A street closure, funding for Hank Aaron Stadium and a sales tax increase are just some of the issues on which candidates for the Mobile City Council District 4 seat disagree.
Incumbent John Williams (pictured above) is facing a challenge from Robert Martin, a man who fought a proposed street closure he said would have made his working class neighbors less safe because it cut them off from a nearby street light. The municipal election is Aug. 22.
Martin said he initially decided to run after Williams attempted to gain approval of the closure of Andover Boulevard for residents of Regency Oaks, who complained reckless drivers were making the neighborhood less safe. After weeks of debate and a Mobile Police Department traffic study, the issue was shelved.
“The problem is that street is the only exit within a square mile or more from any of the connecting subdivisions that goes out via a safety street light,” Martin said. “It’s still open. That’s what we’re all worried about, that if John Williams stays in office that now that he’s going to have four years to work with he may try to do it again at some point.”
Williams said his effort to close Andover was in the interest of making the District 4 neighborhood more safe.“You can go back and look at records of government,” Williams said. “We have made streets one way because we believed it was safer. We’ve completely closed off traffic in school districts during certain hours to make it safe. We must also apply that same criteria to all of our neighborhoods, that we make sure that they are as absolutely safe as they can be.”
He said the traffic study showed 60 percent of drivers traveling through the neighborhood were going six miles over the speed limit. He also argued the speed limit was too high.
“Now, I think everybody knows what kind of car I drive,” Williams said. “It’s a good one and I can’t do the speed limit and feel safe the whole time doing the circle at Regency Oaks.”
On closing streets in general, Martin said he agrees with Councilman Fred Richardson.
“Fred Richardson, God bless him, I agree with him on the concept that streets are not owned by the people that live on them,” he said. “They’re owned by the whole community, the whole city. We pay for those streets, everybody pays for those streets.”
At the time it was approved, Williams was in favor of extending a roughly 20 percent sales tax increase, which would be used to fund capital projects, as part of a Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP, for three years. In the move, each of the city’s seven council districts got $3 million to put toward capital improvements. At the time, Williams said the decision would shock some people, but he doesn’t regret it.
“That does not mean that decision did not come without stress,” Williams said. “I had some reservations, thinking this would be tough to communicate.”
However, in the long run, Williams said he is happy with the decision.
Everywhere you go you see your city being improved and the whole thing is our city,” he said. “Whether or not we’re talking about sidewalks, streets, lights, parks, drainage, none of this stuff is getting done if we don’t have CIP. … ”
Martin said he could find savings in the budget to rival the roughly $30 million brought in each year through the tax increase.
“There’s money there to replace that 1 percent sales tax that’s going to all sorts of other things that can be better utilized for things they’re using the sales tax for,” Martin said.
For example, Martin said, he’d save money on mowing contracts by pouring concrete in grassy medians.
“I hate to say it, I’m originally from Detroit, but I’ve been living down here for 35 years,” Martin said. “All the medians up there are concrete, they don’t have grass growing on them because they realized it’s so much cheaper in the long term not to do that. It doesn’t really beautify anything to have grass in the medians.”
Another example of the city government’s wasteful spending is in the pay lifeguards at the city pools receive, according to Martin. He said they shouldn’t be paid $20 per hour.
“That’s a little bit ridiculous,” he said. “I’d pay them less. I’d pay people what they’re worth.”
Despite access to CIP money, Martin said Williams has not done enough to fix up parks in District 4 and has not equally distributed street resurfacing and sidewalk projects to residents who weren’t his “friends.”
Despite using “every little bit of money” he could get his hands on to improve parks initially, Williams said, the CIP money has really helped with the revitalization of parks. In many of the rundown parks in his district a decade ago, Williams said, there are new grandstands, concessions, safe fencing and other park improvements. As for streets, Williams said cooperation among councilors has allowed the city to tackle bigger projects than would have been considered in previous terms.
Martin said he would also put less money into Hank Aaron Stadium. Through a number of moves, the City Council has somewhat recently put money into the stadium for new seats, a sound system and a new drainage system. Martin said he doesn’t believe the 20-year-old stadium needed all of the upgrades. In addition, he said the stadium’s tenants, the Southern League’s Mobile BayBears, still owe back rent.
“All this time, while they’ve been raking in this money, they still owe a quarter of a million dollars in back rent to the city,” Martin said. “I would cut them off completely until they pay their back rent.”
As of the last update, the BayBears have been paying regular quarterly installments of $25,000 for rent but still owe the city a large chunk of back rent. These interviews took place before reports the team was up for sale and could be leaving the city in the near future.