Outgoing Senoia mayor: progress is 'team effort'

Former Senoia Mayor Robert Belisle. Photo/Ben Nelms.

With the turning of the calendar Robert Belisle has ended his run in political office in Senoia. Holding office both on the city council and as mayor for a dozen years, Belisle spoke recently about his time in office and the city he served.

Belisle was sworn in as mayor in 2006, with the preceding four years spent on the city council. Being one who believes in term limits, Belisle opted not to qualify again as mayor. It was based on his time in office that The Citizen invited Belisle to share his thoughts on the memorable issues he faced while on the council.

“There were significant changes in the residential zoning ordinance in 2006,” Belisle said. “The changes encouraged better land use, more greenspace preservation and were still compatible for developers. It was a good mix of trade-offs in the zoning ordinance that, I think, is one of the things that will bear fruit and pay dividends in the years to come. Unfortunately, the recession hit so we haven’t had a subdivision built under the ordinance changes.”

The growth of retail business, especially in the downtown area in the past few years during the recession, is something that sets Senoia apart from nearly every city in the state and most in the nation.

“Business growth has been tremendous, especially downtown. When I was on council we had a dying downtown. We went from less than 10 businesses to close to 50. That’s significant,” Belisle said. “It’s been a lot of people playing parts in this. No one person deserves the credit for this. It’s been truly a team effort on the part of a lot of people.”

A part of Belisle’s outlook on economic success includes government not getting in the way of economic development.

“With this economic growth, not only did government not get in the way, we took steps to encourage it and to insure its success,” Belisle noted.

Helping restaurants in the city was the successful referendum that allowed alcohol to the sold by the glass, Belisle said.

“Liquor by the glass passed by a higher margin than I got when I was elected mayor. I won the election by 11 votes and liquor by the glass won by 20 votes,” Belisle said with a smile. “But drinks by the glass has been key to the (success) downtown.”

Belisle also cited quality of life issues such as parks and recreation having been one of the top priorities.

“We gave a pretty good face lift to Seavy Street Park and to Marimac Lakes Park, which was completely redone and the dam rebuilt,” said Belisle.

As with any municipality, there is also the “business” of running the city.

“We modernized city business practices tremendously. (City Manager) Richard (Ferry) has been a big part of that. I was pretty instrumental in getting Richard hired and he’s been a very valuable part in professionalizing us. That goes from everything like better day-to-day policies to financial policies to more professional management of the budget and records keeping. Everything is electronic now and all the old documents were scanned. We moved away from the council doing everything with paper and moved to using laptops.”

Belisle also noted the changes in other city departments such as Senoia police where all patrol units now have video and computers. 

Speaking about city staff as a whole, Belisle had only praise for their work.

“I may be speaking prejudicially but I think we have the best small town staff in the country. We have a city administrator that is transitioning to a city manager who is one of the brightest and adept young men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Richard is not just good at his job, he continues to grow in the job,” said Belisle. “And that goes across the board with every department head. We have Jason in the police department and Randy Padgett in public works. We really have quality people who recognize the need to be efficient and still provide a high level of service. I don’t think you’ll find that everywhere in government. I think we’re fortunate that we have people here that adhere to that philosophy and do it so well.”

Belisle also referenced the city’s enhanced working relationship with Coweta County government.

“We’ve enjoyed a much better working relationship with the county,” said Belisle. “We still at times agree to disagree, but in areas we can cooperate we do so and the county does too. It’s been a beneficial situation.”

The relationship with the county also includes the challenges last year pertaining to the local option sales tax (LOST) and special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) distributions.

“LOST and SPLOST distributions came up and were handled in a professional manner. (Councilman) Jeff Fisher deserves a lot of credit for his efforts there,” said Belisle.

 Belisle maintains that government must exist, but government does not have to dictate and run everything. 

“Government can hinder or government can step aside,” Belisle said. “(Pres. Ronald) Reagan said it best when he said government is seldom the solution to the problem, most of the time it’s a contributor to the problem.”

When it comes to city council meetings and public participation through public comments, Senoia’s style was different from that of many municipalities. Unlike many others, those making public comments did so without time restrictions.

“We’re not elected to represent just those who like us. We’re elected to represent everybody and sometimes that means hearing the good and the bad. I have been liberal in (the lack of time restrictions) as long as it pertains to city business. I drew the line when it became personal. Fortunately that has not happened very often. I don’t have a problem with people communicating with us. And if that’s the venue they choose so be it,” Belisle said. “I try to also try to be responsive to people in personal conversations and emails. We’ve always taken the stance that the government should listen to the citizens and (public comments and approachability) is one of the ways to do that.”

For Robert Belisle, his time in public office has come to an end. And for him, that end was fitting.

“I would be a liar if I said it was going to be easy to leave,” he said. “It’s going to be an adjustment. But I would also be a hypocrite if I stayed. I’m a firm believer in term limits. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you don’t need the same people doing everything forever. You need new ideas and faces in government. And it was time for me to step aside. Outside of being married and a parent, nothing has given me as much job satisfaction and nothing else has been the privilege and the honor as this has been. It’s been truly a blessing to me to be able to do this. I’m happy that some people think I did it well. I did the best I could.”

In reflecting on the purpose by which elected officials should operate, Belisle noted the words of Lao-tsu who said, “As for their best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. And when the best leader’s work is done the people say ... ‘We did it ourselves.’”

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