Elections

Columbia mayoral 'long shots' take aim

(Editor's Notes: The Columbia Election Commission decided March 5 that a felony conviction would keep Irwin Wilson off the ballot. .... Candidate Gary Myers has switched from the mayor’s race to the District 2 race.)

Joseph Azar, Sparkle Clark, Aaron Johnson, Nammu Muhammad, Gary Myers Jr. and Irwin Wilson would like you to envision them as Columbia's next mayor.

They are passionate about changes they'd like to make to city government.

And, while some insiders consider them long shots - lacking the extensive political connections and fundraising advantages of challengers Steve Benjamin, Kirkman Finlay and Steve Morrison - the six offer themselves as alternatives to the favorites of political power brokers.

Here, a look at each.

JOSEPH AZAR

Azar has many ideas for revamping City Hall operations but says getting its finances in order must be done first.

The inaccurate accounting and overspending suggest "a lack of care and competency" among city leaders, he said.

City Council members should be forced to resign for that failure, he said.

While regional efforts to attract new jobs are important, City Hall should do more to help local businesses expand and promote better job training, he said.

Azar also questions the need for parking meters and would work to replace property taxes with fees and a local sales tax.

Other ideas include:

- Landing more regional sports tournaments to bring in tax revenue

- Encouraging recycling of construction debris

- Giving older computers to those in need who don't have them in their homes.

- Offering voters the chance to impose term limits of 8 to 12 years on local offices

Azar, 58, is the owner of an audio-equipment store. He lives in the Shandon neighborhood.

SPARKLE CLARK

Clark describes her vision for City Hall as "lean, clean and green."

By that, she means:

- Trimming unspecified waste from city spending, saying the focus should be on ending duplication

- Reducing crime and improving safety by assuring police, fire-fighters and emergency medical staff are well-equipped and well-trained

- Devoting more attention to protecting the Congaree River downtown and enhancing its role as a center of urban landscape

"My top priority is to get Co-lumbia on strong footing with a balanced budget so that we can revitalize our beautiful city," she said. "I will lead and implement the vision that we all want - a city of clean politics, clean air, clean rivers and a leader in green technology."

Clark, 51, is a postal worker and self-described environmental activist. She lives in the Bradley neighborhood.

AARON JOHNSON

Johnson is running as part of a team eager to bring a different approach to City Hall.

"Our current city government is like a car with a steering wheel for every passenger," he said. "Who is to blame when it crashes?"

His emphasis is on "a back-to-basics approach" that focuses on improving police, fire protection and water and sewer service.

For instance, he wants more foot patrols by officers in high-crime areas and would make sure utility revenues are reserved for repairs and expansion instead of diverted to other uses.

Johnson also promises to end financial problems that he blames mainly on a lack of openness and "backroom deals" among veteran politicians.

More attention also must be given to encouraging small businesses like the ones he runs, he said.

City Hall has no control over schools and buses, but its leaders should champion enhancements for both, he said.

Johnson, 25, operates a cam-era shop and video production company. He lives in the Melrose Heights neighborhood.

NAMMU MUHAMMAD

Muhammad is using the mayor's race as a platform to spread his views on increased city investment in neighborhoods.

He wants to create individual development accounts - supported mainly by state aid - as a tool to spur home ownership.

He also is upset at what he says is the lack of honesty about the impact of new development.

City residents "aren't being told the truth" that growth often requires higher taxes and utility bills, he said.

Muhammad said bringing in jobs is the best way to reduce homelessness and crime.

As part of that effort, he would create more neighborhood festivals and other small-scale events to enable the unemployed to work at least part time.

He also would create more centers where employers could meet with those seeking jobs.

Muhammad, 58, is a retired electrician and engineering technician who is now a self-described neighborhood activist. He lives in Old Waverly.

GARY MYERS JR.

Myers' slogan sums up what he wants to accomplish as mayor - "creating the city of excellence."

He promises to focus on improving police and fire service and economic development, but doesn't specify how to do that.

Myers calls support for better schools critical to making neighborhoods safer and attracting jobs.

His experience as a former Army officer provides the experience needed to tackle problems at City Hall, particularly in getting the city's finances in better order, he says.

Myers is critical of the city's spending, saying City Council spends willy-nilly throughout the year. He said council instead should compile a list of spending priorities - fire and police should come first, he says - and make spending decisions at one time, based on those priorities.

Myers said he's gained insights on local needs from helping to educate youths, serving as a mentor and athletics coach and referee.

"We are the capital city and, as such, should set the example for the state and the Southeast," he says.

Myers, 55, is a business consultant. He lives in the Eau Claire neighborhood.

IRWIN WILSON

Wilson's focus is on generating jobs for low- and middle-income area residents, calling that "rising from the trenches."

He is pushing for creation of a city-run center where those seeking work can come and meet directly with employers.

But he is short on specifics otherwise on what more city leaders should be doing in economic development.

Wilson also considers public support for cultural events vital. "We've got to get the city happy again," he said.

He wants to take a look at police and firefighter operations before deciding what, if any, changes to seek.

Bringing in commercial development will create more traffic, but Wilson considers that a problem to enjoy solving instead of a hassle.

As mayor, he would lobby federal officials to allow food stamp allotments to pay for the purchase of items like toilet paper and laundry supplies.

Wilson, 39, is a contractor. He lives in the Fountain Lake neighborhood.

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