Candidates hoping to represent the city of Baker on the next council say they want to bring more businesses to the city, provide increased opportunities for young people and help boost the school system.
It’s a crowded field for the March 5 primary election to fill the five spots on the Baker City Council. Four incumbents face opposition, while one seat is wide open with three council newcomers in the mix. District 3 Councilwoman Joyce Burges is not seeking re-election and is running for Baker mayor against Leroy Davis, Darnell “DA-1” Waites and Carlon Simpson.
All of the candidates in both races are Democrats.
The one-week early voting period for the election began Saturday. Voters can go to the Office of Motor Vehicles Building, 2250 Main St., Baker, as well as locations in Baton Rouge, including City Hall at 222 St. Louis St. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, runoffs will be held April 9.
Admon McCastle, 78, is running against incumbent Charles Vincent, 70, to represent a district on the southeast side of Baker bordered by Lavey Lane, La. 67 and Cypress Bayou.
Vincent, a history professor at Southern University, has been on the council since 2001. He said he has helped recruit new businesses to Baker, provided free health screenings and other health-related services to residents, worked to make Baker a bike-friendly city and established noise-free zones.
“I see this job as that of a public servant, and I believe in going above and beyond the job description,” Vincent said.
McCastle is a retired postal worker who also has owned a day care facility and worked for the Department of Environmental Quality.
Working with new and established businesses is the way to grow the city, he said.
“We need to meet with companies and find out if they are looking to relocate. We need to sell the city as shovel-ready for small businesses,” McCastle said.
As a retiree, McCastle said he has more time to address the problems of citizens than Vincent.
Incumbent Pete Heine, 87, is opposed by Nakisha Cooper, Cleveland Thomas and LaSunia McKneely in the race for a seat that covers the northwest portion of the city including the old Leland College area off Groom Road.
Heine was first elected to the council in 1956 before becoming mayor for 23 years over nonconsecutive terms. He returned to the council in 2012.
“The key to survival (of the city), and my main purpose, is to pull this community together, black and white,” he said.
He named economic development as one of his highest priorities, saying that he was instrumental in the recent development of the Greenwood Shopping Center, as well as getting the abandoned Pizza Hut on La. 19 torn down.
If re-elected, Heine said he would continue to support efforts to combat blight in the city, primarily through a new pilot program being implemented with the Louisiana Municipal Association.
Cooper, 38, a hairstylist who owns Celebrities Only salon on Groom Road, said she hopes to bring a younger face to the council. Two of her children attend Baker public schools and the third graduated from Baker High.
Cooper, who also serves as a minister at 360 Christian Center in Zachary, said she would like to see more connection between the city and the school system as well as more opportunities for children in the city.
“I have my children in extracurricular activities, but we have to go outside Baker for them. We need things for kids to do to keep them busy and out of trouble,” she said.
The city also needs to address the problem of blight and spur more economic development in the city, she said.
Thomas, 55, works for Syngenta chemical company in St. Gabriel. He said that, if elected, he would work with Baker businesses and the Chamber of Commerce to bring more economic development into the city.
“Cities like Zachary and Central have improved their schools and cities while Baker has stayed the same,” he said.
He said that the council should work with the Baker School Board to see how they can get teachers and students the resources they need to succeed.
“If we can get to where we have top schools in Baker and businesses in Baker, that’s that main thing we need to grow,” he said.
McKneely, 41, is a Capital Area Transit System bus driver who holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Southern University. A lifelong Baker resident with two children in Baker public schools, McKneely said that if elected, she would hold more informational meetings where residents could discuss what they would like to see happen in the city. She also would work to bring more grant money into Baker and provide more services for children and the disabled, she said.
“Voters should know that if they want someone that knows Baker and wants to do better by Baker, they should choose the (candidate) that has been here and is going to be here,” she said.
Glenda Bryant, Bruce Jones and Troy Watson are running for the seat now held by Burges. The district includes the northeast corner of the city from Groom Road north to Mississippi Street, as well as a small portion bordered by Myrtle and La. 67.
Bryant, 62, is a retired operating room technologist. To become a prosperous city, Baker needs to support new businesses moving in as well as those currently in the city, improve neighborhoods and make the education system better, she said.
