MACON, Ga. — During his high school years in LaGrange and Columbus, Blake Sullivan – who stands 6'5" played center and forward on the basketball team.
By his own admission, he wasn’t the best player on the team, but he made a few hoops along the way.
Sullivan’s 62 now and for the last 20 years, he’s lived in Macon-Bibb County, where he operates a timber consulting business called Standing Tree.
He was interviewed recently at the WMUB Studio at Mercer University by 13WMAZ and its partners in the Center for Collaborative Journalism.
GETTING ALONG: Sink the battleship
Sullivan thinks he knows why there’s bickering among elected officials.
“If you walk into the city hall down there, our government’s center, the first thing you see is a battleship right when you walk in the front door, USS Macon,” Sullivan said.
Because the replica of the battleship sits outside the entrance to the commission chambers, Sullivan said it projects an image of a battle zone.
“When I walk in there as a consultant, the first thing I see is this is a place where people come to war. They come to beat each other up. We need to change that,” Sullivan said.
He would make that change by moving the battleship to another government-owned facility. He doesn’t know where it would go.
Mayor Robert Reichert put the battleship replica in the government center because he had a fondness for the ship since his childhood.
CRIME: Move officers to high-crime areas
Sullivan said he’d begin fighting crime by eliminating the 2,200 houses that have been designated as blight.
Some of the houses could be rehabilitated and saved.
“The more we can do to cut down on blight in our communities, the lower crime rates we’ll have. That’s a known fact,” he said. Sullivan said obtaining some federal grants and earmarking some local sales tax money to the project would cover the cost.
Sullivan said he would also assign more law enforcement officers to high-crime areas.
“We need to be there before crime happens,” he said. “Going there after a murder or some other assault or anything like that is just a reaction to crime. I believe we ought to do more to be there before the crime occurs.”
Deputies assigned to those areas could sit in their vehicles or walk the streets and get to know the people in the area. People in many Macon neighborhoods distrust law enforcement, Sullivan said.
“When crime occurs, it’s not likely that you’ll have somebody stand up and say ‘I saw this and I’m willing to testify to it.'"
SPENDING: Bibb setting poor priorities
When Sullivan was asked about how to improve road conditions, safety and traffic flow, Sullivan said financial experts could use Macon-Bibb spending habits as textbook examples of the unwise use of tax dollars.
The major problem, Sullivan said, is officials pour money into projects that shouldn’t be funded.
He used the Lake Tobesofkee Water Park as an example of wasteful spending.
“I think today they’ll be voting whether to spend about $60,000 so that a private entity can go out there and run it for this year,” he said. “I would take a different approach. I believe that what we should do is get the private entity that wants to run it and lease it to them for $1 a year, and do a three-year contract with them and say the onus of all utilities and repairs are on you.”
If it works, Sullivan said the county government could work out a more permanent arrangement with the company. If it doesn’t work, he said scrap the idea of a water park at the lake.
While addressing traffic concerns, Sullivan said there are turning lanes where they shouldn’t be and traffic lights that aren’t synchronized.
“We did a terrible job with flowing traffic the way it needs to be in and out of this community.” He said doing better with available resources would improve the traffic situation.
SCHOOLS: Stand up and cheer
Asked what the county government should do to improve the Bibb County school system, Sullivan said being a cheerleader would be the best thing to do.
“I do think one of the things that we can do is stand up and cheer when things happen well for our school system,” he said. “We tend to always focus on the negative news.”
COUNTY STAFFING: A lack of transparency
While addressing county government manpower, the mayoral hopeful acknowledged that he wasn’t well-versed on departmental staffing.
“Sorry, I don’t know which ones are overstaffed and understaffed. Again, I’ve done a lot of open records request inside our government. I will tell you one thing that’s very disappointing to me, is the transparency that’s in our government itself. It’s hard to find out who’s doing what, how much it cost, whether it’s being successful or not,” he said.
RACE: A tale of two cities
On race, Sullivan called Macon-Bibb a county divided between blacks and whites, and haves and have-nots.
“So I’d like to say Macon is a tale of two cities,” he said. “If you look at it, north Macon, downtown and parts of south Macon are doing okay. The rest of our communities are not doing very well and there’s lots of hopelessness in poor communities in our city. We can’t ignore that.”
Churches and other faith-based organizations could do more to improve poor communities, he said.
BLIGHT: Stop the slumlords
“The first thing I would do is try to stop some of the slumlords that work in some of our neighborhoods,” he said. “We have people from places I’d never dreamed of -- Miami and Las Vegas and Los Angeles and Chicago that own buildings, rental buildings in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Those absentee owners don’t take care of the places where people live."
“What they do is they buy these houses for next to nothing, they rent them to people, as long as the plumbing works and the heat and the air conditioning works, whatever’s there. But when something goes wrong, they just tell the tenants to move out, and then oftentimes they just abandon those structures and don’t do anything to it…”
Because of that, Sullivan said one of the first things he’d do as mayor would be to stop “these out-of-state people from owning apartment buildings and taking advantage of the poor.”
He says the county can stop those practices by uncovering the identity of the actual owner and making them responsible for their actions.
SPENDING: Keeping the public updated
When it comes to assuring people their tax dollars are well spent, Sullivan said he’d post monthly financial standings, income and expenses.
He’d also make sure commission meetings were open and televised when county finances are being discussed.
Sullivan said he’d go along with closing commission meetings “when things need to be talked about in private you go into executive session and discuss the business that needs to be discussed privately.”
Sullivan didn’t identify the issues that would justify shutting the taxpaying public out.
TERM LIMITS: Bring in more new faces
When the consolidated government began, term limits were included in the charter. The mayor can serve two consecutive four-year terms while commissioners can serve three consecutive four-year terms. Sullivan supports term limits.
“Yeah, I always said before, we used to recycle candidates over and over again in different offices, and I’m very happy that we’ll have some new people run for office now,” Sullivan said.