More than 100 people turned out on Thursday night for an election forum in Watkinville that featured a very respectful exchange between incumbent Mayor Dave Shearon and challenger Bob Smith.
Though Smith, a real estate agent and former state representative, has had open disagreements with the Watkinsville Council in recent months regarding development of his property, little of the tension was in evidence on Thursday night, until the very end.
The pair responded to eight different questions posed by citizens during their 45-minute session in the Council Chamber at City Hall in Watkinsville, covering topics from sexual harassment to service to nonprofit organizations.
The differences in responses were more in terms of style and priorities than issue positions.
Also taking questions at the forum were Jonathan Kirkpatrick and a representative for Connie Massey, seeking the Post 2 position on Council.
City Administrator Sharyn Dickerson and Oconee County Director of Elections Fran Leathers closed out the session with a discussion of the Sunday Brunch Alcohol Sales issue that also will be on the Nov. 5 ballot in Watkinsville.
Sarah Bell, Penny Mills and I organized the forum. We have coordinated candidate forums in the county in the past.
None of the three of us lives in Watkinsville, but we do record regularly Watkinsville Council and other meetings in Watkinsville for the Watktinsville Channel of the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.
The city made the Council Chamber available to us for the forum and, consistent with fire marshal requirements, limited the number of people in the Chamber to 74.
At one point during the initial session with Shearon and Smith, I counted more than 30 people standing in the hall outside the Chamber.
I served as moderator of the session, while Bell fielded written questions from citizens and read them to the candidates.
Mills was joined by Ann Hollifield in video recording the sessions. Those videos are below.
Opening Comments Smith
By the flip of a coin, Smith was given the chance to speak first in making his three-minute introductory comments, and he began by saying that “Watkinsville first is my motto.”
“I’m a third generation Watkinsville citizen,” Smith said. “Our family has always been about service--to Watkinsville, Oconee County, and America.”
“I proudly served you in the Georgia General Assembly as your state representative for 12 years,” Smith said, and added that he has operated his business in Watkinville for last 38 years.
Smith stepped down as representative of what was then the 113th House District in 2010. He is a real estate agent.
“I have many dreams, visions and goals on how to move Watkinsville forward,” Smith said.
“We have ideas to relieve traffic gridlock in our town,” Smith continued. “We will demand safety on our streets and in our neighborhoods. We will expect and demand open government and transparency. We will call for wise and responsible spending.”
Near the end of his introductory comments, Smith mentioned that his daughter had her wedding on the grounds of Ashford Manor, owned by Shearon, and said “Thank you very much, sir.”
“It was a pleasure,” Shearon responded.
Opening Comments Shearon
Shearon used his three-minutes of introduction to tell the story of how he and his family moved to Watkinsville from Chicago, where he had been working in advertising and public relations.
“If you had told me 23 years ago that I would be sitting here, I would have thought that you were crazy and I was crazy,” Shearon, serving out his first term as mayor, said.
“We saw this beautiful little property on Main Street in Watkinsville and literally, overnight, took a deep breadth and said, I think we’ve just seen the rest of our lives,” Shearon said.
“We sold our houses, and after seeing Ashford Manor, we were down here in about six months,” Shearon continued. “In eight months, we were renting rooms in the 1893 Victorian Manor House, a house we restored and kept for good use.”
“My mom joined us years later as well, so it was a family commitment to this community,” Shearon said. “We basically gave up our lives and took a look at Watkinsville and decided we wanted to open a small bread and breakfast.”
Drawing on his talents and the talents of his family, Shearon said, “we were able to put together what everybody thought was crazy, a bed and breakfast in downtown Watkinsville in 1997.”
“I love you all, got much more to say, just wanted to let you know I’m happy to be here and really proud,” Shearon said as the timer showed he had used up his allotted three minutes.
Bill Yarbrough, 15 North Main Street, asked the two candidates why they decided to run for mayor.
Shearon said that he was enticed to run because of changes taking place in leadership in the county, “and the idea to be able to combine efficiencies between the county and the city was really an important concept and the opportunity.”
