January 21, 2021 10:28:45 AM
Bill Gavin was minutes away from having surgery on Tuesday when he got a phone call from a constituent.
"The lady started complaining about streets," the Ward 6 councilman said. "I said, 'Ma'am, I can't talk to you right now ... I'm going to get an operation.'"
It still took him a few minutes to convince her to hang up the phone, Gavin said. He used this as an example of city government being neither easy to conduct nor closed to the public, contrary to what Leslie Sorrell, co-founder of the nonprofit A Better Columbus, told the Columbus Rotary Club at its Tuesday meeting.
Sorrell claimed the city is crime-riddled and in too much debt, and therefore needs entirely new leadership. She called for the mayor and council to step aside in the upcoming election.
The mayor and council members, most of whom are running for re-election, strongly disagree with Sorrell's statements. Gavin said government is not nearly as simple as some citizens might think.
"There's no magic wand to wave over the city to fix the potholes and make the bank account stable and solve the crimes," he said. "I wish there was, but there's not."
Sorrell and her husband, Will Sanders (no relation to Lowndes County Port director of the same name), started ABC in November. The group has been directing sharp criticism to the city's administration, largely through social media, alleging both mismanagement and corruption.
On Tuesday, Sorrell also spoke against the presence of dilapidated buildings in the city, increased property taxes over Mayor Robert Smith's nearly 15 years in office and former city Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle's indictment for embezzlement.
Smith addressed Sorrell's claims in a written statement he sent to The Dispatch on Wednesday, in which he said no one from ABC has talked to him or Chief Operating Officer David Armstrong about their concerns.
"They have not visited, called, emailed or texted me or David with any suggestions," Smith wrote. "I have a complete open-door policy and have not heard from anyone with A Better Columbus."
'Negativity doesn't make Columbus better'
So far, six candidates have qualified to run for city offices this year, and five are incumbents. Smith, Gavin and council members Ethel Taylor Stewart of Ward 1, Joseph Mickens of Ward 2 and Stephen Jones of Ward 5 are all running for re-election.
Pat Fisher Douglas, a retired educator from Lowndes County School District, is running for the Ward 4 seat. She previously ran in a special election for the same seat in 2019 but lost to current Councilman Pierre Beard.
Beard has not yet qualified to run for re-election, and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said in December that he will not run.
Smith, Mickens and Box all told The Dispatch they believe Sorrell, Sanders, or both should run for office if they feel so strongly about making changes to the city's government.
"Everybody can try to (say) how you should do this and how you should do that, but it's one thing to be in that seat yourself," Mickens said.
Jones and Mickens acknowledged everyone is entitled to their own opinion and Sorrell has the right to speak publicly about her concerns for the city. Gavin said dialogue between ABC and the city could be a good thing, if the group were willing to sit down with the mayor and council for a constructive discussion.
"If they truly want to make Columbus better, then take away all the negative and let's see what we can do together," Jones said. "... Any negativity doesn't make Columbus better. It only makes it worse so nobody wants to move here, and as a Realtor (with Re/Max in Columbus), I know."
Sorrell also claimed the reason ABC does not disclose its donors, despite demanding transparency from the city, is because donors have told her they fear retribution from the city if their contributions to ABC are made public.
Officials say this statement is completely unfounded. Smith called it "baseless," and Mickens said no one in city government would "stoop that low."
"If (Sorrell) knows something where people have done that, she needs to say who it is and we need to do something about that," Box said.
Beard told The Dispatch he has contributed to ABC.
"Nobody's going to attack anybody for donating, and I would love for them to say that I donated, because I did," he said.
Beard was present at Tuesday's Rotary Club meeting and agreed to have a conversation with Sorrell to address some of her concerns. He said this morning that they have not yet scheduled a meeting, and he too hopes for constructive dialogue.
"There are a lot of different things going on in Columbus that I personally see firsthand, and you've got a lot of people who want to point the blame," Beard said. "They have excuses, but they don't have solutions."
Stewart did not respond to requests for comment.
'The jury is still out'
The citizen who called Gavin on Tuesday is far from the only one with complaints about Columbus' streets, Gavin said. He and other leaders said the roads badly needed to be redone after more than a decade.
Columbus issued $6.5 million in general obligation bonds in July 2020 to fund road maintenance. The bond must be paid off in no more than 15 years. As of March 2020, the city had accumulated $36.4 million of debt and carried roughly $14 million of debt in street paving alone, The Dispatch previously reported.
Sorrell insisted Tuesday that road maintenance money should come from the city's general fund, but city leaders say the general fund does not have that kind of money, and borrowing is standard practice.
"Some (cities) are in a little better shape than others, but I bet 90 percent of them have borrowed money for infrastructure," Box said.
The other option besides borrowing was raising taxes, Box and Gavin both said, and Sorrell claimed Tuesday that taxes are already too high.
While tax millage has increased seven times in 13 years, it has only gone up incrementally, and the city even reduced millage in 2017, Smith said in his statement. Tax increases climb along with wages and insurance, and they are necessary to fund infrastructure and public safety, he said.
"As Mayor and the owner of multiple properties within the City, I don't like ad valorem tax increases, but as the costs of doing business go up, so do our taxes," Smith said.
As for Sorrell's complaint about dilapidated buildings, Smith and council members emphasized that the city's process of approving a demolition has several steps outlined in state law, so it does not happen quickly.
ABC has repeatedly suggested city leaders might be engaging in illegal activity, but Sorrell admitted Tuesday that some of this claim was born of speculation. Smith said he did not know what Sorrell meant and would "certainly question the integrity of anyone willing to throw out such an accusation" without evidence.
"I welcome practical solutions from anyone willing to offer them; however, I reject defamatory insults and baseless criticism based upon false data and admitted speculation," Smith wrote. "As for whether the group will make 'Columbus Better,' I guess I would say the jury is still out on that."
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently involved in legal proceedings with the city of Columbus.
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