By Hannah Lester and Will Fairless
The Opelika Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum for Opelika’s city council and mayoral candidates on Aug. 12 at the Opelika Performing Arts Center.
Each candidate was given four minutes to address an audience that comprised community members in the building and those watching online.
Mayoral Candidates Gary Fuller and Tiffany Gibson-Pitts, in addition to their four minutes, were given time to respond to questions submitted by the community then selected by the chamber of commerce.
The following is a summary of what each candidate said at Wednesday’s forum.
There are six total candidates for Ward 1, but only four participated in the forum.
George Allen used his four minutes to share his background in the city of Opelika foremost.
Allen is currently a fundraising member for the J.W. Darden Foundation, member of the Lee County Voters League and Youth Organization, a member of the Reactivation Committee for the Lee County Branch of the NAACP, he serves at Covington recreation and more.
“Opelika is a growing city, but it’s not perfect,” Allen said. “I’ve served as a poll worker in Ward 1 for many years and talked with the voters about their various concerns, some of which have gone unaddressed. If elected, I will be a consistent voice for the unheard, regardless of age, race or gender.”
The candidate said he is concerned with street repair, sidewalks and potholes. He also said he would focus on good jobs for citizens, the homelessness and poverty in the city and providing a better education for children.
Melvin Brooks followed Allen and reiterated throughout his speech that his goals and platform are focused on safety, cleanliness, equality and unity.
“Safety, cleanliness, equality, unity is the key,” he said. “Throughout my campaign journey I have met some of the finest, most interesting people, young and old who are looking for the same thing for Opelika, that one word: change.”
He said that people of all different backgrounds all want the same thing, safety, cleanliness, equality and unity.
Robert Johnson said that although he was not born in Opelika, the city is home.
“I believe the most vital thing one must possess to be a leader in our community and serve in such an important position as city council, is he must be caring and committed with a sincere devotion to serving others,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he would focus on initiatives in lower crime, involvement opportunities for citizens, creating affordable homes and better jobs.
“I pledge to stay connected to you, the citizens of Ward 1, by constant and clear communication,” he said.
Jamie Lowe is the city’s youngest candidate, not only for Ward 1, but any seat, at only 20 years old.
The young candidate said that his platform will focus on education, safety and economic development.
Lowe admitted that crime is a problem for the city of Opelika but that he would focus on involving the youth in the community to help stop the crime.
Secondly, in education, Lowe said he would like to see a Pre-K classroom in each public school.
“The city of Opelika [recently] received a grant from the state office that gave us two Pre-K classrooms and that’s a wonderful program,” he said.
Finally, Lowe would like to continue the upkeep of the city, he said.
There are only two candidates for the Ward 2 Opelika City Council seat and only one of those candidates spoke Wednesday night.
Erica Norris spoke in person to the audience and took some time to share her background as a citizen who was born and grew up in the city.
Norris said she spends time volunteering with Opelika City Schools and the East Alabama Workforce Investment Network Region 8.
“That helped me to understand too the food insecurity, when it comes to kids,” she said. “And also the importance of businesses like the East Alabama Food Bank and also the city schools to help families and children and help meet those food insecurities.”
Oscar Penn III could not attend the meeting but prepared a video.
Penn said he wants Opelika to be a place where his children and grandchildren are comfortable.
Penn grew up in the city but left to serve in the military. When he came back, he said, downtown Opelika was almost nonexistent.
“I set on a crusade to rebuild downtown Opelika,” Penn said.
Penn said he will focus on entrepreneurship and community development.
There are three candidates for the Ward 3 Opelika City Council seat; all three spoke on Wednesday.
Michael Carter cited his experience as a professional leadership facilitator for an S&P 500 company as evidence that he can carry out his vision for Opelika.
He broke down that vision into four tenets: lead, live, work and play. He called on the city council to listen and lead. He said more Opelika citizens should stay in the city to work instead of going to bigger ones in the region; he added that the new technology and innovation park will play an important role in achieving that goal.
“I have a vision for our city, and to achieve this, I’m standing on four pillars,” Carter said. “I have to be able to give the vision to the people in order for them to be able to succeed.”
Robert Lofton said he has watched Opelika grow and change throughout the years. He said one of his biggest assets is that he can be a full time city councilperson because he is retired and knows about hard work.
He said that his experience as a business owner (of a veterinary hospital that employed 30 people) means he understands small business and working with budgets.
“I’ve worked physically and I’ve worked with budgets, large budgets,” Lofton said. “I’ve learned to actively listen. You have the information I need to be an effective councilperson, to represent you well.”
Kelli Thompson is focused on implementing an annual, city-wide citizen survey. She said the the lack of such a survey is a deficiency Opelika does not share with a lot of cities of its size.
She is a research professor at Auburn University, which she said means she is uniquely suited to carry out such a survey. Thompson said she has spoken to many other candidates running for city council and has heard support for the annual survey.
“We’re talking about making sure that your voices and your needs and your concerns are registered in a way, a systematic and efficient way so that we can listen and respond if we are given the privilege to take your hard-earned resources and make budgets that bring about the vision that we all have for the community,”” she said.
