DECATUR — At least for the present, Decatur residents are ready to put this election in the past, welcoming new officeholders and the promise they represent to do things a little differently.
Residents and business leaders mostly signaled approval Wednesday with consolidated election results, which saw the return of Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, new faces on the Decatur School Board and City Council and passage of a public safety tax increase.
Prevailing over challenger John Phillips 53 percent to 47 percent in Tuesday’s election, Moore Wolfe became the first woman elected as Decatur mayor, according to unofficial vote totals from the Macon County Clerk’s Office.
She is also the first woman to hold the office, having been appointed in 2015 following the death of former Mayor Mike McElroy.
Longtime political observer Paul Osborne saw the results as a sign that residents, at least a majority of those who voted, are happy with the city’s direction.
“It kind of puts to rest the movement that she should not be in there and the city manager should not be in that position and those things need to change,” said Osborne, editor of the Decatur Tribune and a former mayor.
Osborne was referring to City Manager Tim Gleason, whose job performance became a central issue during the final weeks of the campaign.
Phillips had said the manager needed to be guided and coached, while Moore Wolfe had expressed support for his actions, including his handling of the February 2016 firing of former police chief Brad Sweeney. Sweeney, who became a supporter of Phillips’ campaign, alleged wrongful termination in a lawsuit against the city.
“I think this takes some of the pressure off of that simmering feud that’s been going on,” Osborne said.
Like the city races, Decatur’s school board campaigns heavily featured discussion of a person who wasn’t running: former Superintendent Lisa Taylor. Taylor left Decatur last year for the high school principal's job in the Heyworth School District, where she has since been named superintendent.
During the last several months of Taylor’s time in Decatur, questions arose about use of the district's procurement credit cards, both by Taylor and chief instructional officer Edward Moyer, who resigned effective June 30.
Incumbents B.A. Buttz and Alida Graham were among four board members at the time who referred requests for comment to board President Sherri Perkins, while three remaining board members were vocal about their support of Taylor and extending her contract. Perkins would say only that the board was not required to extend the contract nor make a decision at that time.
Taylor gave her notice last spring, which led to a search for a new superintendent. The school board voted unanimously March 28 to hire Paul Fregeau for the job.
Fregeau will report to a board with four members not involved in his hiring, as Buttz and Graham were defeated for their seats along with challenger Al Scheider and write-in candidate Janice Gavin.
The victors were candidates Kendall Briscoe, Beth Creighton and Beth Nolan, who ran as a slate called Parents in Leadership for Us, and the Rev. Courtney Carson.
“I think voters in that race left no doubt they wanted change,” Osborne said.
First female mayor
Moore Wolfe’s election came more than four decades after Carol Brandt became the first woman to join the Decatur City Council in 1975.
Brandt said it took some time after she was elected for other council members to take her seriously, but she was a good listener who ultimately earned their respect. “They kind of patted me on the head and ignored me for a while,” she said with a chuckle.
She was happy to see Moore Wolfe elected, not only because of the milestone for women, but because she thought the mayor was the best choice.
“Hopefully (residents) voted for the person they thought would be the best leader for Decatur,” said Brandt, 84, who remains interested in local politics and cast her vote two days before the election.
Kathy Thornton, eating lunch at the Downtown Cafe on Wednesday, said she approved of Moore Wolfe’s resumé as a WAND anchor and former executive director of the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce.
“I feel like it’s harder for women to get some of these positions in our city. I like Julie. She has a lot of community experience,” Thornton said, adding: “Whoever is in charge, what we need is better schools and more jobs for our town.”
Nadine Wimmer, also eating lunch at the Downtown Cafe, said too much emphasis had been placed on Moore Wolfe’s gender in light of her victory.
“What’s the difference? Both men and women can have brains, education and experiences,” said Wimmer, of Decatur. “One could do as well as the other. People should just look at the qualifications.”
Business community pleased
A snapshot of Decatur's business community found an upbeat mood in the wake of the election.
Ken Clark, owner of the Clean Cut Painting & Handyman business, said he was happy about the city's leadership continuing under Moore-Wolfe, the first woman to win a mayoral election in her own right in Decatur's history.
“I feel positive about the mayor's election and the whole city council,” said Clark. He also liked the fact that challenge candidates made a clean sweep of the Decatur school board. He's hoping the new board members will seek to lift the quality of education so that employers deal with graduates ready and able to work.
“I was in manufacturing for 20 years, and you had to go through 15 or 20 people to be able to hire one,” Clark added.
Adam White, a pro sales specialist at Lowe's and president of the board of operations for Lincoln Square Theatre, said he believes the election left the city council “leaning in the right direction.” He was also particularly pleased to see the Decatur school board welcoming four new members.
“That was something I think Decatur really needs,” said White, 32. “I think we need a fresh new look in there that generates new ideas which will help drive a better school district for Decatur.”
Lori Sturgill, the producer/director of Decatur Celebration was also in celebratory mood, too, particularly over seeing Moore Wolfe returned as mayor and seeing Briscoe elected to the school board. Briscoe is the Celebration's board president, and Sturgill said she is armed with a lot of talent that will help move the school board forward.
“Kendall has a great aptitude for leadership, and she is super creative,” Sturgill said. “She has the ability to think outside the box and the ability to do what she says she is going to do, and that is the biggest thing.”
John E. Wallace, manager of the Downtown Convenience Store at 117 N. Main St., said he was pleased overall with the outcome of the election.
He was especially happy to see that Carson won, as the store had put up a sign in support of his school board run.
Wallace remarked on Carson’s journey from one of the so-called “Decatur Seven” expelled from school after a fight at Eisenhower High School in the 1990s. Carson now mentors other young men and is an ordained minister.
“Ain’t that something?” Wallace said. “He’s turned his life completely around.”
Safety tax second chance
An increase in sales tax, known as the Law Enforcement Safety Tax and targeted to help fund the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, drew voter approval of 58.4 percent, according to unofficial totals.
The measure, expected to generate $2.5 million, will cost residents 25 cents for every $100 spent on tangible goods. It must still be approved by the Macon County Board, officials have said.
Supporters said the sheriff's office would be able to fill vacant posts and bring back eliminated specialty positions with the money, while opponents said Macon County residents are taxed enough already.
A similar referendum failed in November, causing advocates to launch an informational campaign designed to educate voters.
Some residents, such as Kathy Thornton, saw the move as a necessity.
“I think sometimes, whether we like it or not, we have to raise taxes. It happens,” Thornton said Wednesday. “Sorry, but it happens. I voted for it.”
Diane Gifford of Decatur expressed cautious optimism.
“I think that could be a plus, but we’ll have to see how that works out,” she said. “We’re not going to know that for a while. We’ll just have to see how that money is spent.”
In addition to new leadership and a boost for law enforcement, Osborne said the community would benefit one more outcome of the election: its end.
“It just seemed like it went on for years instead of months. I think sometimes you get embroiled in these races and the community pauses for awhile and maybe starts choosing sides,” he said. “Hopefully now that the election is over, we can concentrate more on moving the city ahead.”