2020 Mayoral Candidate Interview: Blake Sullivan

Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, along with 13WMAZ, The Telegraph and GPB all hosted each candidate running for Mayor of Macon Bibb County. Each were asked the same questions.

“Okay, violent crime is a big issue in macon bibb county, as mayor what would you do to address it?”

Sullivan TRT 0:58-3:09
Well, there’s several things that need to be done. Studies out of Detroit and Baltimore show that the more blight we have in our community, the more crime there is in our neighborhoods, so we need to address that. It’s a serious problem in Macon-Bibb. My plan is, during my administration, first four years, I want to tear down those 2200 houses that have already been designated as blight, I know some of them, they’ve already been removed, but we need to, we need to either take them down or we need to rehabilitate the ones that can be saved. The more we can do to cut down on blight in our communities, the lower crime rates we’ll have. That’s a known fact; so the first thing.
The other thing we need to do is have our police and first responders positioned more in the neighborhoods. So, we need to be able to be there before crime happens. Going there after a murder or some other assault or anything like that, just as a reaction to a crime. I believe we ought to do more to be there before the crime occurs. With the crime statistics that we have, we know where crime is likely to happen. We know the date, the approximate time during the day it will happen. It will be our job to get out of ahead of that. So I’d like to position more of our officers in those areas where crime is occurring before it occurs to try to hit it off before it happens. So, I think those two things will help. Of course, we need more police officers and we need to pay the officers better salary to be able to have more of those what I call certified officers, those that have been fully trained on the ground, put them in the street, allow them to go into the neighborhoods, build the trust with the community and try to try to hit off some of this crime before it occurs.

“During that time are they just going out and walking the streets or what?”

Sullivan TRT 3:20- 3:59
Either doing that or where you just go into areas of town and just sit and meet the people that are there. There’s a big distrust in pretty much a lot of neighborhoods around of police officers. When crime occurs, it’s not likely that you’ll have somebody stand up and say I saw this and I’m willing to testify to it. That is a level of trust that we’ve got to work on. We’ve got to do more in the community so that the people who live there actually report crime back to the police officers and view them as a partner rather than as an adversary.

“You mentioned the 2200 area, how would you address getting the funds to get that done?”

Sullivan TRT 4:08- 5:15
So we already have some sales tax money available. If you look at other cities around primarily Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, they’ve all gone back to the federal government and leverage the monies that they have locally in order to tear down more houses or rehabilitate them. I think that money’s still available, it’s just a question of going up in Washington DC and making the effort to do that. I’d like to say that I go up to Washington a good bit. I’m on the US Soft Wood Lumber Coalition Board. We work on Canadian lumber as it affects the United States. And so I know what it’s like to go into a congressman or woman’s office and I know what it’s like to ask for things we need to have and so, it’s being familiar with the people, our elected officials, and also going up there and making the case before them. Same thing up at Atlanta, at the dome. There are resources out there. We just need to figure out ways to get those so that we can leverage our sales tax money and do more with the federal funds that are available.

“As Mayor, how would you prioritize spending to improve road conditions, safety and traffic and road conditions and manage spending to improve conditions?”

Sullivan TRT 5:34-7:49
We have a terrible debt problem in Macon. Just look at pensions, our health care, our general obligation funds of somewhere around 280 million dollars worth of debt, but we’re also spending money in places where we don’t need to spend it. Appropriate example is the waterpark is going over on Lake Tobesofkee. I think today they’ll be voting whether to spend about $60,000 so that a private entity can go out there and run it for this year. I would take a different approach. I believe that what we should do is get the private entity that wants to go run it and lease it to them for $1 a year and do a three year contract with them and say the onus of all the utilities and the repairs are on you. And if you can make it work, then we’ll trade with you and if not, then it will tell us that this is an unviable option for us to have at the lake. There are a lot of those examples around. We just need to be smarter with what we do. As a business person, I know how to do that. So it’s finding resources that are out there. Our roads are in terrible condition because we don’t have the money to spend on the roads. We have got to work on our finances. I know how to do that. In fact that’s one of the main reasons why I’m running for mayor is to help us get out of the debt, help us understand what we need to spend money on, and what we don’t; and try to work to give our citizens the services they need. Roads and transportation are a big deal. We have sorely neglected those, just like we’ve done with our groundwater, and other assets in this community. Even our heaters and air conditioners on some of our big government buildings, we haven’t kept them up to speed. We delayed, delayed, delayed, spending money on the things that are most important to keep us running as a city and that’s got to stop.

