On Wednesday evening, several elected officials representing Forsyth County, particularly north Forsyth, met to hear from and answer questions from those who put them in office.
The town hall was held at North Forsyth High School’s performing arts center and featured Forsyth County Commissioners Cindy Jones Mills and Molly Cooper, state Sens. Greg Dolezal and Steve Gooch, Forsyth County Board of Education members Darla Light and Kristin Morrissey, state Rep. Marc Morris and Forsyth County Coroner Lauren McDonald, with Sheriff Ron Freeman serving as a moderator and asking some questions.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins was scheduled to attend the event but had to attend to business in Washington.
“The elected officials that are here tonight are some great folks,” Collins said in a video address. “Forsyth County is blessed to have local and state officials who are in that room tonight that are going to help many areas of the concerns and many areas of questions. They continue to make Forsyth County one of the best places in Georgia to live.”
Below are a few of the topics covered by the elected officials.
In light of a school shooting in Colorado this week, and given that the event was held at a local school, Freeman detailed how his office is working to keep schools safe.
Pointing out that measures like metal detectors at doorways was prohibitively expensive, Freeman laid out actions taken by local officials, including more school resources officers, a new school safety task force, a “see-something, say-something” policy but said the biggest part was stopping shootings before they start.
“If you think the answer is reaction because a kid comes in a school with a gun, then we’re far behind,” Freeman said. “We’ve got to be in the prevention business, not the reaction business. We’re prepared to react, God forbid, if we have to, but we want to get a lot deeper into the prevention business.”
Morrissey said the schools had added student advocacy specialists that work with the sheriff’s department and deal with students having suicidal thoughts or other violent thoughts. She said those professionals have a small caseload of students and will take calls from students at any time of day.
Growth is a big issue in Forsyth County, particularly north Forsyth, which has seen fewer newcomers than the county’s south end.
Cooper said the county has already taken steps to slow growth, including adopting a new comprehensive plan.
“The growth has slowed down, but it is not going to stop, and I don’t think anyone wants it to,” said Cooper. “What we want is good growth – growth is an asset to the county – and also for us to be prepared for us, again, emphasizing the importance of our infrastructure improvements.”
Along with growth, another land issue impacting Forsyth County is challenges with affordable housing, which Mills said she saw more as lower-cost homes rather than government-assisted housing.
She said she asked fire department officials how many firefighters live in the county and was told only 35 percent did.
“That bothers me, it really does,” Mills said. “It concerns me that we live in a place where our own deputies, our own firefighters, we’re not paying them enough to live in our county. Our housing is not where they can afford to live here.”
Mills said while discussing more affordable housing with a developer, she was told land prices meant the houses needed to sell for a minimum of $300,000.
“To me, it’s not a matter of would I be willing to vote for something,” she said. “I would, but I think it’s a matter of being able to find the land and type product with the way things are so expensive now. It’s just very difficult to do without some type of supplemented housing, government supplemented in some way.”
Gooch took on a question about Senate Bill 172, which was introduced this year but not approved, that “would prohibit local governments from adopting or enforcing ordinances or regulations relating to or regulating building design elements as applied to one or two-family dwellings.”
Though the Forsyth County Commission previously voiced opposition to the bill, Gooch, a sponsor of the bill, stood by it.
“There are things that local county commissioners and city councilmembers are responsible for, but there are areas in our state where those things get out of hand and get abused,” Gooch said. “We have examples in Georgia where they have banned the use of cement slabs for homes. I don’t know why the county decided to do that or even consider it.”
Gooch said the bill that was introduced was a “bad bill” and flawed but felt there was a balance to be struck between property rights and zoning regulations.
School impact fees
In 2016, then-state Sen. Michael Williams introduced Senate Bill 344 and Senate Resolution 624, which would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow local boards of education to assess and collect impact fees to finance public school construction.
Currently, the Georgia Constitution does not allow school systems to collect impact fees, which are charges on new development that help cover the cost of increased demand on infrastructure, services and amenities.
Dolezal said he plans to introduce a bill for the fees next year, and Morrissey said she was in favor.
“It’s not a fee that’s meant to fix previous problems,” she said. “It’s a fee that’s meant to address the effect of that house or that building that is built. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s a negligible amount to offset that new house.”
Forsyth County currently collects impact fees for parks, libraries and emergency services, and allowing fees for schools would require a change to the state constitution.
With the town hall being held at North Forsyth, even students got involved through a question about upcoming improvements to the building.
Responding to a question on expanding the school’s track, Light said she had been impressed by the professionalism of students who had sent her emails about the track team issues.
“In the last couple of weeks, we have had a couple of meetings,” Light said. “We have six lanes. We need eight to really have big track meets. What’s going to have to happen to do that is we’ll have to move the whole track because the back side drops off, so it’s not just as simple as adding two outer lanes … That will be a giant project, but we are in the process, right now as we speak, of getting a lot of the upgrades they asked for.”
Morrissey said projects at North funded through a recent bond approved by voters would include upgrades to the performing arts center, new lights for the football field and a recently-installed new synthetic turf field.
While residents might sometimes deal with the sheriff, lawmakers, commissioners and members of the school board, dealing with the coroner is a bit rarer, and Lauren McDonald laid out the role and abilities of his elected position, which includes being the only official in the county able to arrest a sheriff.
“We are the eyes and the ears of the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation],” McDonald. “We take what we see here and take it to the GBI when we have to send a loved one down there.”
McDonald said he has worked with other elected officials to reach kids and let them know the dangers of high-risk behaviors and to reduce preventable deaths.
There was controversy during this year’s legislative session after news reports surfaced that Speaker of the House David Ralston reportedly used his position to repeatedly delay court cases in his private business as an attorney. Two state lawmakers discussed the concerns at the town hall.
Morris, a member of the House, said he learned about the issue about the same time the public did and spoke about HB 502, which limits how much leave can be taken and allows the opposing legal side to have input. The bill has been approved by both bodies and sent to Gov. Brian Kemp to be signed.
“Am I excited about the activities that have been going on with the speaker in terms of legislative leave? Absolutely not,” he said. “I chose to take a different route. Myself and one of the House members that I value their opinion more than anyone else, we went to the speaker, we had a private conversation, we asked questions, and he gave what I thought were good answers. Those answers primarily are what you heard in his floor speech the next day.
“I will tell you since then, I’m not going to say that the answers were incorrect, but they were incomplete. There’s a lot more data, and it’s still coming out every day.”
Dolezal said while the state Senate doesn’t vote for the speaker, Ralston, a fellow member of the Republican Party, had become a distraction.
“I think that we as leaders are held to a higher standard, and the minute that we become a distraction because of the decisions that we’ve made, then I believe we need to take a look at ourselves,” Dolezal said. “If we’re not willing to take a look at ourselves, then I think other leaders need to intervene. I’ve been having more conversations about this topic over the last 14 days than I have had conversations with my wife, and that’s a problem because this has become a distraction.”
Dolezal said there would be action taken on the matter “in the coming weeks.”