Senoia mayor reflects on service
by Sarah Fay Campbell
It will soon be the end of an era in Senoia, as long-time Mayor Robert Belisle is stepping down.
Belisle is leaving office after eight years as mayor. Before that, he served four years on the city council. That's a long tenure in a city not known for long-serving mayors.
Belisle cleaned out his office at Senoia's city hall on Wednesday.
"I've done what I set out to do. And it's time to move on to something else," he said. "I'm a firm believer in term limits, so you have to live what you believe."
Belisle had never intended to stay in office as long as he did. His sons, Ben and Sam, are now 16 and 15. In their lives, there was only less than a year that either their father or mother wasn't serving in Senoia city government.
Belisle's wife, Judy, was the first Belisle to serve on the Senoia City Council. At the time, the Belisles lived in the Martinwood subdivision. A portion of the subdivision's community septic system was on their lot, and it failed. Judy got involved and ran for council. During her four years on the council, both their boys were born. Judy stepped down after serving two terms, the Belisles backed another candidate for council and he was elected.
But not long after, the new councilman moved away from Senoia, so Robert ran for election to the unexpired term. He was then elected two more times. In 2005, Belisle resigned to run for mayor.
"I got mad about something, is the reason I originally ran," Belisle said. "Then I began the process of making some positive changes, and I wanted to see those changes through."
Getting the Marimac Lakes park open was one of the accomplishments Belisle holds dear. Another is the complete revision of the city's residential zoning regulations. "That is a big one, it took a lot of time and effort," he said.
He's also proud of quality-of-life accomplishments such as improvements to parks and recreation.
And, of course, there's been the positive economic redevelopment in downtown.
Senoia, particularly its downtown, has changed dramatically since Belisle took office. Most of those changes are the result of the film industry, and the money that developers have poured into Main Street.
Belisle was asked if he would have ever imagined the renaissance that Senoia has experienced. "Yes and no. In some ways it wasn't the changes we anticipated, because with the downturn in the economy, residential development kind of went flat for a while. But the downtown redevelopment, I think, has exceeded most people's expectations."
There have also been a lot of updates to city facilities, including the new police and courts facility and the renovations to city hall, as well as streetscapes improvements downtown. The city has moved from paper to a digital format for city council business. "It makes record retention easier, it saves time and money … there are a lot of things of that nature, just modernizing city processes and streamlining efficiencies," Belisle said.
When asked if there was a favorite part of the job, Belisle said he "never looked at the job in that way."
"I've never sought to be in the limelight I just tried to do the job: to be successful in implementing good policy and moving the city forward."
Identifying his least favorite part of the job is easier. "The odd hour phone calls… they used to be from disgruntled water customers," Belisle said. "There is nothing like the joy when people don't pay their bill and you cut them off."
As for what he will miss most, according to Belisle, without a doubt it’s the city staff.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed dealing with a great staff and good people," Belisle said. "And identifying challenges and coming up with solutions. It's been a very educational eight years."
Belisle and his fellow council members have positioned Senoia well for the future. The city bought property for new sports fields, updated the charter, and completed a parks and recreation master plan.
The new charter, which goes into effect Jan. 1, moves the city from a "strong mayor" form of government to a city manager style.
"I think that is going to be better in the long run for the city. It's going to put qualified professional people on the job and then the elected officials are basically setting policy and having oversight," Belisle said. "It's a pretty good model because it works in more cities than it doesn't."
The other charter change has council members running for specific posts instead of all running together at large. "It's a more modern, professional system" that follows a model the Georgia Municipal Association "has found to be more successful," Belisle said.
Even though he won't be mayor after Jan. 1, Belisle won't be leaving city government completely. He'll be one of the members of the city's new development authority. City Attorney Drew Whalen is finishing up the legal documents to get the development authority up and running.
"That will be a fun challenge," Belisle said.
As his tenure as mayor comes to a close, "I'm just ready for it to be done," he said. "I'm not excited to leave, but it's time."
"One thing to emphasize is that it's been a real honor and a privilege," Belisle said. Not just to serve in a leadership role "but also getting to work with so many good people. The volunteers we have to fill all the volunteer positions, the city staff that we have — we have a city staff that is second to none. They make me look good."