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Mayoral candidates square off in radio forum

The three candidates for mayor of Cairo faced off for the first time in a public forum held Monday and broadcast live on WGRA AM-790.
All three touted their experience and service in local government as qualifications for becoming the city’s mayor.
Candidate Bobby Burns served on the Grady County Commission for 16 years, as well as the Cairo Development Authority, the Grady County Board of Equalization and, most recently, on the Grady County Board of Tax Assessors.
Burns, 75, said Monday, “Three years ago when I elected not to run for reelection to the county commission, I thought I was through with politics, but I believe this is an opportunity for me to continue to serve and offer the city my experience having served on the board of commissioners for 16 years.”
Mayoral candidate Charles Renaud is also a former county commissioner and served his four-year term alongside Burns.
Renaud, 49, said during the political forum this week that he would use the lessons he learned from his service as a county commissioner as mayor.
“This election is about vision. It is about working together and bringing people together for the betterment of Cairo. As your mayor, I want to bring that vision to reality,” Renaud said.
The third candidate in the race, Scott Higginbotham, was the District 5 representative on the Grady County Board of Education until he vacated his post by qualifying to run for mayor.
Higginbotham, 43, not only emphasized his three-year tenure on the school board, but also his involvement in local civic clubs and organizations.
“I’m proud of everything that the board of education accomplished in the three years I was there. We now have a new leader and the school system is headed in a new direction and when I left it had the largest reserve in history,” Higginbotham said.
The former school board member also stated he had never supported a tax increase even when a millage rate hike was being pushed by current city officials.
“I had to fight Mayor Richard VanLandingham and city councilmen who were pressuring two board of education members, who are city employees, to raise the millage. We fought back and did not raise it,” Higginbotham said.
Monday’s political forum was moderated by WGRA’s Jeff Lovett.
When asked by Lovett why each candidate is running for mayor, Higginbotham said it is to bring Cairo out of mediocrity.
“Cairo is a great community to be from, but I’d like for it to be a great community to be in,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham, a financial advisor who works in Thomasville, said as mayor he would work to create more opportunities for young people to come back to work and make a career in Cairo.
Candidate Burns said he is running because he feels an obligation to serve. He agreed with Higginbotham that better and higher paying jobs are needed here, but he said his efforts would be directed at continuing to support the Grady County Joint Development Authority in soliciting new employers to the community.
Renaud said he decided to run for mayor because he believes he can help bring people together to build a better community.
He said Cairo has many opportunities, but success can only be achieved by working together.
Referring to Tired Creek Lake, Renaud said the project could go either way, but by working together, city, county and lake authority, it can be a regional asset.
“What is good for us is good for the region. Together, we are stronger. If we don’t work together, we’ve got a tough row to hoe,” Renaud said.
Both Burns and Renaud said they believe the city’s positives outweigh the negatives, but Higginbotham expressed skepticism.
Higginbotham said the city should move away from the past and “step outside the box.”
“We need to do more progrowth things,” he said.
How do the candidates see Cairo in the future?
Renaud said in the near term he sees a revitalized downtown that attracts people to Cairo. In 10 years, he said Tired Creek Lake would be attracting new people to Cairo and Whigham and the lake would be contributing to the betterment of the community.
“What Cairo becomes in 20 years will depend on the decisions we make in the next five years, and that is what is so exciting about this election,” Renaud said.
Higginbotham said that unless changes are made the community will remain mediocre.
He said it is critical to move out of the “comfort zone” and elect a candidate like him who will be focused on recruiting new business such as the movie production industry.
“If we head in a different direction I see a bright future, but if not, we will remain the same, which is not a bad place to be,” Higginbotham said.
Burns said he could not predict what Cairo would look like in 10-20 years.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I think you can anticipate what happens in 3 – 5 years and if I am fortunate enough to be elected, I will review the city’s five-year plan and work with the city council to see that it is accomplished,” Burns said.
Moderator Lovett asked the candidates if they feel it is the time for Cairo to have a “disruptive mayor” who would make a lot of changes to city government.
