Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, District 1
NOTE: Not all candidates submitted answers to the Chamber questionnaire
Kirkland Carden (Democrat)
Since the beginning of my campaign, I have had the opportunity to speak with thousands of voters and hear their thoughts and concerns. The top two issues facing Gwinnett that concern them are Gwinnett’s transportation problems and, recently, the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic Guiding our community through this public health emergency and leading the economic recovery will be my top priority when I take office. County officials have been on the front lines responding to this pandemic by providing public health services, emergency management assistance and enforcing the many executive orders enacted, while continuing to provide other essential services to our residents. I am committed to making sure our first responders and essential workers have the resources and equipment required for them to do their job safely. I will also partner with groups like the Chamber of Commerce to help Gwinnett’s small businesses recover from the economic downturn, and consider enacting policies such as a temporary reduction in business fees. The second issue we must address is our transportation problems. We are 20 years behind on this issue and Gwinnett’s Republican leadership has played games with our transit needs for far too long. The decision to hold last year’s transit referendum in March of an off-year election was partisan politics at its absolute worst. The voters of Gwinnett deserve an opportunity to have a transit referendum held in a major election year so more voters will be prone to participate.
Double Down On: A priority I would double down on would be code enforcement. Recently, the commission included six additional code enforcement positions in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. I would like to see our code enforcement focus its efforts on commercial properties that have a history of neglect. The Gwinnett Place Area is a prime example of an area suffering from poor code enforcement. This type of neglect from the government would not take place in many of our cities. Proper code enforcement deters crime, protects property values, and encourages consumers to visit these well-maintained commercial properties. New Priority: A new priority I would focus on would be improving the relationship between Gwinnett and its 16 cities. As a former city councilmember, I have a firsthand understanding of the economic benefits that occur when local governments work closely together. While on the Duluth City Council, I had the opportunity to work on the latest Service Delivery Strategy, which is an agreement on essential government services between the county and cities. I will take a more collaborative approach when working with our cities on this agreement and in other areas. We all share the same goal of delivering quality services to our residents. We should view cities as our partners for making a better tomorrow in Gwinnett, not our competition.
Gwinnett’s small business community is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next group of Commissioners must work with Georgia’s congressional and state delegation to make sure Gwinnett’s business community receives additional federal and state assistance as we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that county leadership enact policies that help our local businesses recover from the current economic downturn, such as temporary reductions in business fees, raising awareness for SBA, and other forms of relief. In the long run, the best thing we can do to help our local economy and business community is make significant investments in public transportation. We’ve lost Fortune 500 companies, such as WestRock and NCR, because they wanted to be closer to public transit. Our inability to expand mass transit has hurt our business community and in turn hurts our local economy. If we want to remain a leading community to do business, we have to expand mass transit.
My primary goal will be to make sure Gwinnett continues to provide essential government services – such public safety, sanitation, water and code enforcement – at a quality level. Even in times of economic hardship, it is imperative that we maintain the Gwinnett standard. While on Duluth’s City Council, I helped provide essential government services to 30,000 residents, leading to Duluth being ranked the 6th safest city in Georgia in 2019. I will lean on this professional experience to ensure quality service delivery continues from county government. We should also seek new funding for essential government services by better managing Gwinnett’s federal grants funds. Earlier this year the Commission voted to return $3.6 million in federal grant funds because the county failed to properly meet the reporting requirements. The grants simply required Gwinnett to report and track basic employment information such as hiring and promotions by race and gender. This is something that governments and companies across the country have no problem tracking, including the City of Duluth. This money could have been used for public safety and our court system. I will use my experience managing public sector budgets to better manage our federal grant funds.
As someone with a background in city planning, I have noticed that housing patterns have evolved significantly in Gwinnett. We must take a comprehensive approach to housing policy in our community. Without it, Gwinnett suffers from poor land use planning. For example, there is currently a proposed apartment development between the cities of Duluth and Suwanee that has frustrated local leaders. This kind of haphazard land use is one of the causes of Gwinnett’s growing traffic problem. I support the creation of a Housing Master Plan, which would be a long-range planning document that acts as a roadmap for housing in Gwinnett County. This document would put forward new policies that assure an adequate supply of homes at different price points, phases of life and personal taste. It will also assess the physical conditions of our existing neighborhoods and provide recommendations and assistance to those that are struggling. We also must deal with our transportation system. Over the next 20 years, we will be adding nearly half a million residents. We need to have a transportation system in place that will be able to accommodate our present and future population.