“The other real key factor,” Shearon said, ‘it was a critical time for Watkinsville. There’s towns that are being boarded up. And there’s also towns that are being overcome by development.
“This town could have gone, could go at any time, either way,” Shearon said. “The importance of what Watkinsville is, to find what it is that we can’t give up, to lose what Watkinsville is, maintaining that and clearly institutionalizing it,” were motivations, he added.
“I’m running because I love my home town, third generation home town,” Smith said.
“I want to see things done for the future,” Smith said. “Relieving traffic gridlock, demanding safety on our streets, demanding open government and transparency, calls for wise and responsible funding.”
“We want to set dreams, goals and visions for the future, not today, not tomorrow, but 10, 15, 20 years from now.”
Smith said he would work with his contacts in the Georgia Department of Transportation and with the state Transportation Board to build a bypass to divert truck traffic from downtown Watkinsville.
Lawrence Stueck, 13 South Barnett Shoals Road, asked the two candidates to identify technological system needs of the city.
Smith said he was not able to be precise in answering because he doesn’t know what technologies the city currently is using, but “technology is changing daily.”
“When I was in the legislature I was named the number one guy for entrepreneurship in the technology world because we were outside the box thinking on how to improve traffic flows in downtown Atlanta and across the rest of Georgia,” Smith said.
“We can take that kind of energy and move it into Watkinsville, maybe moving truck traffic around or working to signalize intersections to a better fashion,” he added.
Shearon said one of his major priorities when he took over as mayor was “technological updating.”
“The police cars were sorely ill-equipped,” Shearon said. “We took an inventory of what a well-equipped police car is and what we had. It was extraordinary what the difference was.
“So we have upgraded all of the police cars to some of the latest equipment,” Shearon said, “and we’ve updated a tremendous amount of the administrative systems.”
Kent Chapman, 1080 Skipstone Court, asked: “Have you ever been accused of any acts of sexual harassment?”
“No,” Shearon said. “It is an incredibly important topic these days and one that we all need to be aware of.”
“Another thing that was not really upgraded when I took office were a code of ethics,” Shearon said. “We upgraded many interpersonal codes and procedures and expectations of our employees and reporting structures as well.”
The city upgraded its sexual harassment policy as part of that change, Shearon said, and initiated training programs for police officers.
“In the political arena you get accused of a lot of things,” Smith said, “but I can’t think of any that has accused me of this.”
Lee Morgan, 68 Jackson Street, wanted each candidate to identify three local non-profits he had worked with over the last three years and “describe your personal efforts to further their goals.”
Smith, whose turn it was to go first on this question, said “I’ve been involved in so many things in the last–lifetime. And as I mentioned before, my family, third generation and fourth generation, serves the public and always have and always will.”
He said he has brought a Helen Keller exhibit to the Athens Library and the Watkinsville Library and Morgan County Library.
Smith said he worked to set up the Georgia Commission on Hearing Impaired and then worked the with the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation to provide hearing aids to those who cannot otherwise obtain those devices. Smith said he has lost about 80 percent of his hearing.
Smith said he and his family also work with the local 4-H organizations.
“Our family believes in not just civic service but in giving back in any way we possibly can,” Shearon said.
Shearon said he had hosted numerous fundraisers at Ashford Manor, including for the Oconee County Cultural Arts Foundation,
“Whenever there was a fundraiser at Ashford Manor,” Shearon said, “We never collected a dime. That is what fundraisers are about.”
“We’ve been contributing to ESP for a number of years,” Shearon said. ESP stands for Extra Special People.
Shearon said he and his husband had contributed to Project Safe, the domestic violence non-profit.
Laura Rose, 104 White Street, wanted to know “What role does the mayor play in managing change” and “how does that fit into your vision for Watkinsville?”
|Smith And Shearon|
“We talk about residential change, commercial change, business growth,” Shearon said. “All of those things are measured in monetary terms.
“The quality of life growth and change is something that is not easy to measure,” he said, “but it one of the more important things that we have to make sure that we manage that change and increase those quality of life things on a balance with any of the other things that may be considered more important from a financial standpoint.”
