When Jacksonville's elected leaders take office in November, the mayor will no longer be counted as a member of the City Council. Instead of having one vote among many, the mayor will have veto power over legislation passed by the council, arguably giving him more influence over city policy. In addition, meetings of the council itself will be run by a president elected from among its members.
Vying for the revised mayoral role are two-term incumbent Johnny L. Smith and Derek Raulerson, a city councilman currently finishing his first term in office.
Smith, 71, was first drawn to serve the city 20 years ago after years of volunteering in various capacities, including as an emergency medical technician. Once on the council, he served six years as mayor pro tem before he retired from his job as a math professor at Jacksonville State University and ran for mayor.
“I think my experience on the council gave me a lot of insight into city government,” he said. “I just felt like I could do some good things for the city.”
Raulerson, 40, is an administrator at House to House/Heart to Heart, a Church of Christ publishing endeavor. For Raulerson, running for mayor is all about vision. The city, he said, has become reactionary, and he wants to see proactive planning for the future.
Both candidates point to a proposed public safety complex as the biggest immediate task the mayor will face, and neither really wants to see City Hall leave the center of town.
Raulerson highlighted the former Gold’s Gym building as a potential location for City Hall, which opens up space, provides frontage on Pelham Road and is close to the Public Square. Additionally, moving the police and courts to the new complex will free up space in the current City Hall and the police station. The new mayor and council will set the direction for how that space should be used.
“With me it’s still all about the numbers,” said Smith. “Obviously, we need a City Hall. We’re overcrowded, we’re in an old building.”
But, the mayor said, he’s beginning to doubt that the project can include City Hall and still provide the amount of money officials would like to give the school system for new buildings.
“It’s really going to depend on bids,” he said. Favoring a practical and utilitarian project, the mayor has repeatedly requested scaled-down spaces in its design. “I always worry about getting the city in a dilemma we can’t recover from,” he said.
Raulerson said that based on current sales tax figures, by forgoing City Hall in the current project, the city can build the public safety complex and still earmark considerable funds for the school district’s capital projects on a yearly basis.
When Smith first ran for mayor, he said his top priority was to draw businesses into the city, something he thinks he delivered on.
He proudly listed a number of new businesses that have come in during the last eight years, including Effina’s, Walgreen’s, several restaurants on the square, Donut Prince, Loco Mex, and new development at the corner of Greenleaf Street where such businesses as CVS, Huddle House and the Hampton Inn now stand.
These new businesses, said the mayor, do three things for the city: make it more convenient for citizens who don’t have to gas up and drive out of town to shop, create more jobs for local folks and boost the city’s revenue through sales tax.
Drawing more businesses to the city is something Raulerson said is part of his vision for Jacksonville. If elected, he said, he will host a meeting within the first 100 days of his tenure inviting the city’s business owners to share their ideas and concerns.
Raulerson said that the city needs a structured plan for drawing business into the city and needs to create a team of people to target market the community to potential investors.
“I think we need to be better prepared to show potential businesses what we have to offer,” he said, noting that the city is currently dependent upon the county’s economic development council. “I believe I can assemble a team not of politicians, but of business leaders to help me do that.”
Star staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.