Move Away from Septic Tanks and Encourage Sewer – According to the Department of Public Health, around 30% of Gwinnett’s residents have septic tanks. When these systems fail, it can lead to contamination of groundwater and damage surrounding properties. The next Commission needs to encourage the development of sewer lines into these communities and seek federal grants to offset the cost. Expanding sewage over septic can encourage new developments and help raise property values for those homeowners. Address our Aging Stormwater Infrastructure – Many residential and commercial areas of District 1 have failing stormwater systems. This can cause flooding and damage to property. More than ever, there is ongoing discussion about how to redevelop and revitalize the Gwinnett Place Area. One of the first steps to redevelop must be rebuilding its stormwater system. Any new development built there must have adequate stormwater infrastructure in place. Make Significant Investments in Public Transportation – District 1 is the 2nd most dense area in Gwinnett and has the most commercial businesses. We must make sure we have public transportation in place to accommodate our present and future population and potential business growth.
While I think the current transportation plan is a decent starting point, I do have many concerns. The voters I have talked to are concerned that it would take 30 years to bring rail service to the Gwinnett Place area, and feel like this plan doesn’t go far enough. My biggest concern from the past transportation referendum was the lack of education and promotion surrounding the plan. We asked our residents to levy a 30-years sales tax for a total of $5.4 billion dollars. However, we only spent 3 months promoting this plan to voters and explaining why it is beneficial for Gwinnett. I am concerned that we are repeating the same mistake. We must give ourselves enough time to properly explain the benefits of this plan to our community. My final concern with the transportation plan was the makeup of the transit review committee. While I greatly respect the service of the members, the group overall failed to reflect the diversity of Gwinnett County and many of the members were not users of public transportation. This means the group responsible for making recommendations about public transit lacked first-hand knowledge of public transit. So while I would personally support this plan because you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I am far from satisfied with the plan’s specifics and wish it had a bolder rail proposal.
Due to COVID-19, many children’s academic careers have been disrupted and some may choose not to return to school once this crisis has passed. I have had discussions with several educators and they are worried that, with high unemployment, many older students may be forced to drop out of school and enter the workforce. These children and young adults should be given the opportunity to finish their high school education online. To do this, I propose the Commission allocate funding to the Online High School Degree Program. Currently, the program is funded entirely by voluntary contributions. This would be the perfect opportunity for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and Gwinnett County government to form a public-private partnership. It would help residents finish their education and allow businesses to have access to an educated workforce. Access to quality education is foundational to upward economic mobility and a healthy local economy. We are very fortunate to have so many colleges located in Gwinnett. I support working with Gwinnett’s higher learning institutions to make sure our workforce is educated for the jobs of the present and the future.
Public Safety: It is no secret that safe communities attract businesses and jobs. This is something I saw firsthand on Duluth’s City Council. In 2019, we were ranked the 6th safest city in Georgia. On more than one occasion, I was told that Duluth’s reputation for being a safe community was a reason for businesses to locate in Duluth. If we want to make sure Gwinnett captures its share of job growth, we must maintain our reputation as a safe community. To do this, we must make sure that our first responders are paid competitive wages with other metro area counties. As a councilman, I voted to give our first responders an across-the-board wage and that’s something I would be open to supporting when serving on the Board of Commissioners. Make significant investments in Public Transportation – Gwinnett’s inability to expand mass transit for the last 30 years has cost us jobs. Both WestRock and NCR – two Fortune 500 companies – left Gwinnett for Atlanta so they could be closer to public transportation. Both of those companies are now adjacent to MARTA stations. Other metro counties such as Cobb County and northern parts of Fulton County are strongly considering expanding their public transit, or have already begun. We’re in serious danger of falling behind without quick and decisive action. If we want to attract and retain major employers, and if we want to give our community a competitive advantage, we have to expand mass transit.
From my time on Duluth’s City Council, where I served with five other members, one of the first things I learned is the need to find the priorities and motivations of your colleagues. When elected, I’ll offer to take my fellow commissioners on a car ride through District 1 showing them the projects and priorities for the district. I hope they would do the same for me so I can learn their motivations and vision for their own district. If we all work together and in good faith, the interests of our respective districts won’t be pitted against each other. To be very clear, the main reason I decided to run for County Commission was to improve the representation that the district has on the commission. The residents will always be my top priority. Ultimately, District 1 has the economic engine of the county: the Gwinnett Place Mall Area. So if District 1 thrives, all of Gwinnett will thrive. I will also strive to improve the relationship the county has with our cities. When making decisions, I will seek the advice of Gwinnett’s mayors and councilmembers.
Laurie McClain (Republican)
Candidate did not complete the questionnaire.