“The first thing I would do,” Smith said, “is to get a handle on what Watkinsville does from the city office. And then set dreams and visions and goals what you want for today, tomorrow, the next year, into the future.”
Smith said “we could do some incredible development” in downtown Watkinsville based on the plan his son, Robert, now an architect, developed as part of his master’s thesis in 2011.
“The mayor needs to guide the town through the monthly meetings, through the annual meetings, with the proper budget, with clear idea on how you’re going to spend the money,” Smith said. “It’s all about the money when you’re sitting in this town Council.”
The sixth question came from Karen Johnson, 1431 Black Ick Road, who asked “How do you handle when a person disagrees with you?”
It was Smith’s turn to respond first, and he said “I assume what we’re talking about is when we come to Watkinsville Town Council meeting with a proposal and there’s a disagreement in the public forum. I think that’s where this question is coming from.”
“You’re looking to see if I disagree all the time,” Smith said. “I don’t disagree all the time. I’m a pretty good guy most of the time. You could never get elected to the Georgia General Assembly for 12 years with 50,000 something people in your district if you were known as a disagree-er all the time.”
“I’ve been known to work things out,” Smith said. “How in the world can you be in the real estate business for 40 years if you can’t work deals out, work disagreements out?”
“We’ve been in the customer service business for 20 years,” Shearon said. “We’ve had over 200,000 people on the property in Ashford Manor. Customer service, a high level of customer service, is also a matter of understanding when people have issues and really deflating issues or coming to a resolution, especially in public circumstances.”
“When anyone comes into City Hall and has an issue,” Shearon said, “it’s a serious one, no matter what.”
“Conflict resolution is just a matter of dignity and respect for the other person, listening and know how to respond,” Shearon said.
“What would you do to increase community involvement, getting involved and keeping citizens informed?” Kathleen McQuiston, 13 South Barnett Shoals Road, asked.
“In the last year and a half we’ve done a tremendous amount to engage and get people involved,” Shearon said, indicating that was one of his goals and one of the goals of Council.
The city has revised its web site and is using its Facebook page to communicate to citizens, Shearon said.
“The transportation study we put together was about connecting, not just place to place, but face to face, and allowing people, or providing places and pathways where people will actually run into each other on the way to the grocery store,” Shearon said.
“They won’t necessarily be in their cars,” he added. “We are planning conversational areas and places along these pathways to make sure people are communicating on a social level.”
Smith called the question “the best question of the night.”
“I’m talking with IT workers, professionals, as I go door-to-door in Watkinsville,” Smith said, “and what I’m asking them if they would help me come up with a way to communicate with all 2,800 people in Watkinsville.”
People don’t even know some of the businesses in the city exist, Smith said.
“We’re going to communicate with everybody in this town, the businesses, every single business in this town, the life blood of this little town, the backbone of this little town, and let them know these businesses are here.”
City And Schools
Ann Woodruff, 35 South Main Street, asked the final question of the session: “How does the city support our public schools?” (Additional questions submitted could not be asked because of the time limitation for the forum.)
|Smith And Shearon And Bell|
“I’m not the mayor or on the Council of the city,” Smith said. “We all support the public schools. We support home schooling. We support the private schools. The better educated children we have the better society is, the better Watkinsville is.
“We clearly support the public schools because my momma taught for 30 years, my sister taught for 30 years, my wife taught for 30 years,” Smith said. “You clearly have to support them because the youth are our future.”
“The one public school we have within the city limits, Colham Ferry, we support in every way we possibly can,” Shearon said.
While it is a county school, Shearon added, the city sends it police to visit and he has spoken there several times.
The city is working on reducing the speed limit during school hours and trying to make the school accessible by bicycles and by walking, Shearon said.
Closing Comments: Mayor
“When I took on this job, I was really not sure what I was headed for,” Shearon said as he began his closing comments. “I knew it was a lot of work. I also knew that it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to get involved.”
|Smith And Shearon|
“We moved from a small town to a medium-sized city,” Shearon said. “We were still acting like a small town, but having the challenges of a city. We have systematically gone through the process of upgrading, looking at all of our systems, to bring it into the 2020 era.”
