Arrington, Stanford campaign for District 1 council seat during candidate forum
Published 7:08 pm Friday, June 9, 2023
As early voting continues, the two candidates for LaGrange City Council District 1 took part in a candidate forum Thursday night organized by the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce and The LaGrange Daily News.
Jim Arrington, who served on the LaGrange City Council from 2017-2023, is aiming to get his seat back after resigning to pursue a failed campaign to become mayor. Challenger Terry Stanford is hoping to be voted into political office for the first time.
The forum was moderated by Jamey Jackson, former chamber board chair, who asked the candidates 16 questions, varying from subduing youth violence in LaGrange, to transportation, a potential utility rate increase and more. Several audience questions were also asked at the end of the forum.
After the forum, both candidates are hoping to see more interest at the polls. Though early voting has been going on for over a week, only about 3% of registered voters in District 1 have cast a ballot so far. Election Day is June 20.
The entire 90-minute forum is available for viewing on www.lagrangenews.com and on The LaGrange Daily News Facebook page, where it was live-streamed.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the topics discussed during Thursday night’s forum:
Arrington, who ran against Mayor Willie Edmondson in March, as the lesser experienced candidate, now finds himself as the more experienced candidate in the race against Stanford. In response to the first question of the night, regarding a LDN story where he was quoted on all of the recent changes in city leadership, Arrington said that LaGrange does not need more change right now.
“We’ve had a new mayor. We’ve had a new police chief. We’ve had a new fire chief. We’ve also got two new council members. You can’t continue to make changes and expect things to get done,” Arrington said. “That’s four people that I just named that are new. For council members, there is a learning curve … learning how to make the correct decisions. There’s so much information at one time that it’s really overwhelming your first time on the council.”
Stanford’s first question also referenced a quote from an LDN story, though it was not regarding experience directly. The question asked what he meant by serving the council in a “new” way if elected.
Stanford referenced his automobile repair industry and the challenges that come along with it. He said planning for the future will ensure the city doesn’t have as many issues down the road.
“[My job] preps you to be able to handle a lot of other situations,” Stanford said. “If you don’t maintenance your vehicles and your fleet vehicles correctly, you don’t get the longevity out of it. If we’re not maintenancing our infrastructure and having it ready to support our neighborhoods… it’s going to give us a lot of issues down the road that we can’t fix readily.”
Arrington said one of his biggest priorities is the city being able to keep its status of not having a property tax. He also mentioned infrastructure but focused most of his answer on public safety, a topic that was the center of several questions. The question also asked how each candidate would address their priorities with the other council members.
Arrington said he spoke to Police Chief Garrett Fiveash over the last week and believes the chief needs time to work on some of his goals. Fiveash took over in April.
“He has a lot of things he wants to do, and we’ve got to give him time to make some of those changes,” Arrington said. “We have to give him time to get in there and figure out where he wants to make those changes. Our fire chief, it’s the same way. He’s been at the fire department for a long time, but he hasn’t been in this role. I can work with all these guys, and I’ve already proven it.”
Stanford said public safety is his main priority, and he spent the majority of his two minutes discussing that issue.
“We have crime so close to our police department that you could throw a rock and hit it. We have to do something about that now. You work with the city council members, you get all of the incentives and raises approved. You find a way to work with a budget and try not to increase the rates on the people for utilities. It’s going to be hard to work with everybody if you’re not willing to see everybody’s point, and that’s what I would do to work with all the council members to get this passed.”
Both candidates were asked their opinion of the city’s proposed utility rate increase that would allow for raises for LaGrange Police Department officers. Unintentionally, the question inaccurately asked for their thoughts on the rate increase, but the city has not yet approved that increase, having only discussed it thus far.
The rate increase would be 2-3% if focused on electric rates only. The city would need $961,601 a year in extra revenue to change the starting pay for officers from $51,500 to $60,000.