“Traffic concerns, how would you address that?”

Sullivan TRT 7:54- 9:34
They’re everywhere. As you know, we have a lot of cars that travel up and down our highways that have these temporary tags that somebody keeps using over and over again. I think our police need to crack down on that. We just don’t have the manpower to do it. We also need to do a better job of looking at traffic patterns in the city. If we’re going to grow in any way, shape or form, we got to be able to get people in and out of our city in a way that’s more effective. I think the interstate highway will help. But our local roads are in terrible positions. We got turning lanes that are not where they need to be, we have lights that don’t synchronize, we did a terrible job with flowing traffic the way it needs to, in and out of this community. So, doing better with the resources that we have, and making sure that we check those boxes about things that will help us keep traffic moving freely and smoothly, I think those will help us a good bit to get people in and out of our community. I think you know, we have so many people that live outside of Macon-Bibb that work here and so early in the morning from 6:30am until about 8:30am, we have heavy congestion. Same time reverses between about 4:30pm and 530pm every afternoon when people leave in our community, so we got to be able to manage that and be ahead of it. We’re not doing a very good job of that today.

“What could the county government do to assist with improvements in the Bibb County school system?”

Sullivan TRT 9:48- 12:09
Well, I think part of it is being a cheerleader. You know, the county School Board runs that with Dr. Jones, the Superintendent, and there’s a clear line of demarcation between those two groups. But I do think one of the things that we can do is to stand up and cheer when things happen well for our school system, we tend to always focus on the negative news. Everybody likes to come into Macon Bibb and say, ‘Oh, your public schools are horrible,’ they have been horrible, but they’re improving greatly. We need to do a better job of getting that word out so that people will start looking at our public schools as a viable place to send their kids. That is the number one reason why our community, I think, is so divided, racially, economically, socially, everything else because our schools foster that. But I also think it’s a big hindrance to businesses, and other people that want to come in our community and operate here, but go somewhere else just because our school systems are in that transition period right now. I’ve been working personally to help our schools, districts, in our schools in particular, by “The Leader in Me”. I raised the money to put that in all of our schools. Next year we’ll be the first district, or next school year I should say, the first school district in the state of Georgia, and only one of a handful in the United States, that practices teaching leadership skills to our kids in our schools. I’m gonna tell you why I think that’s important, because we’ll give kids the ability to be leaders in themselves, then school becomes a means to an end. Oftentimes, kids come to school not knowing why they’re there. Somebody wants them to go to school, but when they have means to an end, then they say that there’s a job or career out there and hopefully what happens is they see a purpose to school and they go out there and do better. Government, our government, Macon-Bibb, needs to be a better cheerleader of the successes that are going on and a better supporter of Dr. Jones and the school district.

What kind of departments are overstaffed and which are understaffed and what changes would you make?”

