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Two who could be queen

Handel, Bickers rise above the rest in Fulton race


The vote to replace Mike Kenn as Fulton County Commission chairman comes down to one question: Which candidate can best heal the debilitating divide between black Atlanta Democratic commissioners and their white, suburban Republican counterparts?

Four candidates -- Mitzi Bickers, M. Carl Farris, Karen Handel and Karen Webster -- each say they have what it takes to succeed where Kenn failed.

Farris and Webster don't make convincing cases.

Farris, a former commissioner, watched his own company, Future Energy Resources Corp., declare bankruptcy in November 2002, and leave its creditors on the hook for millions. Someone who can't keep his own ship afloat is hardly the right person to come in and right a listing county government that's looking at a $60 million deficit.

Karen Webster served on the commission from 1998-2002, so she knows the players and the issues. She's the surrogate in the race for Atlanta's powerbrokers. We actually had high hopes for Webster, a construction company executive. Of all seven commissioners, she came closest during her term to navigating a middle path between city and county cliques.

But Webster's experience also is a weakness. She developed a reputation for being thin-skinned and petty as a commissioner -- hardly the qualities of someone likely to unite an unruly body. And then there's that little matter -- broken last week by WAGA/Channel 5 -- of 112 police-chauffeured trips to the airport, none of which were for county business. When asked about the flap, instead of reassuring voters that they were a mistake she wouldn't repeat as chairwoman, Webster claimed voters don't care about that stuff.

What's more, on issue after issue, Webster refuses to take a real position. Should Sandy Springs be allowed to incorporate? She says it should be put to a vote. Well, who would be allowed to vote? Residents of Sandy Springs? The entire county? Webster won't say.

And that brings us to our dilemma. Both Bickers and Handel are qualified to take Fulton's reins. But both have shortcomings.

So who should you vote for? We're afraid we have to say: It depends.

Bickers, the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church and a construction company executive, says she'd seek more opportunities for citizens to voice their concerns about spending priorities. As president of the Atlanta School Board -- a group she helped transform into a reasonably respectable government body -- she did exactly that through a community council. People who worked with her say she's thoughtful and willing to listen to differing viewpoints.

"It can't be what Republicans want at budget time or what Democrats want at budget time but what's going to be good for the total county," Bickers says. "We've got to deal with those issues in a way that don't separate us north and south, black and white."

Bickers favors a five-year strategic plan and zero-based budgeting, in which each county department would have to justify its annual spending from scratch. She says she'd consider ending the duplication of services between the county, Atlanta and its nine other municipalities -- possibly consolidating the judicial system, public safety and the arts, among other areas.

What worries us is that while on the school board, Bickers was known more for weighing in on the big issues than she was for doing the hard work of immersing herself in details. And her close ties to inner-city demagogues like Commissioner Emma Darnell and state Rep. Able Mable Thomas make us worry that she'll fail to reach out in meaningful ways to north Fulton residents and leaders.

Handel is the Republican machine candidate. A former head of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, she lost a race for an at-large seat last year against Robb Pitts and now is on leave as an aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue.

If elected, she promises to hold the line to introduce legislation that would freeze property assessments at the rate of inflation. That's important not just for McMansion owners in Alpharetta but for residents all over the county who are getting priced out of homes by gentrification.

Handel also promises to push for an audit of county government, to look to consolidate county and municipal services, and to increase transportation spending to take advantage of federal matching dollars (although she's not too enthusiastic about rail solutions).

Perdue may be interested enough in her success to help get some state funding for Grady Memorial Hospital and MARTA, which unfairly burden Fulton taxpayers. Let's just hope that Handel isn't too beholden to her party's agenda, which offers little sympathy for resolving urban problems.

What makes us most worried about a Handel chairmanship is that it will take the same shape of Kenn's non-leadership. For example, on race, Handel tells us she doesn't think of things in terms of black vs. white.

That's good, but it ignores the fact that other members of the commission have a record of race-based grandstanding. Handel must confront that. She can either join in the race game, or she can confront those who use race. Part of confronting, however, is the ability to demonstrate that she doesn't favor one area of the county -- affluent white neighborhoods -- over others.

"I have my say on [a] particular issue, and tomorrow is a different day and a different issue, and yesterday, you just leave behind," Handel maintains. "I really am a person who likes to give people the benefit of the doubt."

In the end, Bickers and Handel mirror each other: Either might focus on one part of the county at the expense of the other, but both insist they can rise above that.

If the fear of tax increases and the desire for more roads in north Fulton County are paramount to you, then vote for Handel. If you want someone to make sure Atlanta doesn't get short shrift and who has a record of working well with others on a public body, then touch the screen for Bickers.

This endorsement was written by Staff Writer Kevin Griffis, with the agreement of Editor Ken Edelstein and Senior Editor John Sugg.

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