The Commission Chair debate was not that different from the Post Two Commissioner debate. Taking place in front of an attentive crowd, each candidate strove to distinguish themselves from their competitors.Some audience members were strictly for a certain candidate, while others came with an open mind, hoping to hear where the candidates stood on certain issues. One audience member, Elizabeth Andrew, was someone who was aware of Commission Chair J.C. Sanford, but was not familiar with the other candidates.
All four debate participants were there, including Danny Hall (current Post Two Commissioner who left his seat open for the Commissioner Chair seat), Charlie Paris, J.C. Sanford (I), and Mark Simmons. Paris highlighted his 35 years in the engineering and IT fields. Sanford referred to his experience running several businesses, and his primary goal is to make life better for the people in Gilmer. Simmons mentioned his family being in Gilmer for generations, and he wants to become more active in the community. Hall wants to see a better Gilmer, and he believed he can do a better job.
Out of all the candidates, it seemed Sanford had the most to lose, and he was on the hot seat throughout much of the debate, especially when the issue of the incessant transfer of SPLOST funds was brought to the forum.
Sanford has stated he was not aware of the previous SPLOST fund transfers, and the money that was being moved around happened before his tenure. Hall, who has served with the Chairman for three years, was someone who came to the Chairman’s defense, believing him to be an honest person. With that being said, the issue of missing SPLOST funds does not reflect well on any Chairman, along with the County as a whole. The Commissioner said the money will be found, and accounting measures needed to be taken to find the lost funds.
In particular, there are $2.04 million in unaccounted SPLOST funds, and the air of confusion over these funds was a bit disconcerting to watch. Furthermore, there was concern among the candidates that the money was not used for its designated purpose. Since this was a debate hosted by the Tea Party of Gilmer County, all of the candidates could have pointed a finger towards entangled bureaucracy as the primary culprit behind the unaccounted funds, along with making a compelling argument for smaller and more efficient government, something that would have resonated with the crowd.
Return of the Five-Man Board
In an effort to increase transparency, Simmons made the strongest announcement, mentioning the idea of Gilmer County possibly going back to a five-man Board of Commissioners. However, Paris opposed the notion, saying a five-man system had not worked previously in Gilmer. A five-man board involves more in the decision-making process, but critics contend that the process is slower in getting things accomplished, along with the fact that Commissioners would have to convince two members to vote on a certain issue, which could be a haven for back-room dealing. But Simmons also wanted to make it clear that his proposal was an idea and would not actually implement the five-man board system.
Gilmer Ball Fields
Simmons also stood out during the debate, believing the money is in place for renovations to ball fields throughout Gilmer, such as fencing and bathroom repairs. When pressed on what was being done to upgrade the fields, Sanford mentioned positive measures, like having the grass sowed three times, but there were setbacks due to the weather. Hall believed the money wasn’t there for repairs, while Paris disagreed, believing a great deal of funds would not be required to manage the fields. There was also a minor disagreement between Hall and Paris over who should foot the bill for the fields. Hall also believed the School Board should collaborate with the County to manage the fields. Paris opposed the idea, believing the interweaving of two government agencies would only be asking for trouble, while Hall believed both entities should work together, since the schools use the fields extensively.
The Golf Course
Another field came up for discussion was the Golf course. A philosophical debate ensued between Paris and Hall over whether or not the county should be in the business of running a golf course. Even though Paris believed the golf course in Gilmer should be leased, and opposes the golf course being managed by Commissioners, he still thought the county should take a more active role by directly profiting from the land. However, Hall countered that the golf course should be left in private hands, and the county should only profit through taxation. Hall directly attacked Paris’ stance, asking “Aren’t you with the Tea Party?” But Paris stilled maintained his position that the county needed the extra revenue.
Planning and Zoning
Besides the philosophical ends of the debate, there was an extensive discussion of Gilmer County’s economic livelihood and future. One of the more interesting parts of the debate was the issue of planning and zoning. Several farmers in Gilmer have wanted to shift the residential R1 zoning to the agricultural-based AG1, much to the chagrin of local residents who prefer a residential atmosphere. All candidates supported intensive farming in some form or another, and this would be a no-brainer, since Gilmer heavily relies on agriculture for revenue. Sanford proudly declared his farmer roots and believes intensive farming must be done for the sake of cash flow. Paris supports intensive farming as well, but emphasized zoned farming, and he would not be in favor of rezoning residential areas. Simmons also believed in certain criteria, and Hall took a more careful approach, abiding by the laws and rendering the best decision based on each circumstance. But the issue of how to get residents and farmers to cooperate with each other was brought to the table, along with drawing in potential residents who are interested in moving to Gilmer.
Another issue where candidates stood out was the issue of three percent raises for county employees. This was one of the more hot-button issues, since it has been seven years since county workers have seen a cost of living increase. When this answer was directed at Hall and Sanford, they had different interpretations of how to further compensate workers. Hall believed in giving workers a three percent raise and/or bonuses to give an incentive for people to stay. Sanford was not receptive to the idea of any type of raise, because of the gap involved for workers with different pay scales. Instead, he proposed to give them a raise of 50 cents to one dollar per hour. Paris was more inclined to give employees a bonus, but only until there is a “better financial picture” in place. Simmons was also in favor of a bonus, a three percent increase across the board, especially during the first week of December as a Christmas gift.
And lastly, on the subject of hiring an Economic Development Director, someone who would promote tourism and business growth in the community, the candidates responded differently as well. In regards to the position being under the authority of the Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development Authority, Hall could go either way, Simmons believed the position should be housed in the Chamber, along with Paris, and Sanford said it would all depend on who the person is, and where the money would come from. There are no real pros and cons of where the position will be housed, but one notable difference is that the Chamber has a more extensive reach into the business community. All agreed that Gilmer County needs a Director to attract the necessary growth.
The Commission Chair debate was filled with plenty of solid information, and viewers got a better sense of who the candidates were as individuals. Early voting in Gilmer County takes place from April 29 to May 16, and Election Day is May 20.