Audience Asks Direct Questions of Oconee Candidates at Third Political Forum
TSPLOST, economic growth, transparency and increasing academic excellence were among the topics discussed Monday at Oconee Veteran's Park.
Candidates for the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Commission Posts 1 and 4, School Board Chairman and Sheriff elaborated on their platforms and addressed resident concerns Monday night at Oconee Veteran's Park's Community Center.
The political forum, one of two this week, allowed residents to ask the candidates questions directly in an open forum. It was organized by citizens Lee Becker and Russ Page, and attended by more than 100 people.
"This is a citizens' forum. Set up by citizens, for citizens." Page said at the onset. "You ask the questions."
See video of the entire forum, including candidate introductions, by visiting the Oconee County Observations Vimeo account.
During the commissioners' portion, citizens asked about economic growth and the Transportation Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST).
Educator Sarah Bell, challenging incumbent Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke, was the only candidate to say she would vote against TSPLOST.
"I'm the one up here who's going to be brave enough to say no," Bell said. "It's a very bad bill. If you read it, you know that. A lot of people don't know anything about it. I heard on a local radio station that it was a one penny tax. It's a one percent tax, and it's on almost everything. So every business will paying one percent more on everything they buy, and you all will be paying one percent more on everything you buy."
Incumbent Chairman Melvin Davis said the legislation would be beneficial because Oconee would be a "receiver" county, and said he thought it was strange that some have said they don't like TSPLOST but would vote for it.
"I think it's awfully strange when our legislators pass a bill and then say it's not a good bill and they're opposed to it," Davis said. "The short version is, we're going to get $75 million worth of projects in Oconee County that was supported by the Board of Commissioners. To get that $75 million worth of products, we will raise $45 million."
Then came questions about transparency and unity among the Board of Commissioners. Current Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton, running against Davis for Chairman, said he and other commissioners voted to take away some of Davis' powers because trust had been lost.
"I have to work with Jim (Luke), John (Daniels), and Margaret (Hale) all the time. There’s no escaping. And I think if you elect me Chairman, that will continue. You will know my vote," Horton said. "When we took the vote back in August to remove those powers it was because we were losing trust. I think there’s no building of trust. The trust is already there. I’ll do that just like I do now. And I don’t think it’s that difficult. I really don’t."
Davis responded by saying his door was always open, and if someone told him something in confidence, he would keep that confidence.
"I thought it was interesting that my opponent said he had communicated with the other commissioners," Davis said. "I wish he had said the same of the fourth one. That's me. My door's open. Always has been. Always will be."
School Board Chairman candidates retired principal Tom Odom and current Board member Mike Hunter fielded questions on increasing academic excellence and improving disability services.
When a citizen asked how disability programs for disadvantaged or chronically ill kids could be improved, Odom said hiring the correct teachers was the best way to see increased performance among students.
"There's no better key for a program than the hiring of the right teachers and the right director," Odom said. "Each classroom is run by a special ed teacher that is responsible for each and every child. So I can't tell you from a global viewpoint, but I can tell you that's a goal for this administration."
Hunter echoed Odom's statements, and said he believes that the board is moving in the right direction with the introduction of Jason Branch as superintendent.
"We want to make sure that we have the right people in the right seat on the bus, and we feel very strongly that we're headed in that direction," Hunter said. "We just hired a director of federal programs of Title 1, 2 and 3 to support the teachers in special ed programs and any other programs. So again, we're working hard to support that."
Closing the forum, Snellville Police Sgt. Trey Downs discussed the methods he would use to cut what he said was unnecessary spending in the Sheriff's Office. Incumbent Sheriff Scott Berry was absent due to a scheduling conflict with a meet and greet event he said was planned prior to the forum.
"I can tell you that I studied the Sheriff's budget," Downs said. "I'm asked constantly about personnel issues. Personnel issues are hard to address until you're behind the desk. But let me address some other issues in the budget. The sheriff's office budget makes up 29 percent of the operating funds of the general budget. That's a very large responsibility. I can tell you the Sheriff's Office has not made some of the same sacrifices as other departments."
Rumors that he would be replacing deputies in Oconee County are unfounded, Downs said, adding that personnel contracts protected deputies' jobs.
Downs also took issue with crime statistics he said had been released by the Sheriff's Office, alleging some of the numbers might not accurately reflect crime rates in the county.
"Since 1993, crime has risen," Downs said. "And for five years out of the 20 years, [the current administration] didn't report all 12 months. One year they only reported one month. What you're going to get out of me is the truth. What's on this piece of paper doesn't mean anything. It's a piece of paper. But what comes out of my mouth is the truth."
On Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office released documents containing crime stats for 2012 on its Facebook Page.
For more election coverage, see Elections 2012.