Sullivan TRT 12:19-14:26
Sorry, I don’t know which ones are overstaffed and understaffed. Again, I’ve done a lot of open records requests inside of our government. I will tell you one thing that’s very disappointing to me, is the transparency that’s in our government itself. It’s hard to find out who’s doing what, how much it costs, whether it’s been successful or not, if you just go in there and look at what’s available publicly without making an open records request. I believe that every budget that we have ought to be on our website, and they are, but also believe every financial statement that’s given every month about how our financial condition is given ought to be posted on the same website. There are a lot of places that I know that are not functioning well that I see, one is our licensing. And the other one is our inspections. I know that they’re not functioning well because we’re trying to offload our inspection process on a product company. We weren’t able to do it well, do it the way it needed to. And I think our business said to us, ‘You need to do something else’. But licensing also a hindrance, we have businesses, basically downtown that wanted to open up sometimes weeks earlier than they did, simply because there were too many boxes that they had to check at too many different places in order to make that process where they could open up more efficiently. We need to do a better job. If somebody wants to go in business in Macon-Bibb; if they’re not a massage parlor, or liquor store or some of the other, what I call the deadly sins, they ought to be able to get a business license within one day. And then we ought to be able to go to work and make sure we’re providing the safety in the building and other things for them. But we never ought to stop somebody from doing business in our town that has a legitimate business and the government doesn’t need to be the hindrance there, we need to be the cheerleader.

“What would you do to improve race relations?”

Sullivan TRT 14:33-16:03
So I like to say Macon is a tale of two cities. If you look at it , North Macon, downtown, and parts of south macon are doing okay. The rest of our communities are not doing very well and there’s a lot of hopelessness in poor communities in our city. We can’t ignore that. I always like to say that cancer never is in a body and stops growing. It eventually keeps growing until it takes over healthy tissue. I believe we have this type of cancer, in our community and it’s up to us to be the great physician and to get in there and help our community become better. I think the church and our faith based organizations can do better in our community, giving people hope and comfort. But I also think we need to do more on the ground. Not only North Macon, but it’s everybody working together to make our community better. So I believe it can be done. It’s gonna take a lot of work. Poverty is a hard thing, but we’re all called to work on it. And it’s my belief that we work on it together that we can improve it. I don’t know if we’ll ever solve it. But I sure hope we can get it better and that would be my job as mayor to try to foster that.

“What’s the first step?”

Sullivan TRT 16:06-18:08
I think in the neighborhoods, the first thing I would do is try to stop some of the slum lords that work in some of our neighborhoods. We have people from places I’d never dreamed of, Miami and Las Vegas and Los Angeles and Chicago, that own buildings, rental buildings in our neighborhood. I don’t know why they do that, but it is a detriment to our community because they don’t take care of the places where people live. What they do is they buy these houses for next to nothing, they rent them out to people, as long as the plumbing works and the heat and the air conditioner works, whatever’s there. But when something goes wrong, they just tell the tenants to move out and then often times they just abandon those structures and don’t do anything to it. It’s bad for a couple of reasons. We have so many people that are on the move in Macon. As I volunteer down on at the elementary school down on Anthony Drive, about 16% of the students that are in that school, that begin the year there don’t end the year there. So, we have a lot of movement around Macon primarily because I think people don’t have the money to stay in one place very long and others take advantage of them when they do. So I think that would be one of the first things I want to do is stop these out of state people from owning apartment buildings and taking advantage of the poor. We can do that, the law says that we can unmask some of these LLC’s and find out who the actual owners are and make them responsible for what they’re doing. When we do that, they’ll go find some other place to try to do what they’re doing. And they won’t pick on Macon-Bibb because they know we’re serious about changing the trajectory of our poor communities.

“How would you assure taxpayers that their money is well spent?”

Sullivan TRT 18:18-19:20
Yeah, so I think that goes to a level of assurance in the community. Again, I’ll go back to this point about posting our monthly results where we are, income, what are our expenses. The other thing I do is make sure to turn some light on all of our commission meetings. As you know, we have the main commission meeting out in chambers, but the other ones we have are in a small conference room off on the mayor’s side of his office back there. And they’re not televised. We do have news media there. But oftentimes, there are a lot of things that go on there that need to be known by the public. I’d love to have cameras there. I think every meeting that commission has ought to be televised broadly into the community so that people can see what we’re doing. And the more you shine a light on government, I think the better and more efficient it will run.

“What condition would have to be in place if you wanted to close a meeting?”

