Sandy Springs voters get wide choice for mayor

As Sandy Springs readies for just its second citywide election, voters have a wide range of choices to lead the toddler of a city.

Mayor Eva Galambos, who spearheaded the cityhood movement for 30 years, faces challenges from Bob Brown, a business owner who has lived in city for 45 years; Donnie Bolena, a motivational speaker who moved to Sandy Springs seven years ago; and Warren Hull, a political unknown running in his first election while his daughter tries for the first time to get on City Council.

“There is a clear choice, that’s for sure,” said Bolena, the 44-year-old motivational speaker and self-published author.

Next week voters in the north Fulton County city also will decide three contested races among the six open council seats.

But it is the mayor’s race that could have lingering effects on the four-year-old city. With four viable candidates and scant voter interest, there is potential for a runoff – and a sharper divide over what the city should be.

“I don’t want people feeling lackadaisical about voting,” said Galambos, an 81-year-old retired economist. “It’s still important.”

Indeed, incumbent Galambos and the current council shouldered the burden of setting up the city and getting operations running after decades of promises that a city could provide services more efficiently than the county, without raising taxes.

Galambos is running on that record. Since she took office, the Sandy Springs has tripled police protection, paved 70 miles of road and built more than 9 miles of sidewalks. It also has launched work on two major parks, all without raising the tax rate.

Galambos said the next four years must be spent building on that work by focusing on developing the “downtown” area north of I-285, getting a new bridge over the Perimeter Highway at Roswell Road and other quality-of-life issues such as traffic and recreation.

“We’ve made a huge, huge stride, and that was recognized when Forbes ranked us 15th of the top places to live in the country,” she said. “But we’d like to be number one.”

Brown, the owner of the iconic Red Baron Antiques on Roswell Road, agreed that Galambos laid the right groundwork for the city.

But he got involved out of concerns that the current administration wasn’t good for business. He cites “extreme” fines against businesses for code violations and delays for new businesses in getting licenses as major problems for the future of Sandy Springs.

“The empty storefronts along Roswell Road are a testimonial to that anti-business mindset,” the 65-year-old Brown said. “I see opportunities where things could be better.”

Among them, he said, is the contract with Ch2M Hill. Since it incorporated, the city has outsourced most government functions to the Colorado-based company. The city hires only a manager, clerk and workers in its police and fire departments.

Galambos favors keeping that kind of contract when the city rebids next year. Brown, however, said he wants to modify the proposal, so that more local citizens are employed by the city.

“I believe we can continue the private partnership to a point, but we have to take some jobs and give them to residents,” Brown said.

Bolena stands alone in arguing the city should scrap the model entirely. He said the city would be more responsive to residents if more local faces were evident in every department.

Bolena said the city needs that kind of change to focus on the problems citizens face every day, pointing out heavy traffic on roads making it unsafe for cyclists, joggers and children heading to and from school.

The city has made some improvements, Bolena said, but not nearly what was promised.

“Too many politicians have promised to get things done and haven’t,” Bolena said. “We have to get people in office who have the energy to actually do things.”

Bolena, like Brown, has pledged to hold more “town hall” meetings with residents and business owners, to get a better sense of issues bubbling up in the community.

Hull, a 61-year-old who works in auto repair, agrees with all of the other candidates on some of their key issues.

He also wants to hold more community meetings to get resident input and wants to see Sandy Springs develop a town center to bring the community together.

Hull said he decided to run when he realized the community was missing that unity, while at the same time the current government was heavy handed in issuing code enforcement fines against businesses and residents, trying to make the city more high-end.

“It’d be nice to have a central downtown district, where we encourage more local business like downtown Decatur,” Hull said.

Hull also supports expanding park services beyond tony offerings such as tennis, perhaps including skateboarding or more passive areas. The final offerings, he said, could be decided in town halls.

“I think we can all reach agreement that we all want what’s best for our city,” Hull said.