Hattiesburg candidates meet voters ahead of municipal election

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Candidates for Hattiesburg city government spoke to voters Thursday at Jackie Dole Sherrill Community Center, ahead of the municipal election on June 6.

Five people are running to be Hattiesburg's next mayor and more than a dozen people are running to represent residents as city council members.

Three Democrats and two Independents are vying for the city's top job.

  • Mayor
    • Shawn O’Hara - I
    • Toby Barker – I
    • Johnny L. DuPree – D
    • Catherine M. Starr – D
    • Tom Garmon –  D

Infrastructure and public education improvements, government transparency and responsibly spending taxpayer money were all topics discussed by the mayoral candidates Thursday.

"No matter where you live in the city, we all kind of want the same things," Toby Barker said. "We want our kids to go to a good school. We want safe neighborhoods. We want to drive around Hattiesburg without having to align our car every month or so. We want to flush the toilet and when it goes out, we want it to stay out. We want to turn on the tap and the water to be clear. These are realistic expectations that we should have, and those are things that, right now, you can't guarantee."

Democratic candidate Tom Garmon said he has tried to bring the brown water problem to the forefront for four years.

"For the past four years, not one person on this city council has has brought up the issue of brown water," Garmon said. "Instead our government has pushed this unnecessary wastewater treatment project."

Incumbent Mayor Johnny DuPree was the only mayoral candidate not at the forum, but his campaign manager Franklin Browne said DuPree "stands on his record" and is already working to improve waterlines.

"He's also currently working with the council on the aging infrastructure replacement project to replace 100-year-old water and sewer lines, we understand the brown problem, brown water problem," Browne said.

Barker said, "In infrastructure, we have to make sure that no neighborhood is left behind. We have to bring our people together around a transparent and comprehensive plan for streets, water and sewer, and prioritize that in our budget. And then manage that budget and that investment effectively."

Shawn O'Hara also sees the need for infrastructure improvements, and has a creative way he'd like those funded.

"Fix the bad road and bridges," O'Hara said. "Where are we going to get the money? Legalize marijuana for industrial, medical and recreational use. For every $1 billion dollars sold, that's $70 million in new taxes. I want to go bigger than that. I want to build an industrial hemp plant here in Hattiesburg. Rather than putting corn in your car with gasoline, put hemp in your car with gasoline."

On education, Barker said most residents he's spoken to are aware of the issues facing public education in Hattiesburg and said now, they need to step up to help improve it.

"We know the challenges and the situation that we have," Barker said. "We know the financial difficulty. We know the academic challenges right now. However, this is also fixable. We have to own the things that are good. We have great teachers, teachers that are committed to their job. We have a new superintendent who is talented, who can manage a budget and who believes in evidence-based programs. It is on us now as a community to come together ans support our school system, to rally around our children. And as mayor, I believe that has to be done form the front in the trenches. That means that as mayor, we're going to have an evidence-based, city-wide mentoring program. We're going to pull in more churches, our retirees, our businesses to be physically present in the schools and to build relationships with kids. We're going to leverage every federal, state and local resource to expand access to early-childhood education because when a child comes to kindergarten ready to learn, they're more likely to be reading by third grade. They're more likely to graduate. They're more likely to have positive outcomes later in life, and that's a doable thing. Finally, we're going to provide opportunities for our kids, whether in their summer programming or whether with a summer jobs program to connect them to careers going forward."

Democratic candidate Catherine Starr said she would also like to look into Hattiesburg's public school system if elected as mayor.

"We have a failing school system," she said. "If elected, I will appoint a special committee to look into and issue a report on why the school system is failing."

O'Hara said he would like students to be given $8,000 vouchers to attend the school of their choice.

Candidates also want city leaders to be more transparent about how and why they are spending tax dollars.

"We're talking about building $40 million on a public safety complex, and to make it sail through the community, we're going to put some art buildings in there too to make everybody feel good about it," Garmon said. "Now, I don't know about y'all, but I don't know how we're going to pay. This is all being driven by engineers and architects who want to make hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars off of our community. It does not serve the interests of our community. We just spent $2.2 million on a municipal court building over here making it handicap accessible, but that's our temporary court. But yet, we talk about wanting to bring people downtown. There they are in the municipal court every week. Why is that a temporary court? Why can't we use that on a permanent basis? If I'm elected mayor, we will. This is madness. There are millions of dollars we could be saving in our government."

Starr said, "I'm against the new annexation proposal. We do not have money to spend on this annexation. The new police complex was originally going to cost $25 million. Now, it is going to cost as much as $52 million. Over a 60 percent increase. This is ridiculous."

