VALDOSTA — Four candidates running for Valdosta mayor met on stage Monday night to answer questions ranging from the biggest challenges facing the city to the purchase of a new performing arts center.

Kevin Bussey, Scott James Matheson, J.D. Rice and David Sumner all attended the debate forum hosted by RKDS Film Festival at the old Valdosta High School performing arts center on Forrest Street. Roy Kirkland and Angela Ward moderated the forum.

The candidates began with opening statements, introducing themselves to the audience.

Sumner used his previous city government experience to bolster his case for being mayor. He served three terms on the Valdosta City Council from 1998 to 2007. He has served as mayor pro-tem and as mayor for a brief period following the death of Mayor James H. “Jimmy” Rainwater. 

He was elected by members of the council to serve the remainder of Rainwater’s term.

“I have the experience and knowledge of city government to help all of Valdosta,” Sumner said. “When elected, all voices and all neighborhoods will be heard. Working together, we can build a better Valdosta.”

Sumner stayed on message the entire debate using his experience to stand out from the other candidates. 

Rice also used his leadership experience as the former Valdosta fire chief and his relationship with former Mayor Rainwater to distinguish himself.

He focused on economic issues, such as the city’s 32 percent poverty rate, homeless problem and bringing better paying jobs to the city.

One question during the debate was about improving the south side of Valdosta, and Rice said the current state of the south side is an embarrassment to everyone who lives in the city.

“That’s an untapped resource,” Rice said. “There is very little economic development put into the south side of Valdosta, which is embarrassing. The south side pays taxes just like the north side and it needs to be invested into just like the mall area. That’s a major resource.”

Kirkland asked the candidates about the old Valdosta High School Performing Arts Center, where the forum was held, and if they are in favor of the city buying the building to replace Mathis City Auditorium.

Matheson stood out as the biggest proponent of the purchase. 

He hosts a talk radio show, owns and operates a radio station, co-chairs the One-Lowndes Valdosta initiative, is on the SPLOST steering committee and is the president-elect of the Leadership Lowndes board. Matheson also served on the Remerton City Council.

He sits on a committee responsible for deciding what the city should do for a new performing arts center, and he said the best option for the city is to buy the school for about $4 million. 

All the other options would be too expensive, he said, such as renovating Mathis for nearly $10 million or building a new facility at Five Points.

“This campus is a major win for us,” Matheson said. “We sell Mathis Auditorium to the hospital. We sell Five Points to whoever will buy it and purchase this for shy of $4 million.”

Bussey, 32, is the youngest candidate and has the least amount of local government experience.

Bussey grew up in Valdosta on Wisenbaker Lane and went through Valdosta City Schools before joining the United States Army.

When he retired from the military for medical reasons in 2015, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the White House and the Department of Commerce.

He passed on answering a question about cutting an item out of the city budget, saying he didn’t know enough about the issue to make a decision.

Bussey has said he wants to encourage economic development, develop a public transportation system, assist efforts to end homelessness and be a voice for those who don’t have one in the community. 

During his closing statement, Bussey said he would donate his mayoral salary to the community.

“I would use those funds to create more youth programs,” Bussey said. “I would use those funds to provide more support to local veteran affairs. Talk is cheap, and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.”

None of the candidates are official yet. Qualifying for mayoral candidates is Aug. 19-23.

Valdosta residents can begin voting for mayor during early voting Oct. 14, and election day is Nov. 5.

Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256

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