“I didn’t go along with the flow on the board of education, but it was never my intent to be disruptive. The biggest thing I did was to ask the question ‘why?'” Higginbotham said.
The former school board member said as a child he was never one to leave a wasp’s nest unattended, but would always throw a rock at it to stir things up and see what would happen.
“I don’t mind asking questions. I will stand up to the “good ole boy” network. In the last election for the board of education it came down to my way of thinking versus the good ole boys and my way of thinking won and we made changes. If Cairo is to prosper we can’t keep doing the same ole thing because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” Higginbotham said.
Burns said he likely had been on the losing end of votes on the county commission more times than not, and he said that disagreement was not disruptive to local government.
“You have to talk and work things out. You don’t have to be overzealous to accomplish what you want. Being disruptive is not good for the city or the county or any business,” Burns said.
Renaud also noted he had never been afraid to “step out on a limb” when it came to issues in local government. “I don’t mind voicing my opinion, but I have also shown that I will change my mind. Change for change’s sake is not good, but incremental changes day by day will make us better,” Renaud said.
Pamela Smith was a member of the live audience at the forum held at the Grady Room of Roddenbery Memorial Library on Monday, and she asked what could the candidates do as mayor to make Cairo more small business friendly.
Ms. Smith said that she owned small businesses in other communities and even in larger communities and she found the $500 utility deposit she was charged to establish an account for her small business here excessive.
As mayor, Higginbotham said the city would hire two people to work full-time marketing Cairo to innovative new industries.
“Mayor VanLandingham wanted to bring more retailers to town. We don’t need to invite competitors in to drive out our local business owners. As a community, we are struggling to support the businesses we have now,” Higginbotham said.
Candidate Higginbotham said he would go after businesses that are not dependent on the community for their livelihood.
The best thing the city can do for small businesses, according to Higginbotham, would be to “get out of the way.” He said the city’s war on blight is an example of the failed policies of current city leadership. Higginbotham said if the community was thriving economically, there would be people purchasing those properties and making improvements.
Burns addressed Ms. Smith’s concerns by explaining that the city suffers financial loss when utility customers close or leave town and have not paid their utility bills. He said the deposit covers some of those losses.
However, he said he would have to investigate the reasoning behind the $500 deposit before he could comment further, but he suggested no matter what, the small business owner should go before the city council to express her grievance.
Mayoral candidate Renaud said, as mayor, he would recommend a survey be done of local businesses, citizens and utility rate payers to identify the city’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The utility deposit likely would be an issue that would come up and we could address it,” Renaud said.
Grady County Commission Vice Chairman T.D. David was also present Monday and he asked the candidates to comment on what specifically they would do to obtain agreement among local governing bodies before issues reached a “crisis level.”
Burns said in the past, joint meetings of the local governing bodies had been held, but none has been held for some time until recently. He suggested meeting on a regular basis to discuss issues.
Renaud agreed, but he suggested informal sessions as frequent as once a week between the leaders of the various governing bodies.
“We need to do a better job of keeping the lines of communication open,” Renaud said.
Higginbotham also supported regular meetings with other local officials, however, he said it would be time wasted unless it was a priority for the individuals involved.
In closing, the candidates made their final push to the radio listeners.
“I have a lot of experience and I would like to continue to serve as mayor. It has been a wonderful experience to serve in local government and I would like to continue to do that,” Burns said.
“I’ve proven I’m not a part of the good ole boy network and I will stand up to it and move the city in a different direction. We’ve got to get off the past. We’ve got to progress and try new things,” Higginbotham said.
“As mayor I will give you 110 percent. I love Cairo and always have. I believe I can help. I have a vision for Cairo and I would appreciate your vote and support to bring the best to Cairo that I know we can,” Renaud said.
Advanced voting in the mayor’s race opens Monday, Oct. 14, at the courthouse and election day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
WGRA will host a second forum featuring the three candidates for mayor on Monday, Oct. 28.
Interested citizens are encouraged to listen in or to attend the forum live.
Citizens wishing to submit questions in advance may do so by emailing Lovett at Jeff@wgra.net. During each forum the live audience is allowed to ask questions of each candidate.

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