“We need to look and see how our money is being spent now in public safety. We are one of the higher-paid law enforcement [agencies] now,” Stanford said. “We’ve got to find, not just with money, we’ve got to have incentives. We have to have a clean city. We have to have a nice infrastructure like the sidewalks and the gateways to our communities to attract these people.”
After pointing out the utility rate increase has not yet passed, Arrington said he agrees with the discussed increase. He believes the city could probably find money in the city’s budget to pay for the increase, at least partially, for a year, but he noted the pay increase has to be funded every year to come, so raising utility rates would account for that.
“That should be a priority. Yes, I do agree that there are probably places we could search and find some things, but to increase our pay, we are looking at $900,000 total over a year’s time with all the pay increases for all of the officers of the police department. That’s ongoing. That’s every year. That’s not just one year. You can find $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 one year, but you’ve got to find it again the next year and the next year. When you do a pay increase, you have to know that you are going to be able to take care of that year after year after year.”
He also noted that LaGrange had one of the higher paid police forces in the area a few years ago but now other law enforcement departments have surpassed the LPD.
“I don’t know a better way to attract them than to give them a pay increase to start out with,” Arrington said.
The next question asked about retaining officers considering the LPD is currently trying to fill over 20 positions. Both candidates said the department needs to boost morale and Arrington recommended possibly rebranding the LPD. Arrington also mentioned the $1.4 million grant the city just received that will pay for an upgraded law enforcement software system.
Stanford said more officers are needed, in general, so that the officers on staff can get a break.
“Our city police officers were run so thin and so underpowered for so long that they were stressed out, so they need some kind of relief. Normally a shift has 12 officers on each shift, and they are working on four or five officers,” Stanford said. “We can’t be proactive because we are so reactive. We are in a crisis mode.”
Sticking with law enforcement-related issues, both candidates were asked about preventing youth violence after so many shootings involving youth people have occurred in the city of LaGrange this year.
“There’s not a silver bullet that’s going to answer that question that’s going to make those guns go away,” Arrington said.
He noted the a gun buyback might get some guns off the street. Both candidates also mentioned education on guns.
“Gun safety goes all about the safety of the people. If the people feel safe, these kids wouldn’t have these guns walking around with them,” Stanford said. “And there wouldn’t be the accidental shootings we’ve had, and we’d have more education through the school system on how to operate and how to handle guns safely and how to chamber a gun and unload a gun.”
Stanford said the council only has to manage one person, referencing city manager Meg Kelsey, who the council directly oversees.
“We need to go out and do audits and make sure the money we are spending is being spent where it’s supposed to be spent and charged off to,” Stanford said. “We want to make sure the money we are spending is taking care of our citizens and make sure we are getting a return on our investment.”
Stanford noted the city works off the sale of utilities.
“We would like to see and make sure everything here is being transparent. And while I’m in office, I’ll be transparent and give you all the records unredacted.”
There are numerous reasons spelled out under the Open Records Act why documents might be redacted. Stanford was reached after the forum and clarified that he believes the city is redacting information in public records that should not be redacted under the law.
Arrington said he’s been playing a role in managing the city’s budget for the last five years.
“I have stayed in contact with the city manager, and I’m down at city hall three or four times a week asking questions, trying to find out about this and about that,” Arrington said. “The only person who is accountable to the city council is the city manager Meg Kelsey, and she has done an absolute great job on the budgets and balancing budgets.”
DAY ONE PRIORITY
An audience question asked each candidate what their day one priority would be and which problem they would initially work to correct. Stanford said department heads within the city are overloaded and being asked to work too many jobs.
“They are stretched thin, just like our police department has been,” Stanford said, noting the city is in crisis mode and noting there are not enough people to handle the load of work in the city.
Arrington said he wants to focus on the police department.
“In my opinion, that is the biggest problem that LaGrange has, the violence that we are seeing, and our police department needs all of the support it can get,” Arrington said. “They need the raises that the city council is proposing, and they need the resources to take care of things. That would be my number one priority.”
The entire forum is available at www.lagrangenews.com and on The LaGrange Daily News Facebook page.