The bribery scandal at City Hall took center stage again on Thursday during a forum at Dentons law firm. The city released more than 1.4 million documents related to the case in early February. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Atlanta mayoral candidates talk jobs, education, crime and bribery scandal

The bribery scandal at City Hall remained the hot topic at a forum Thursday for candidates hoping to succeed Kasim Reed as Atlanta’s next mayor.

Despite a relatively quiet week in the ongoing federal probe over alleged “pay-for-play” contracting at City Hall, eight of nine major candidates who participated in a forum put on by mega law firm Dentons said a top priority of the next leader will be to return trust in government.

“The conversation is going to be lot about how can people have restored faith in City Hall in the midst of these shattering revelations,” said former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard. “And how do we stop it from happening?”

Michael Sterling, the former director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, agreed. He said when citizens don’t trust that leaders are acting on the public’s behalf, it devalues any good that a city government can achieve.

“It compromises all our progress,” he said.

Thursday’s forum on the 53rd floor of the iconic SunTrust Plaza in downtown Atlanta was the latest meeting of the large competitive field in the still early campaign to replace Reed, who is in the last year of his second term in office.

Dentons had initially closed the meeting to the media, but changed course after state Sen. Vincent Fort and Woolard both said they would not participate if the press was barred and Sterling said he would livestream the event to include the public.

City Hall has been under a cloud since January when federal investigators first announced prominent contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. had been arraigned on conspiratorial bribery and money laundering charges related to more than $1 million he paid to get city contracts.

Since then Mitchell and another contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in the ongoing investigation.

Last week, the city also fired its chief procurement officer, Adam Smith, shortly before the FBI seized computers and other items from his office.

While the scandal overshadowed the discussion Thursday, the candidates — with the exception of City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who was unable to attend — mostly agreed that big issues facing the city include income inequality, traffic, education, crime and growth.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, making his debut in the race after declaring his candidacy just a week ago, ranked addressing crime high among his top priorities. Eaves reminded the audience that his son was robbed in 2013 on his first day at Morehouse College and that Eaves’ car was broken into around the holidays.

“Public safety is the No. 1 issue in the city,” he said.

The city also needs to put its resources in more than projects that help the top income earners, Fort said. The focus from City Hall in past years has been on stadiums and swanky new building and not on helping those most in need, he said.

Keisha Lance Bottoms said the next mayor needs to find ways to better connect the portions of Atlanta where jobs are scarce to areas where they are plentiful. Some of the city’s crimes issues relate to a lack of access to job opportunities that has left Atlanta “out of balance.”

Peter Aman, the city’s former chief operating officer, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall said they would build better relationships with Atlanta Public Schools to improve access to education. While the city school system is independent, the trio said the mayor can be a partner without dictating policy.

“Our missed opportunity really has been to double down on education,” Mitchell said. “If you talk to the head of the chamber of commerce, she will tell you that we have a disconnect between all the jobs out here that need to be filled and the people in the city who could fill them. “

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