Rodney Walker’s resignation from the Decatur City Council last month left the seven-person body without an African American in a city where they comprise more than one-fifth of the population.
It’s a fact not lost on the city’s Black community, whose leaders have urged council members — who will ultimately decide who fills the remaining 20 months left on Walker’s term — to select a Black person for the appointment.
“We would like to see transparency in the process to replace the seat and have community input. It is imperative that Black voices be heard,” said Patricia West, president of the Metro Decatur Black Chamber of Commerce, speaking at last week’s council meeting. “And we will do nearly everything in our power to ensure that we are represented and that Black Lives Matter.”
“We have a lot of things going on in this city,” added the Rev. Tyrone P. Cooper, overseer of Church of the Living God PGT Temple 1. “Some parts are giving our city a bad name and I think you need our input. We want to work with you. And it’s important that we have someone on the council that looks like me that can give you input that you might not think of.”
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Jeanelle Norman, president of the Decatur chapter of the NAACP, told the Herald & Review last month that she believed Walker’s seat “should be filled with an African-American.”
More than 21% of Decatur’s 70,746 residents are African American, according to the most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.
But with council members elected at-large, representation for minority groups is not always guaranteed as it might be under an aldermanic form of government.
Walker is the CEO of SkyWalker International Sports Complex in Decatur. He was first elected to the council in 2019. He resigned July 20, citing conflict-of-interest laws that prevented him from exploring certain business opportunities. The six remaining council members have until mid-September to appoint his replacement.
However, the council appears to be moving quickly, with those interested in the appointment having to have submitted a resume and cover letter by Aug. 4. The council will review these materials in an executive session of a special city council meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday.
If a majority of the city council agrees on a candidate, a vote on an appointment could take place that evening. But, some city officials expect a longer process.
Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said “the most important thing is to get the best council person possible” for the seat regardless of background, but acknowledged that diversity “needs to be a consideration” to ensure the entire community feels represented in government.
“It probably would be a great idea to have an African American on the council representing, even though we’re not a ward system and there’s not an African American seat on the council,” Moore Wolfe said. “I think it would be a disservice to the African American community and send the wrong message if we aren’t able to seat an African American. So we need to make sure African Americans apply.”
City Clerk Kim Althoff did not return a request for comment on the number of applications received. The city has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Herald & Review seeking names, resumes and cover letters of applicants.
However, the Herald & Review confirmed that Marty Watkins, a U.S. Army veteran who is Black, is among those who have applied for the open seat. Watkins ran unsuccessfully for council in 2017, 2019 and 2021.
In a race where the top-three candidates were elected to the council, Watkins placed a strong fourth in April’s election. He believes this makes him the ideal candidate to receive the appointment.
“I do believe that the African American community should have some representation on the city council,” Watkins said. “It just happens to be that I was the African American who ran this past election, which was in April, not too long ago, and I was the fourth-highest vote getter, which says that the citizens of this community felt that I should have that seat.”
“The voters spoke when they went to the polls, and I think we should honor that,” he said.
Jacob Jenkins, who placed sixth in April’s runoff election and was a candidate for mayor in 2019, said he did not apply for the open seat, but also urged the council to appoint an African American.
“Rodney Walker left some extremely big shoes and I think that the council is in need of a very diverse candidate that can continue to keep the issues that are important to a vast majority of the city ongoing,” Jenkins said.
Beyond the open question of whether the council will appoint a candidate that reflects the community, some council members have registered disapproval with the closed-door process behind the appointment.
Council members Bill Faber and David Horn made their opposition known Monday, saying the process lacks transparency, community input and doesn’t do enough to determine applicants’ views on city issues.
“This lack of citizen engagement in the process of selecting the next city council member is consistent with a pattern by many members of the city council to have less citizen engagement in city government,” Horn said.
But Horn said he agreed that regardless of the process, diversity had to be a priority.
“It is critical that we have a council, that we have city employees that look like the composition of the city of Decatur,” Horn said. “And so I strongly support having diversity that represents the city of Decatur on the council.”
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