City candidates square off over inmate labor, more in forum

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMay 15, 2014 

Most of the candidates in Tuesday's municipal elections gathered Thursday evening at the Columbus Public Library for a forum sponsored by the Columbus NAACP.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and challenger Colin Martin appeared, as did Council District 9 incumbent Judy Thomas and challenger Felicia Hamilton. In the other two contested council races, District 1 challenger Zeph Baker attended, but incumbent Pops Barnes did not, and District 7 incumbent Mimi Woodson attended but challenger Xavier McCluskey did not.

In the mayor's race, the candidates rehashed themes from their campaigns in their opening statements. Martin said that crime is increasing in Columbus and that the mayor is a grandstanding official more focused on herself than her job. Tomlinson pointed to the accomplishments of her first administration and listed statistics that indicate crime is in fact down under her administration. Questions from the panelists for the mayoral candidates included queries on the use of inmate labor and the fate of the Claflin Center, a 1950s school building on the historic site where the first public schools for blacks in Columbus was erected in the 19th century.

Asked about the city's use of inmate labor, which saves the city an estimated $10.2 million every year, Martin said he struggles with the issue.

"On the one hand, we have these inmate who want to get out, it's a reward for good behavior, it gets them out to work in the community, gets them out into a different part of town," Martin said. "On the other hand I see the point of those who say, 'Look, the 13th Amendment says slavery was outlawed unless you're incarcerated, and is this really just another form of slavery?'"

Martin suggested that privatizing garbage pickup might be the answer. Tomlinson, in her rebuttal, said there is no way privatization would cut costs because private companies would have to pay workers at least the minimum wage, as opposed to the $3 a day inmates are paid.

"We do reap the benefit, as do other communities that have work camps, in tax savings," Tomlinson said. "The question goes to moral commitment. First of all, I think they're paying a debt to society, and there's a moral commitment on the other side to pay that debt. They've been through the justice system, and in our society we can't second-guess that."

Asked about plans to preserve the Claflin Center, Tomlinson said the building was in such a state of disrepair by the time the school district turned it over to the city, it was beyond the public sector's financial ability to restore it.

Also, because of the limitations placed on the property by those who originally deeded the land to the city, no private developers were interested in the site. She cited the process of restoring a former Army Reserve building on Macon Road, which is now in Columbus State University's hands.

"We're beginning to think that the best option is exactly what happened with the old Reserve building, which is to allow it to go back to the federal government, where the limitations can be lifted, so we can broaden the options of who can bid on it and what it can be used for," Tomlinson said.

Martin said the city needs to preserve the building and find some kind of educational use.

"It needs work," Martin said. "When you drive by, you see the windows are out and boarded up. It's in rough condition. But we need to preserve that building."

In the Council District Nine section, Thomas and Hamilton agreed on several questions, including one about crime. On that subject, both candidates said community policing would help.

"One of the things we have to make an effort to do is to have community policing," Thomas said. "With the other local option sales tax, we have put another 100 officers on the street. We need to have those officers concentrated in neighborhoods, so that the people in those neighborhoods get to know those officers."

Hamilton said she agreed with community policing, but that it also might take better budgeting to make sure the resources are put where they're needed.

"I come from a family where we had to do a lot with just a little bit," Hamilton said. "With us being in the middle of a budget crisis, we have to do more with the little bit that we have. So we have to look at the areas where attention is needed more."

District 1 challenger Baker also focused on crime, especially in his district. He pointed out that the majority of burglaries occur in District 1, where he was born, raised, educated and where he still lives.

"District 1 represents a high crime rate district," Baker said. "If you take care of the crime in District 1, you will really offset the crime rate in the entire city."

Woodson, the incumbent District 7 councilor, said her religious faith drives her public service and that Thursday's announcement about a new Walmart locating in her district was the proudest moment in her public service life.

"My work speaks for itself, because I'm in the community," Woodson said. "You can ask my children. They ask me, 'Can I make an appointment to see you, mama?'"

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