“As we move forward, there are many, many more goals that we have ahead,” Shearon said.
Shearon said he wants to change the budget process and the way the city handles its savings accounts.
“I have many dreams, visions and goals on how to move Watkinsville forward,” Smith said.
Smith said the city has to relieve traffic congestion, slow down traffic, and build a bypass for trucks to keep them out of the center of the city.
Smith returned to his call for transparency, but this time, he was more pointed.
“We’ve got to expect and demand open government and transparency,” Smith said. “ When you ask a question of the government here in Watkinsville, you shouldn’t have to write a question to open records request.”
“You should be able to go to your city government and mayor and Council and get questions, and the last thing you should do when you leave the mayor’s office is shake their hand.”
Council Post 2 Introduction: Massey
Mark Benson, son-in-law of Massey, read her introductory comment. Massey had indicated in advance she would be out of the state visiting her mother when the forum took place.
Benson said he sees Massey “as kind of the woman who’s a flag bearer for the citizens of Oconee County. She’s for the speed limit stuff. She’s for those kinds of things. She’s for the preservation of downtown as we know it. She’s lived here since 1985.”
“It has been a wonderful place to live and raise her daughter,” Benson said, reading from Massey’s statement. “She’s also enjoyed being close to her grandchildren watching them progress through the Oconee County School system.
“She said she has seen a lot of changes in our city over the last 34 years,” Benson continued. “She knows it is still a wonderful place to live and raise a family and she hopes the community will continue to focus on keeping the city clean, safe, and enjoyable for the residents and visitors.
“And I do want to say,” Benson said, “she really regrets (not) being here tonight. Her mother is 90 years old and lives in St. Louis and she is visiting up there with her near the end of her life.”
Council Post 2 Introduction: Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick said he and his wife have been residents of Christian Lake subdivision in Watkinsville for almost 15 years.
Kirkpatrick noted that he is vice-chair of the Watkinsville Harris Shoals Park Advisory Committee and is a member of the Watkinsville Transportation Advisory Committee.
“While serving in these roles,” Kirkpatrick said, “I became interested in playing a larger role for the city and knew that I could more positively impact the city as an elected representative than I could in my current roles.
“I am not an advocate for change,” Kirkpatrick said. “I am an advocate for managing the inevitable change that is coming to Watkinsville in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
“I’m particularly interested in finding solutions to the mounting congestion problems within Watkinsville,” Kirkpatrick said. “Working with city, county and state officials, I will strive not only to implement not only the recommendations of the city’s funded transportation study, which will be finalized shortly, but to find forward-thinking solutions to our traffic woes.”
Kirkpatrick said he will see grants for sidewalks, trails and neighborhood greenways and find a way to make Watkinsville parks accessible “for all members of the community.”
Only two member of the audience submitted written questions for Kirkpatrick and Massey.
Karen Lange, 1270 Simonton Drive, asked Kirkpatrick and Benson for their position on the recommendations for sidewalks in the recent city transportation study.
“As a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee,” Kirkpatrick said, “I always support sidewalks, greenways, neighborhood greenways, rails to trails, and other methods of bringing our community together.
“I would really like to see Watkinsville go back to a simpler time,” Kirkpatrick continued. “The changes that I would like to make would be changes that would bring the citizens of Watkinsville together so that we could walk to downtown, ride our bikes to downtown, ride our bikes to Athens, for that matter, if we want to.
“I want people to be able to get together without having to get into their cars,” Kirkpatrick said.
Sidewalks are expensive, costing about $1 million per mile, Kirkpatrick, so he said it would be necessary to seek out grants to make it possible for the city to build what sidewalks are needed.
“I’ll speak to Connie’s heart on this,” Benson said. “I know that she lives downtown...I know that she is a proponent of sidewalks. I know that she is fiscally responsible.”
“I know that she would fight to have them in the proper places where they are necessary rather than not-necessary,” Benson added.
Communication With Citizens
Carolyn Maultsby, 1050 Taylors Drive, asked if the candidates intended to communicate with “every citizen of Watkinsville by mail detailing the spending of each of the proposed $4.7 million in capital projects and ask for feedback for committing any funds?”