Sullivan TRT 19:26-20:03
I don’t think that’s a big deal to do. I mean, courts do that today, right. So a lot of their work is televised but when things need to be talked about in private, you just call an executive session, you cut the cameras off and you go into executive session and discuss the business that needs to be discussed. That needs to be kept private; I understand that. But there’s so much in these meetings that needs to be seen by the public and I think it’s a disservice to our citizens to keep those not being seen by the public.

“As you know there is disharmony between council members and the mayor from time to time, What would you do to improve relations and cut down on the discourse?”

Sullivan TRT 20:19-22:21
I think we set ourselves up for disharmony and I’m gonna give you the reason why. If you walk into the city hall down there, our government’s center, the first thing you see is a battleship right when you walk in the front door, USS Macon. If you look on the left, you see the mayor’s office and all the executive wing and on the right is the commission offices and all their stuff over there. And then the middle behind the battleship is the commission chambers. You know when I walk in there as a consultant, the first thing I see is ‘This is a place where people come to war.’ They come to beat each other up. We need to change that. We need to make sure that we have conditions in there where we work together. I think we can do it. I think it’d be great if we had one of the commissioners moved over on the mayor’s side, and one of the mayor’s staff on the other side. We need to work together, we’ve worked apart too far. So the first thing is to set up the ability to have a team to work on things, sure we’re going to disagree on some things. I understand that. But we’re all trying to do what’s best for our city. And if we’re going to do that, that means we’re gonna have to be able to coordinate with each other and we got to be able to hash out our disagreements to come up with the things that we can agree on. It’s important for us to do that. Unfortunately, right now we have that conflict, I would say going on, and we don’t need it. We need to do a better job of talking and listening, finding common ground and working it out. I think we can do it; I’m committed to. As a leader, I know how to bring people together. I know how to cast a vision for where we need to go and what we need to do. And then I want to try to bring them together to try and accomplish that.

“Would you move the battleship somewhere else?”

Sullivan TRT 22:26- 23:07
I’ll realize it’s an important artifact for us. Maybe it goes over to the hotel or the Coliseum, somewhere else. I just think it gives a bad flavor in your mouth as a citizen or as a commissioner or even as the mayor when you walk in there and the first thing you see is a battleship. It is important, it is for history; I think it’s the wrong tone. And I think tone is important. I think it’s important for us to have work together to be able to solve problems. We beat each other enough as it is. We don’t need to do that anymore.

“Consolidation has been in place for a while now. What do you think? Is it working better than it used to be or what do you think?

Sullivan TRT 23:26-25:14
I think it depends on who you ask. I think it was important for us to travel down this road. I think we missed some opportunities. People in Lizella and in other parts of town are paying tremendous tax increases that I bet they never envisioned having to pay. They don’t get any services for what they pay. The reason a lot of people are leaving, Macon-Bibb is because of that. I think consolidation allowed us to have a centralized government was a good thing. It reduced the cost of the government itself. But I do think we’ve got to do a better job of servicing all of our citizens. We tend to focus on downtown. Downtown is very important. It’s a big economic driver for our city, but Lizella and other parts of our town, Kings Park, everywhere you go in our communities, is important. We can’t ignore other parts just for the sake of saying we want to work on certain areas. I think we’ve got to do more to bring us together. Consolidation can do that, I think. But we got to be able to recognize our shortcomings and we got to be able to do something about those and try to bring our community more together. Like I said, there are a lot of people who would say that consolidation was a bad thing. It’s what we have, I don’t think we can go backwards and do anything else. I think we need to work to make it work. And I plan to do that.

“Term limits?”

Sullivan TRT 25:22-26:20
I always said before, we used to recycle candidates over and over again in different offices. And I’m very happy that we’ll have some new people run for office now. That’s a good thing for any business or community is to have an influx of new people there, new ideas and new energy. We desperately need that. Term limits forces that on us and I think that gives us a reason to be able to say to people, ‘you don’t need to have a job here for 20-30 years. That’s not what you need to do.’ We need to have more people in office, so that they can help us get better, bring new energy there and bring different ideas. I think it’s important that we have term limits and I agree 100% with them.