million to $1.5 million.”

Both Welch and Wilkinson voted against this price increase back in December of last year.

Wilkinson echoed Welch in that she was not opposed to a brewery in Smyrna.

“I just didn’t agree that the city should sell that land for that purpose and at that price,” Wilkinson said.

A question from the audience asked the candidates what they would do to ensure affordable housing for seniors and young families.

“One of the things I think we should explore—at least explore—is to see what state or federal subsidy we can get that will subsidize the cost for housing.

“The reason I suggest that is because if you think about it, we don’t have any control over the landlord, what rents they want to charge. That’s point number one. Point number two is your income, your salary has not kept up with the rate of inflation for these last five or six years. Those are two undeniable facts. So then what can we do? We can seek out state and federal subsidies that help bring that cost down for the occupant. We’re not saying to the landowner you can’t make a profit. But what we are saying is the cost that you pass along to the occupant needs to be a reasonable cost,” Hymes said.

Welch said that the issue was very difficult to solve, especially given that the city does not control the private sector pricing on housing.

“But there are some cities out there that are working with their police and fire to incentivize them to pay [people] if they’ll live in the city limits, and I think that’s one of the things we should consider here,” Welch said. 

One of the last questions asked each candidate what their first initiative in office would be.

Wilkinson said she would like to see a storm management analysis of the city’s stormwater.

“I will say if I get elected, I’m one council member and there’s seven council members up there so it’s not all up to me, but I think that’s important,” Wilkinson said.

Welch said he would like the city leaders to have a retreat and discuss city issues and plans, as the city has not had one in a long time.

Hymes built on the previous idea with the proposal of a retreat with the citizens where all residents can submit an issue they have and then those issues get narrowed down to three to five top issues to discuss at said retreat.

During closing statements, Hymes restated why he is running for mayor.

“I feel like we’re missing some elements around transparency, around fiscal responsibility, around being a servant leader…I want to return some of those aspects so that we have greater trust in our city government and that when you come to any of us, you can be assured that number one, I’m going to listen, we will take your input seriously, and we’re going to try to do what’s in the best interest of the city. Not a personal agenda,” Hymes said.

Welch then made his closing statements.

“The reason I’m looking to be re-elected for the next four years is simply to be a voice and to ask questions that need to be asked,” Welch said.

Welch said he does not like to make campaign promises.

“There’s nothing that I can promise you tonight that might not change,” Welch said. “But I promise you this—when I leave the office in two months from now, or four months from now, or four years from now, I’ll have served in the best of my ability.”

Wilkinson had the last word.

“I enjoy being a public servant, I’m proud to be a public servant to my constituents. I also want to say that my voting record has demonstrated commitment to the citizens of my community and I’m a strong voice for the citizens of Ward 5 and I hope you’ll vote for me on November 7th—or before then,” Wilkinson said.

Visit Smyrna’s website to learn more about early voting, voting locations, and other voting-related information.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.