There are four candidates for the Ward 5 Opelika City Council seat, and all four spoke at Wednesday night’s forum.
Chuck Adams said he is heavily invested in the future of Opelika. His children live and work in the city, and his grandchildren will be in the Opelika school system.
“I believe that this city of five wards united together as one government can accomplish great things,” Adams said. “United together, we can be the standard for caring for our elderly. United together, we can be the standard for community policing.”
He added that he thinks Opelika can be the standard for creating opportunities for its residents to succeed, caring for its veterans, safety in its schools and community and building roads and infrastructure that make sense.
David Canon said his greatest asset is his experience on the city council; he has been Ward 5’s representative on the council since 2010.
He listed some of the things the council has achieved since he joined it, including a new high-tech water treatment facility, a new police station, the Opelika Sportsplex, two new fire stations and the prevention of a proposed granite quarry coming to Opelika.
Canon said he plans to continue his work by getting new developments and businesses in downtown Opelika, working had to bring the local economy back to where it was before the coronavirus and developing affordable housing.
“My goal, or vision, of Opelika is to keep Opelika the greatest city in Alabama to live, work, play, raise a family, go to church and retire,” Canon said.
Brandon Fincher is focused on keeping the city council accountable to those it represents.
He said he would like to impose a three-term limit for Opelika’s elected officials, give long-term tax incentives not only to a select few businesses and prevent developers from doing construction that negatively impacts the people of Opelika.
“This November, Opelika’s mayor will begin making a salary that is higher than the mayor of Birmingham, Montgomerey and Mobile, despite being a fraction of those cities’ size,” Fincher said. “This $120,000 salary is equal to Gov. Kay Ivey’s salary.”
Todd Rauch is a U.S. Army veteran who is focused on the council’s transparency.
He said it is the city council’s responsibility to keep everyone up to date on what’s going on in the community.
Rauch said he would wants to create online forums so people have a platform to tell the council about their issues and so the council can update the people on their city’s business.
“It’s important for you to understand what my passions are, and that is: my faith, my family, my country and my community,” he said. “I’m committed to fostering a culture of public engagement because if you have issues, as your city councilman, I expect you to call me first.”
Gary Fuller has served the city of Opelika for the last 16 years, but is challenged this election by council-woman Tiffany Gibson-Pitts for the seat of mayor.
Gary Fuller said that he will continue to recruit new jobs to the city, despite the over 4,000 he has already.
“My business experience, knowledge and relationships are what set me apart from my opponent,” he said.
Recently, the city approved a new library and created the community relations special services division for the Opelika Police Department, Fuller said.
He said he also wants to focus on bringing more Pre-K programs to the area.
“Finally, I will never back down fighting for Opelika,” he said. “I led the fight against the quarry earlier this year and with your help, we were successful.”
Tiffany Gibson-Pitts shared her story, which led her to want to pursue the position as mayor of Opelika.
When Pitts was young, she lived in a trailer park in Opelika, a dangerous and unsafe area, she said.
One night, while listening to gunshots, Pitts realized just how dangerous her home was.
“As I sat on the floor with tears in my eyes, I promised God that if he would get me out of that situation, I would return and help others,” she said.
Affordable housing is a key component of Pitts platform.
“Affordable housing continues to be mentioned as our top need,” she said. “While many beautiful homes have been built, we still have nearly 1,000 families on the waiting list at the Opelika Housing Authority. While we’ve brought many jobs to the area, according to the U.S.’s Bureau Center for Economic Studies, only 18 percent of the people who are employed in Opelika actually live in Opelika.”
Pitts said she will create business incubators, which will allow citizens to start their own businesses.
There was time for both mayoral candidates to answer two questions provided by the Opelika Chamber of Commerce.
If elected as mayor of Opelika what are some of the initiatives you plan to develop to improve the safety of our city?
Pitts said that by lowering the poverty rate, the crime rate will lower too.
“There are many nonprofits that I think that we should have as part of our budget that we can help fund to make these things happen in our community,” she said.
Fuller said he believes that lowering crime starts at home and in school.
“That’s why this first-class Pre-K is so important that we start these kids very, very young,” he said. “And then we need programs for the children. One of the candidates earlier was talking about something at Covington, I’m in favor of that.”
Good, stable, well-paying jobs are one of the foundational markers of a great city. In reference to growing the business sector to continue to provide those jobs, please describe how your experiences negotiating or deal-making assist you in growing the business sector of Opelika.
Fuller said that during his time as mayor, he has made 23 trips to Korea to meet with business partners.
“We need to make sure that we maintain those relationships with business people and work with them, whether its retail or manufacturing or whether it’s the service industry,” he said. “So, I’m all about good paying jobs for our people.”
Pitts said she believes that if the city continues to offer incentives to businesses, they will continue to come.
“What I would like to do is work with our economic development department to make sure we’re bringing more white collar jobs into our area,” she said. “Because when our students leave here and go off to college, they need to know that if they want to come home, there’s a place for them here.”