More than 80 people turned out for the Candidate Forum on Monday night featuring the six candidates for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, two for the Board of Education, and one of the two candidates for sheriff.
For the second Forum on Tuesday, more than 50 people turned out to ask questions of the two contenders for the office of county Tax Commissioner, the pose questions to the two candidates for the House District 117 seat, and to hear four incumbent or former state legislators from Oconee County talk about the history of the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax ballot issue. The most pointed exchange on the first night came at the end of the 70-minute session on the BOC races when challenger Chuck Horton explained his complaint about the lack of openness against incumbent BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, and Davis replied.
The second night contained a number of testy exchanges between Doug McKillip and Regina Quick, both seeking to represent the newly created 117th District in the next meeting of the state legislature in January.
McKillip currently holds a seat in a district that was changed as part of redistricting. In the process, three Oconee County precincts were sliced off from the remainder of the county to join the 117th.
In these and other comments both evenings, the candidates were responding to questions asked directly by audience members.
Forums Held at Veterans Park
Both Forums began at 7 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. They were held at the Community Center in Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.
Russ Page, a local civic activist with a particular interest in farmland preservation, served as moderator for most of both sessions, while I kept time and filmed.
We had invited all the candidates in contested races to join in the exchange with citizens in an email message I sent on May 29, a few days after qualifications ended.
The forums also were mentioned prominently in the lead story of The Oconee Enterprise on June 7.
In the case of incumbent Sheriff Scott Berry, I used the email address provided on his web site, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page followed up with a phone call when Berry did not respond.
Berry told us he had some conflicts but was trying to make arrangements so he could attend.
In late morning on July 9, Berry sent Page and me the email message I have copied and pasted below.
“As you know, I have previously scheduled homeowner hosted ‘meet and greets’ scheduled for the these two nights. These supporters have put a lot of effort in making these events happen, and I am committed to attending them.”
Page and I gave all of the 25 minutes set aside for the two sheriff candidates to Trey Downs, the challenger, who did attend.
Clips Selected for Each Candidate
I have included a brief clip here for each of the candidates, just to give a sense of the meetings and of the candidates themselves. Any selection captures only a piece of the action, and I recommend that those who were not at the forums watch them in their entirety.
The exchange between Horton and Davis was in response to a question about the disagreement between them over operation of the Board.
Horton said he worked well with his fellow commissioners, except with Davis, and wanted a more open operation in the future.
Davis said things were open now.
Post 1 Commission candidates Jim Luke and Sarah Bell were asked what could be done to provide tax relief to senior citizens.
Luke, the incumbent, said the county already was doing a lot and hoped to be able to do more.
Bell said she wanted to keep taxes low for all citizens.
One member of the audience wanted to know what the Commission could do to welcome newcomers to Oconee County.
Candidate Tammy Gilland had a long list of suggestions she would like to see implemented if she is elected to Post 4 on the Commission.
Mark Saxon, also seeking Post 4, said he would focus on friendliness in the offices of the county.
Post 4 now is held by Horton.
Each of the candidates was given two minutes before taking questions to introduce herself or himself to the audience.
Mike Hunter, seeking the chairmanship (and Post 1) of the Board of Education, focused on continuity. He currently is on the BOE.
Tom Odum said he would focus on leadership and on bringing people together for the betterment of the school system.
Downs, in his introductory comments in the final session on Monday night, focused on openness and said he would give the citizens the “key” to the sheriff’s office if he is elected
The Tuesday night session gave candidates Pamela Hendrix and Jennifer Riddle a chance to explain the operation of the Tax Commissioner office, now held by Hariette Browning, who is retiring.
Hendrix, a local attorney, said she did not plan to make a lot of changes except those required by law, but she did think it would be good for someone outside the office to take a fresh look at how things could be done.
Riddle, who currently works in the office, agreed with Hendrix that newly enacted state laws on fees for automobile purchases will require changes. She also offered other ideas on changes she would consider.
Citizen Robert Wyatt asked McKillip to explain his role in creation of the new 117th District. In the clip below, McKillip says he is content with the decision to split Oconee County between two districts and that it offers benefits to Oconee County.
Quick, in the same clip, said this wasn’t what Oconee County officials and others said they wanted, and she thought those requests should have been honored.
Page and I invited former Oconee County Rep. Bob Smith, current Sen. Bill Cowsert, McKillip, and current Rep. Chuck Williams to explain why the legislature had decided to ask voters to decide if they wanted a new 1 percent sales tax to fund regional transportation projects. The outcome is the July 31 vote on T-SPLOST.
Smith voted to approve the legislation, but he expressed little enthusiasm for it.
McKillip said he also voted to approve the legislation, but he said he plans to vote against the tax himself.
Williams was not in the legislature when the legislation was passed, and he said he didn’t know if he would have supported it had he been there. But he said he planned to vote for the tax.
Cowsert said the tax was a compromise that passed after several other attempts to create new funding formulas to solve transportation problems failed. Cowsert didn’t say how he planned to vote, but he did say the expectation has been that it would pass in Atlanta and fail in the rest of the state.
All of the candidates and all for of the legislators who spoke are Republicans, and their names will appear on the Republican ballot on July 31. Cowsert and Williams are unopposed, so their names will be on the ballot in November as well.
Early voting already is underway at the Board of Elections office across from the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville.
I have expanded on the summary of the comments made by McKillip regarding redistricting in the version above. McKillip challenged my original summary. I believe this version more accurately reflects what he said in the clip that follows.