Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock and his challenger in November, former mayor David Pennington, traded barbs Thursday night at a candidates forum hosted by the Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA).

If granted another term as mayor, Mock said he will make upgrading housing a priority, saying, "Some landlords are taking advantage of tenants."

Pennington said there's "a lot of blight in this community" that needs to be ameliorated. He also would make building "a first-class soccer facility" a priority, but without using SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds, as he believes taxes are already too high in the city.

Pennington, who was Dalton's mayor from 2008-14, initially ran for that office because the city had the highest taxes in north Georgia, and taxes have crept upward again since he left that post, he said. If voters return him to the mayor's office, Pennington said he will work closer with Whitfield County government, as well as address the fact "we've become a very poor community."

Though the Dalton area boasts "lots of good jobs," many of those working in those positions don't live in Dalton or Whitfield County, he said. "We need to turn that around."

Mock said Pennington had six years to address issues he's now complaining about, but, instead, he left the community isolated from the state and region when he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor against fellow Republican Nathan Deal in 2014.

"I've been playing catchup since I've been in office," Mock said.

The forum, at Delray Farms Fresh Market, featured questions and answers translated into English and Spanish by CLILA founder America Gruner. Pablo Perez, a member of the Dalton Board of Education, and his opponent, Sam Sanders, were also in attendance.

One overarching message during the forum was a need for unity.

"This is about unity," Perez said. "We have so many things in common."

Sanders said, "We have to stop thinking about 'us and them.'"

"This is Dalton," he added. "This is what we look like, and I love it."

Mock said Dalton's residents can unite under the banners of religion, sports and education.

"I'm a mayor for all the people," he said. "I want everyone to feel safe so we can thrive economically."

Mock, who has been Dalton's mayor since November of 2014, isn't a Dalton native, but his wife is, and he moved here 45 years ago, he said. He also knows "what it's like to work for a living," having spent decades driving trucks and loading produce.

In front of the predominantly Latino audience, both Mock and Pennington were asked about interactions between law enforcement and members of the local Latino community who may fear arrests and deportations.

Mock promised Dalton wouldn't reinstitute road checkpoints — which ensnared some immigrants who lacked licenses — during his tenure.

"If you obey the laws of our city and country, you have nothing to worry about," Mock vowed. "You are safe in our community."

Perez, a doctor, is completing his first four-year term on the school board. Sanders, an attorney, has two daughters in school at Brookwood School, the same school where his wife now teaches after 15 years at Roan Elementary School.

"Giving back to the community has always been my passion," Perez said, and he believes a strong school system is integral to community prosperity and quality of life. He initially ran for the school board because he noticed some of the same racial disparities in education he'd witnessed for years in health care.

In his first term, he's made equity for all students a priority, and "I can tell you progress has been made," he said. However, that work needs to continue, which is why he's seeking another term.

Perez suggested that the new configuration of schools in Dalton — when Hammond Creek opens in the fall of 2021, the district will have a building for sixth- and seventh-graders, Dalton Middle School will become an eighth- and ninth-grade school, and the city's two high schools will become 10-12 institutions — will allow more opportunities for all students after graduating high school.

Education opens doors for youth, and "that's why I'm sitting here," he said. "I'm a product of public education."

He'd also like to see more Hispanic teachers in Dalton Public Schools (DPS), a system where 70% of students are Hispanic.

While "we can do more," DPS already has a more diverse faculty than any other school system in north Georgia, Sanders said.

Sanders, a member of Brookwood's school council and president of the Dalton Education Foundation, has lived in the Dalton area his entire life except for his time in college, and he's a graduate of schools in the Whitfield County Schools system.

"I believe in all the students" of DPS, and youth in this system "are as capable as any children anywhere," he said. "Our children deserve a world-class education, and I think we can give it to them."

If elected to the Board of Education, Sanders would concentrate on executing the school system's strategic plan, which includes mastery of state standards by students.

"I value learning more than test scores, but I value test scores," he said. "You have to value test scores."

He also believes increasing salaries for teachers will allow DPS to attract the best candidates.

While DPS historically has been known for outstanding teachers, a main reason for that was the school system was at the high end of the pay scale in Georgia, he said. That's no longer the case, he said.

"We don't pay as much as other school systems," he said. "We need to pay our teachers more."

The diversity of Dalton's schools is a strength, not a weakness, and Sanders wants to represent all of the community's stakeholders, he added. "I want community support, and you are the community."

Voting is a right and a responsibility, Mock said. Voting "is your power, so go vote."

Pennington also encouraged Dalton's residents, particularly Latinos, to vote in his closing remarks.

"This community needs leadership," Pennington said. The Latino community "needs to help move it forward."

Election Day is Nov. 5. Early voting opens Monday in the elections office in the Whitfield County Courthouse.

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