If elected, she said she would work to bring new businesses to Baker, such as restaurants and medical facilities, and create more recreational activities for children.
“Baker is my future,” she said. “I would love to be part of the solution for us to move forward.”
Jones, 58, a production manager at Borden dairy and associate pastor at King Solomon Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, said that Baker needs good leadership to move forward.
“You have to know what the (city) budget is, what you need, what the people need and work toward that goal,” he said.
Bringing business to Baker will require enhancing the appearance of the city, doing surveys to find out the best places for businesses to locate and then working with developers to make it happen, Jones said.
“My motto is the future can be better than the present and I have the power to make that happen. As long as we believe that and unite together, we can be successful,” he said.
A coordinator with the Veterans Affairs Department, Troy Watson, 52, served on the Baker School Board from 2011-2014.
The main challenges Baker faces are lack of growth, a dearth of well-paying jobs, and infrastructure that needs improvement, she said. If elected, Watson said she would strive for unity in the city to address these problems.
“I will be accountable, approachable and responsive to all the citizens in District 3 and work together with the other council members to make the city of Baker the place to bring new business and new families,” she said.
Baker School Board member Doris Alexander and Antonia Caine are running against District 4 incumbent Robert Young. The seat encompasses a strip of town from Baker Boulevard south to Lavey Lane around Mississippi Street.
Young, 60, who is self-employed in financial services, said he is always working for his constituents.
“It takes a certain amount of energy to do what we do. It’s more than coming to meetings. You need energy to be out there and in the mix and I have that energy,” he said.
If re-elected, Young, who has two children in Baker schools, said he will continue to work to bridge the gap between the school system and city government.
Young was elected in 2012 after serving out the remainder of the term begun by Councilman Jimmy Pourciau, who resigned because of his health.
Alexander, 72, a retired union representative, is halfway through her second term on the Baker School Board.
Alexander said she is concerned about blight in Baker and its effect on economic development in the city. If elected, she would seek out a Community Development Block Grant to help with the problem, she said.
Her ties with the school system and the business community make her uniquely suited to identify and fix the city’s problems, she said.
“I want to encourage people from my generation to get involved. We are the backbone of the city. We have to move it forward and use our wisdom,” she said.
Antonia Caine, who spent 15 years as dean of students at East Feliciana High School, could not be reached for an interview for this article. During the Baker candidates’ forum at Baker City Hall last Thursday, she said that if elected she would work with the mayor and the council to create more programs for young people in the area and improve infrastructure.
She characterized herself as a new kind of leader with a vision to take Baker in a better direction.
“We need to empower the community and bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots,” she said.
Incumbent John Givens, 67, is being challenged by Brenda G. Jackson, 59, a retired public school teacher. The district includes the area north of Lavey Lane to Groom Road bordered by Shilo and Chipley as well as a small area west of Myrtle Park.
Givens, who is retired from Pitney Bowes Inc. and has been on the council since 2012, faces trial in May in the 19th Judicial Court on a theft charge. Givens was accused of stealing a Little Debbie banana-flavored marshmallow pie from Ragusa’s Meat Market in Baker in 2014 and allegedly threatened to use his authority as a City Council member to shut down the business. He declined to comment on the incident for this story.
Givens said voters should re-elect him because he has worked to reduce fees that residents pay the city. He voted against a proposed utility rate increase in 2015. Givens also said he wants the city to consider opening its own sewage treatment plant, which would eliminate the sewer fee that Baker residents pay to East Baton Rouge Parish.
Givens said that he voted for pay increases for city employees in the 2016 budget. If re-elected, he plans to hold town hall meetings where residents could discuss their concerns and problems with city officials, he said.
As an educator and mother of three, Jackson said she is concerned about the lack of opportunities for the youth of the city.
“There aren’t enough recreational activities for young people (in Baker),” she said. “Teenagers don’t have anything to do.”
If elected, she would also work to build civic pride and improve the quality of life in the city as well as provide more support for women, she said.
Bringing the community together is vitally important to the well-being of the city, Jackson said.
* This article was changed after publication to correct the name of Brenda G. Jackson.