Everyone has their issues.
For the people who attended last Tuesday’s Alderman At–Large forum, those issues focused on transportation and sustainability, both big buzzwords for Savannahians concerned about safe bike and walking routes and energy efficiency.
“Transportation and development are very closely linked,” said Savannah Bicycle Campaign chairman Drew Wade in his opening remarks. “Where we build is closely related to how we travel.”
Several member of the local Sierra Club chapter took seats for the forum at the Coastal Georgia Center, as well as former Creative Coast director Chris Miller and the grande dame of Savannah’s sustainability movement, Betty Melaver.
The event, sponsored by the Savannah Bicycle Campaign as well as the local branches of the U.S. Green Building Council and the League of Women Voters, aimed to draw out candidates’ positions on historic preservation, recycling, reducing city energy costs, creating more bike lanes and greenways and the necessity of a projected “green” image of Savannah nationally and internationally to promote economic development.
“These issues dictate how Savannah can successfully navigate the challenges of mobility, sustainability and growth for all our citizens,” added Wade.
Candidate Bill Gillespie, a former Army engineer who introduced himself as an avid cyclist and advocate for walkable cities, clearly has the vocabulary of sustainability down, calling for “smart growth,” a goal of “energy neutral” operations, expanded bike access and LEED–certified upgrades for city buildings.
“We need to take the city back from our cars, and I would love to bring light rail down the MLK corridor,” said Gillespie in response to whether he would support adopting a complete streets policy that would require city planners to design roadways for integrated bicycle and pedestrian use.
His opponent for Post 2, attorney Tom Bordeaux, called sustainability “one of the legs” of Savannah’s future and said he highly supports alternative energy sources and environmental upgrades for city operations–as long as they’re part of the overall plan set by the city manager.
“We need to keep this realistic,” said Bordeaux. “Our job as aldermen is to help set policy. We don’t build windmills.”
Some in the audience commented that it’s a shame that Savannah voters have to choose between Gillespie’s progressive platform and Bordeaux’s 16–year experience as a state legislator in Post 2, and that the next city council could benefit greatly from the former’s enthusiasm and the latter’s temperance.
The third Post 2 candidate, Clinton Young, confirmed he would be at the forum but didn’t show. Post 1 candidate Russ Sill was invited to attend but had another commitment.
Both Post 1 candidates present hold formidable resumes that show decades of service, though neither has ever held office. Carol Bell worked as Central Services Director for the City of Savannah for 38 years and says her experience with city operation heads could help streamline energy use.
“It’s incumbent upon us to challenge the city manager to instruct the departments to in ways to do their jobs more efficiently,” said Bell, who said she recognizes the need to “keep a keen eye” on sustainability issues in Savannah.
Dr. Suresh Persad, a physician who said he has practiced for 40 years north of Victory Drive in order to serve low–income patients who don’t own cars, counted efficient public transportation as a priority for Savannah’s citizens.
Dr. Persad also advocates switching city vehicles to liquefied natural gas and retrofitting city buildings with LED lighting. He brought up the development of a switchgrass biofuel facility that would recycle clippings from the city’s public spaces.
But while he’s willing to adopt energy–efficient practices, he doesn’t want to see any positions cut.
“I support sustainability, but not at the sacrifice of job loss,” he said.
The moderators of the forum, GPB’s local voice Orlando Montoya and Connect’s own Jim Morekis, posed three audience–generated questions in addition to the pre–selected subjects.
One asked what “green projects” the candidates would champion, and Gillespie brought up a subject that went surprisingly unmentioned in a room full of eco–minded folks: The filthy state of the Savannah River.
“We have a long way to go sustainability of our water,” said Gillespie. “We have the fourth dirtiest river right next to our landmark district and no one really cares. It’s time that we make that a priority.”
The question is whether the river — and the other issues of more and better bike lanes, a forward–thinking energy policy and the balance of commercial space with greenspace — will be a priority for voters on Nov. 8.