Brookhaven mayoral candidates promise new vision for city

A model is shown of Brookhaven’s City Hall before the groundbreaking for Brookhaven’s $78 million City Hall at the Brookhaven MARTA Station parking lot, Wednesday, October 11, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

A model is shown of Brookhaven’s City Hall before the groundbreaking for Brookhaven’s $78 million City Hall at the Brookhaven MARTA Station parking lot, Wednesday, October 11, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

For two terms, Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst has loomed large over the city, and the race to succeed him has largely played out as a referendum on his tenure.

The two candidates competing in the Dec. 5 runoff — a longtime councilman and a relative newcomer to the city — have different views of Ernst’s legacy. Even so, both say they would be their own kind of mayor, leading the still-new city in distinct ways.

“He had a vision for grander things,” said John Park, who worked with Ernst on City Council during his eight years in office. “That’s good but that’s not what we need today.”

Park, a technical consultant tracking disease spread for the Centers for Disease Control and other laboratories, was the top vote-getter in November’s four-person general election. The former District 2 councilman earned 43% of the vote ahead of Lauren Kiefer, who earned a spot in the runoff with 30%.

Park has Ernst’s endorsement but said his approach would be “unequivocally” different if elected.

Brookhaven doesn’t need to be so ambitious anymore, Park said. The city has a plan and the next mayor just needs to see it to fruition — a task Park says he’s best suited for thanks to his experience on council.

“My plan is to execute and see our vision through,” he said.

That’s the problem, in Kiefer’s view.

An attorney who co-founded a software development company, Kiefer said she’s running for mayor to steer the city “back to basics.”

“The city has gone off course and there are a lot of people who are unhappy,” she said. “I bring a fresh perspective.”

Kiefer moved to the city three years ago but has ties to Brookhaven going back much longer. She was chair of the board of directors of Georgia Shakespeare and served on Oglethorpe University’s President’s Advisory Council, both based in Brookhaven. She also served as chair of the city’s Arts and Culture Commission from 2021 to 2023 and was interim executive director of the Peachtree Creek Greenway.

City leaders haven’t been responsive to residents’ concerns like they promised when the city was founded in 2012, Kiefer said. The mayor and council didn’t engage the public enough on plans for the new City Hall project and didn’t listen to the limited input they received, she said.

“The fact that citizens do not feel that they are being heard or listened to is not a good thing,” she said. “We need to turn that around.”

Ernst has described the new City Hall as a “monument to our community.” But the $78 million project, which broke ground in October, has earned criticism from Kiefer and others who question the cost, location and even the need for a city center.

For Park, the project is an integral part of the city’s master plan to connect neighborhoods across the city and create “villages” throughout that are home to places where the public can congregate. The master plan was developed over several years after multiple studies and opportunities for public input.

“This wasn’t an arbitrary decision,” he said.

Park said the hope is the City Hall/City Center project will be a catalyst for growth in other areas, showing developers that similar public-private spaces would be welcomed elsewhere.

The money for the City Hall project would have been better used elsewhere, Kiefer said. Now that contracts have been signed and the project is underway, there’s likely little a new mayor could do to halt the project. But Kiefer said that as mayor she’d like to review the plans to see if there are ways to cut costs.

Kiefer also wants to look at the city’s budget as a whole, which she believes has been poorly managed.

If elected, she plans to hold listening sessions with the public and city staff to hear ideas. Kiefer also wants to meet with county officials, whom she says Brookhaven leaders have “antagonized,” particularly during their abandoned efforts to annex the Toco Hills and Merry Hills neighborhoods.

“We will all do ourselves and each other a favor by working together instead of trying to pretend that Brookhaven is an island and we can do whatever we want,” she said.

Park said his priorities as mayor will be the same as he championed on the council. He wants to see more green space in the city, and has a goal of every resident being no more than a 10-minute walk from a park or green space. He also wants to focus on upgrading infrastructure to cut down on the number of emergency projects that have popped up yearly.

“I want to get ahead of that and fix it all before they fall apart, which would be cheaper in the long run,” he said. “I want it to be future-proof for the next generation.”

Besides the mayoral race, there’s also a runoff election to pick the next District 1 City Council member. Incumbent Linley Jones faces a challenge from Michael Diaz.

There are also runoff elections in DeKalb County to pick members of the Doraville and Stonecrest city councils and the Atlanta Board of Education.

Early voting for the runoff began Sunday and continues through Dec. 1. Voters can cast ballots on Election Day Dec. 5 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. To check your voter registration status online, visit www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP.

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