Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier deputy news editor
Two new city commissioners were elected and $110 million worth of public projects were approved in contentious local elections held in Floyd County on Nov. 7.
Six of the nine seats on Rome’s city commission, representing two of the city’s three wards, were up for election last week. Commission candidates must reside in the ward they are running to represent, but all city residents vote to elect all commissioners. The elections are officially nonpartisan, but most candidates are aligned with one of the two parties.
Harry Brock, Jim Bojo and Mark Cochran were elected to represent ward 1, while Wayne Robinson, Craig McDaniel and Bill Collins won in ward 3. Two incumbents—Sundai Stevenson, Rome’s first Black female mayor, and Bonny Askew—lost their seats. Brock and Robinson will be serving their first terms on the commission.
The new commission will have more Republican-leaners, less African Americans and less women. Bojo, Robinson and McDaniel have aligned themselves with the Republican Party. With the loss of Stevenson and Askew, Rome now has only two Black commissioners and one female commissioner.
This year’s elections have been dominated by more contentious campaigning and large outside donations than usually seen in Rome politics. Alumna Wendy Davis (87c), a two-term former commissioner and member of the Democratic National Committee, said the polarization of national politics is beginning to affect local elections.
“We had sort of that polarizing energy that we usually think of national elections being injected here in these local elections,” Davis said. “We all have different ideas and I feel like we should be able to talk about those ideas in a more positive way. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got this time.”
Three commissioners have faced politically motivated ethics complaints this year. One complaint accused Mayor Stevenson of improperly holding a position as a notary public in Gordon County while she was a Rome commissioner. Another accused Commissioner Bill Collins of a conflict of interest for voting on matters related to school construction while his wife served on the school board. These complaints, both filed against Democrats, were dismissed by the City Attorney in October.
A complaint accused Commissioner Cochran, often viewed as the commission’s swing vote, of uncivil conduct and conflicts of interest. Davis said Cochran was being targeted for raising questions about the city’s budget process.
“[Cochran] went to a training class on the budget and the instructor of the class actually said, take these questions back to your city and get them answered,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, our city manager and finance director felt like he was questioning them.”
Controversy over the price tag for expansions to Rome Middle School also divided the candidates. Though voters approved $54 million in funding for the expansion in a ballot measure, the city will have to issue $98 million in bonds to pay for the project. The commission approved the bonds on Monday in a 5-4 vote.
Sophomore Rome native Cate Mendes said the expansion is desperately needed despite its high price tag.
“All of the elementary schools, [they] go to Rome Middle and that’s kind of a melting pot of all the elementary schools,” Mendes said. “It was so crowded when I went there.”
Republican-aligned candidates received large amounts of outside donations this year. A report in the Rome News-Tribune revealed that a committee associated with the Georgia Association of Realtors spent $30,000 in support of Bojo, Brock, Robinson and McDaniel. Davis said this infusion of outside money into a local election was unusual and concerning.
“If you look at their disclosures, this is the only place where they spent that kind of money,” Davis said. “We have a commercial realtor, a real estate developer and an appraiser who’s on [the Republican] slate. I think it’s concerning, but apparently the voters thought it was great.”
Partisan political action committees have also participated in these elections. A group called A Better Rome, which has ties to Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s campaign, gave support to Republican-leaning candidates, while the group Real Romans has supported Democratic-aligned candidates.
Mendes, who has been involved in local politics since high school, feels Rome elections are becoming too partisan.
“The concerning thing is that, whereas it used to be a lot of people would be more invested in local politics before national politics, now it’s reversed,” Mendes said. “It can be problematic when it comes to our local issues, because sometimes somebody will agree with this candidate, but since they’re not their party, they’ll be like, ‘oh no.’”
Floyd County voters also approved a continuation of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), a 1% sales tax used to fund public projects. The SPLOST package includes $32 million to renovate roads and funding for a new police training center. Mendes views the training center as an important investment.
“There’s obviously been too many crises with police injuring and killing people in America,” Mendes said. “[Police] are always going to stay, so I definitely think they’re going to need more training to improve, so we can have a safer society.”
Despite the contentious campaign, turnout was dismal, with only 12% of registered voters in Floyd County voting. Participation among Berry students was likely even lower, a fact Davis sees as a problem. The Rome commission has the power to approve the budget, select the mayor and hire the city manager. Davis said these decisions often affect students.
“The things that happen at the city commission, even though Berry is technically not in the city, still affect you,” Davis said. “Making sure we’re not recruiting polluter companies to town, because we’ve had too much of that in our history—those decisions are very locally made decisions.”
Davis encouraged all students to register to vote and get involved with political organizations on campus.
Sophomore Sam Russell, who is the president of Young Democrats, said the Office of Student Involvement is planning on hosting voter registration tabling before next year’s elections.
“We plan on doing some tabling with OSI to get some voter registration and educate people on absentee ballots because not everyone’s from Georgia,” Russell said.