February 24, 2017 Atlanta - Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Ceasar Mitchell, Atlanta City Council president, Peter Aman, former chief operating officer, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta City Council member, Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Council member, Mary Norwood, Atlanta City Council member, Michael Sterling, former Executive Director of the Atlanta Workforce Agency, Cathy Woolard, former Atlanta City Council member and president, and Vincent Fort, state senator, attend during Candidates Forum at Georgia State Bar Headquarters on Friday, February 24, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Bribery scandal dominates Atlanta mayoral candidate forum

In a discussion that sometimes grew tense, candidates hoping to succeed Kasim Reed as Atlanta’s next mayor agreed on one thing: nobody wanted to defend City Hall.

With an ever-growing bribery scandal swirling around the city’s central government, not one of the eight candidates who took part in a Friday forum for the Judicial Qualifications Commission raised a hand when asked if they were willing to stand up for City Hall.

“I do believe there are people at City Hall who are there to enrich themselves and not serve the people, ” state senator and candidate Vincent Fort said getting the ball rolling. “There is a culture of corruption there.”

Ceasar Mitchell, who earlier in the day held a press conference saying he will push to have future contracts posted online, said, “To know people would allow this type of activity in our city when it is not necessary is disappointing.”

Atlanta City Hall has been engulfed since January in a federal investigation over an alleged “pay for play” bribery scheme for city contracts. Two contractors have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and the head of the city’s procurement division was fired earlier this week after the FBI seized items from his office.

Mayor Kasim Reed has said he has not been questioned in the investigation and will pursue efforts to clean up City Hall.

Friday’s meeting was one of a handful so far where the major candidates showed up to try to distinguish themselves in a large field of candidates.

In addtion to Fort, the hopefuls were Atlanta City Council members Keisha Lance Bottoms, Kwanza Hall, Mary Norwood and Ceasar Mitchell, former City Councilmember Cathy Woolard, former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency director Michael Sterling, and former city of Atlanta chief operations officer Peter Aman. Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves entered the race on Thursday but was too late to be invited to the event.

The 90-minute discussion covered major issues facing the city, including police recruitment and retention, transit, education and crime.

Norwood said she wants to see light rail extended to western parts of the city so that residents traveling to jobs downtown and in Midtown and Buckhead could have better access. Woolard, however, said the city needs to be cautious in transit spending to avoid an “expensive mistake” akin to the Atlanta Streetcar.

But Bottoms said the city can plan an expansion of transit that works for all.

“It’s only a waste of money when it is going into places where people don’t need it,” Bottoms said.

All agreed that education is a challenge for Atlanta. Some pockets of the city are among the most impoverished communities in the country, partly because of a broken education system and a lack of investment in lifting up those who are living on the margins, they said.

“Atlanta has been great at building buildings, but not so great at building people,” Hall said.

Aman and Sterling said the city needs to raise the pay of police officers if it expects to recruit competitively. Otherwise, Atlanta will find itself five years from now struggling with the same issues as today of crime that is outpacing the cities ability to do anything about it.

“We have to do a better job or rewarding officers for their performance,” Sterling said. “We have to make sure the culture is one of that allows officers opportunities for promotions.”

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