Eight of the 11 people running for the McDowell County Board of Commissioners answered questions and explained their positions on such issues as education, stream buffers and developments on Lake James during a candidates forum held Tuesday evening.
The candidates forum, held at the McDowell County Courthouse, was hosted by the Upper Catawba River Landowners Alliance (UCRLA) and the Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). This forum was held so local residents could meet the candidates for county commissioner and ask them questions about the issues facing the county. Approximately 35 people attended the forum held in the main courtroom.
This year, three seats on the commission will be up for election. The primary election will be held Sept. 10, and the general election is scheduled for Nov. 5.
Former Commissioner Bill Wiseman, who is the alternate treasurer for the UCRLA, served as the moderator for the forum. He said the candidates who attended came at the invitation of the UCRLA and the CSE.
"(The candidates) did not have to come," he said. "It was their privilege, their choice."
Under the format for the forum, each candidate had three minutes to introduce himself to the audience and make an opening statement. Members of the audience also had an opportunity to ask a question directed to one of the candidates or all of the candidates.
"We don't know what you will ask," Wiseman said to the audience. "They have not been screened. It must pertain to the issue and not be personal."
Of the 11 candidates for county commissioner, three did not attend the forum. Incumbent Dean Buff, a Democrat seeking re-election to the board, could not attend because he is in the hospital with kidney stones.
Challenger Virginia Williams, a Democrat, could not attend due to a prior engagement. Challenger Ocie Mayfield, a Republican, also did not attend.
In his opening statement, challenger Bob Haskin, a Democrat, said he would like to change the county's programs for social services, if he is elected.
Haskin said the judicial system should also be changed but added he did not want to make promises he could not keep. "I would have to wait and see what I can do," he said.
Incumbent Bob Brackett, also a Democrat, said the current board has dealt with many complex and controversial matters such as the airpark, solid waste disposal and the proposed buffers for the Catawba River basin.
"We have taken on a lot of things that were controversial," he said. Regarding the buffer issue, he said "We had folks who went to Raleigh and raised their voice."
Incumbent Mike Thompson, a Republican who is also the board's chairman, said he first ran in 1998 on the platform of improving the county's infrastructure, providing more services for senior citizens, developing a water system for unserved areas and solving the solid waste disposal problem.
"I feel like every vote I took was for the 41,000 to 42,000-plus people in this county," he said.
Challenger David Walker, a Republican, said he believes in fiscally conservative principles. "I don't believe in giving money away," he said. "I believe people should be held accountable." Walker said he believes in strongly in the rights of property owners but the environment should be protected as well. Regarding the developments on Lake James, Walker said the lake should be available to the average citizen.
"I am a conservative," said Republican challenger Mark Cauthen. "The buffer issue to me is a no-brainer. Anytime the government comes in and takes your land, with no compensation, I have a problem with it." He added the commissioners should be commended for turning the Lake James issue over to the county's Planning Board for more study and more regulations.
Michael Lavender, a Republican challenger, said he is a lifelong resident of McDowell who has worked for 4 1/2 years at McDowell Technical Community College. He also works weekends investigating cases of child abuse and neglect for the Department of Social Services.
"I have some qualities that will serve you well as a county commissioner," he said. "Once I form my opinion, it will stay that way."
Dean Hughes, a Republican challenger, said he has been involved with the buffer issue and is a member of the UCRLA. "I am just a regular working guy," he said. "I consider myself a constitutional Republican." He said this means he supports a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
Former Commissioner Larry Seagle, a Republican, said he commended all of the people who came to the forum.
"I approach politics from a common sense perspective," he said. "There are far too many people making a good living on our tax money."
When Seagle previously served on the board, he asked a series of questions to the county's school system about the administration and its use of public resources.
"I found out real fast that the bureaucrats don't like to answer questions, even from a county commissioner," he said.
During the question period, Doris Walston asked Seagle what he plans to do about education in the county.
"One of the things I would like to do is follow the money trail," Seagle said, adding too much money is spent at the administrative level and not in the classroom.
"Getting money to the pupil is primary," he said.
Other commissioners were allowed to answer the question.
"Our children are important in this county and we have got to make sure they have the best tools and equipment," Hughes said.
Lavender said the county and the school system should seek more grants from private foundations in order to make up for less revenue from public sources.
He said McDowell Tech is an important component of the local education system because it trains people for new jobs.
Brenda Hollifield asked if the county could broadcast more public service programs on the local government channel including forums such as this.
Brackett said he would support showing more public service programs if it does not involve additional labor for county employees.
"As long as it is educational, I am in favor of it," he said.
"I think this forum here is a perfect example of what should be on the government channel," Cauthen said.
Shirley Washburn, president of the UCRLA, asked all the candidates if they believe McDowell should go along with the land use plan approved by Burke officials to regulate development on Lake James.
"It will be interesting to see what the (McDowell) Planning Board comes up with," Cauthen said. "Maybe we can find some middle ground."
Lavender said he supports placing a moratorium on new housing developments to allow the Planning Board to come up with new rules.
Hughes said the rights of the property owners on the lake should be respected, too. "They own the land," he said. "It's a fine balance."
Thompson said he wants rules that are defendable and effective.
"Some of the things from Burke County, I agree with," he said. "Some I don't. Some are heavyhanded."
"As long as they keep the lake clean, I don't think they ought to restrict people's property," Haskin said.
Florence Hensley asked the candidates what they would do to bring new jobs to McDowell. Lavender said the county should bring back a full-time economic development director. Currently, County Manager Chuck Abernathy is also the director of the McDowell Economic Development Association.
W.S. Johnson, a UCRLA member, asked all of the candidates to state their party affiliation and their position on the proposed buffers for the Catawba River basin.
After stating their affiliations, all candidates said they are opposed to the proposed buffers.
The candidates were also asked if they would support the videotaping of commission workshops and other public meetings.
Thompson said the board would like to upgrade the video equipment used by the local channel.
Hughes said he supports the videotaping and broadcast of commission workshops and the Planning Board meetings.
"I proposed videotaping the School Board and that caused a lot of gnashing of teeth," Seagle said.