Barker said citizens need to receive stellar customer service in every interaction with a city employee, and each experience "should reinforce the idea why you chose to stay here." He said that requires motivation of and pay raises for city employees because "no employee should have to work two full-time jobs to make it all work."

DuPree, Garmon and Starr will be on the ballot for the Democratic primary election May 2. If needed, there will be a primary run-off election on May 16 to determine who will be on the ballot for the general election in June.

Barker and O'Hara will automatically be on the general election ballot because they are running as Independents.

City Council Candidates

Five people are vying for an open seat to represent Ward 1. Current Ward 1 Councilman Kim Bradley, who was elected in 2005, announced he wasn't seeking re-election in August.

  • Ward 1
    • David Allen Breland – D 
      • Wants more businesses moved downtown, instead of west into Lamar County.
      • Wants city ordinances drafted with people, not politics, first.
    • Jeffrey George – R 
      • Wants "proactive approach to improving streets, sidewalks and the infrastructure beneath them."
      • Wants to restore trust in city government by holding other council members, mayor accountable to what citizens "want to see happen in our city."
      • Wants to improve communication between city council members and citizens.
      • Wants to improve efficiency "at all levels" and wants businesses, universities and community to work together.
    • Bob Johnson – R 
      • Wants to energize citizens to "become stakeholders in the city, and not just someone who lives in Hattiesburg."
      • Wants citizens better informed about how and why decisions are made.
      • Wants mayor and council accountable to the public, city managers accountable to departments.
      • Wants to improve school system.
      • Wants to ensure police and fire departments have manpower and equipment needed. 
    • Ken Chambers - D
      • Wants to promote a better quality of life by improving education. Has school-aged children and "skin in the game" to work to better public schools. 
      • Wants infrastructure improvements throughout city, including replacing old water lines to remove brown water problem.
      • Wants open dialogue among council members and between council and the mayor.
  • Ward 2
    • Deborah Denard Delgado – D 
      • Wants to move flood lines closer to the rivers to attract more investment in Ward 2.
      • Wants to continue the Twin Fork Rising project to revitalize Ward 2.
    • Tom S. Ramirez Boldo – D 
      • Wants to bring expertise of being a community association manger in Austin, Texas to city council.
      • Wants to improve infrastructure - brown water, trash and recycling- in city.
      • Wants to revitalize Ward 2 and bring more business to the area.
    • Cedric Dallas – D 
      • Wants gainful job creation in Ward 2 area of Hattiesburg
      • Wants to reduce crime rate 
      • Proponent of term limits for municipal offices
    • Adrian “Juan” Ratliff - D
      • Wants to focus on infrastructure improvements - waterlines, roads.
      • Wants education improvements.
  • Ward 3
    • Carter Carroll – R 
      • Wants a 1 percent sales tax to pay for infrastructure needs.
      • Wants an additional tax on hotel rooms 
      • Said experience matters when making decisions in city government because "if you don't know you're history, you're going to make the same mistakes over and over."
    • Kathy Garner – I 
      • Wants capital improvement programs and budgeting. 
      • Wants to use communication and collaboration skills both inside and outside city hall.
    • Bill Bayes – R 
      • Wants infrastructure improvements - roads, potholes, waterlines.
      • Wants to stop "reckless spending of tax dollars."
    • John C. Burks - R
      • Wants better communication with citizens.
      • Wants to cooperate with those he works with.
      • Want to be out in the community to get more citizens involved in government.
  • Ward 4 
    • James C. Smith – D 
      • Wants infrastructure improvements to alleviate brown water.
      • Wants to be "a fighter" for Ward 4.
    • Mary Dryden – I 
      • Wants to be proactive, not reactive, when replacing infrastructure. Wants a concrete plan in place to repair it.
      • Wants policies to maintain increased property values.
      • Wants to encourage home ownership.
      • Wants to make education a top priority.
    • Kaylee Nicole Bradshaw – D
      • Did not attend candidate forum.
  • Ward 5 
    • Nicholas R. Brown – D
      • Wants to bring unity back unity back to the city and the council.
      • Wants to improve infrastructure.
      • Wants proper school funding. Wants mentorship programs for students.
      • Wants to develop programs for the elderly and veterans.
    • Henry Naylor – I 
      • Wants neighborhood associations and neighborhood watch groups to continue operation, said groups have opened up transparency and city government. Naylor said groups provide consistency regardless of city leadership.
    • Jennifer Brown-Travis – D
      • Wants to hold ward meetings to bring her area's concerns to the council.
      • Wants to curb crime rate.

Primary elections are May 2, with primary runoff elections on May 16. The general election is June 6.