Benson said he could not speak to the specifics of the question “but I know that Connie has an open door policy. I know that she will meet with anybody anywhere anytime. She served three terms here in the city Council and she is committed to this town. And she is committed to the citizens.”
“I honestly haven’t thought about communicating with every citizen by mail,” Kirkpatrick said. “I understand that there are a lot of citizens that don’t use the Internet, that don’t use social media.”
“I think it is incumbent upon the city to let the citizens know how they plan to spend the money,” Kirkpatrick said. “In particular, the SPLOST money. The taxes that you voted for. I think it is imperative that we allow public input.”
SPLOST stands for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Morgan, 68 Jackson Street, asked from the audience for Kirkpatrick to elaborate on grants for the bikes and pathways. Kirkpatrick explained efforts to find pathways into the city’s parks.
Another person, who did not identify herself, asked about integration of new development into the community.
Kirkpatrick said new residences and businesses will include sidewalks.
Closing Comments From Kirkpatrick And Massey
“If there is anything I want you to take away from this forum, it is this,” Kirkpatrick said at the beginning of his closing comments. “As your future councilman, I am committed to listening to all of you, not just the people who are outspoken.
“I will assess both sides of every issue, draw my own conclusions, and make all decisions with the best interest of our community in mind,” he continued.
“When I am elected, I will be available to you via multiple means, in person, by telephone, electronic messaging, email, and social media. I will keep you informed of the Council’s work, insuring transparency of our actions.
“Most importantly, I will be responsive to you,” Kirkpatrick said.
“Connie has an open door policy,” Benson said. “She lives in downtown Watkinsville. Would love to discuss any of these issues with you personally.
“I invite you to reach out to her to do that,” Benson said. “If you want her number, I’ll be standing over there and you can get it from me.”
Dickerson And Leathers
City Administrator Dickerson introduced Oconee County Director of Elections Leathers at the beginning of the final section of the Forum.
|Dickerson And Leathers|
Leathers reminded those gathered that the Annex and City Hall precincts have been combined and all voting on Nov. 5 for the city elections will be at City Hall.
Early voting, which will be at the Board of Elections and Registration office, will begin on Oct. 14 and run for three weeks. There will be no Saturday early voting. The final day for registration is tomorrow (Oct. 7).
On Oct. 1, 2,208 persons were registered to vote in the city elections, Leathers said.
Dickerson said that the General Assembly in March passed what is commonly known as the Sunday Brunch Bill.
That bill allows the city to ask its citizens if they want to authorize the city government to change the hours when restaurants can sell alcohol on Sunday.
The Watkinsville Council has put the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot, and voters will be asked to approve or disapprove of the initiative.
If voters approve, the Council will be able to allow restaurants to begin selling alcohol at 11 a.m. on Sundays, rather than the current 12:30 p.m.
The two videos below are of the forum. I edited out a small part of the beginning of the videos when I was not able to get the microphone I was holding to work. Otherwise, the video shows everything that took place.
Ann Hollifield recorded the first video below, from the rear of the room. Penny Mills recorded the second video, from a side of the room.
I had originally intended Mills’ video to be a backup, but I decided to edit and upload both, since they were available.
Smith began his introductory comments at 6:18 in the video.
Shearon began his introductory comments at 9:37.
The first question, on the reason for running for mayor, starts at 12:52 in the video.
Second question on technology begins at 17:27.
The third question on sexual harassment begins at 22:01.
The fourth question on non-profits begins at 24:08.
The fifth question on managing change starts at 30:00.
The sixth question on disagreement starts at 34:31.
The seventh question dealing with community involvement is at 39:32.
The question on the schools is at 44:27.
Closing comments start for Shearon and Smith start at 47:27.
Opening comments for Massey begin at 55:51.
Kirkpatrick began his introductory comments at 57:42.
Kirkpatrick and then Benson responded to the question on sidewalks, beginning at 1:01:24 in the video.
Kirkpatrick and Benson responded to the question on communication at 1:03:17.
Closing comments by Kirkpatrick and Benson begin at 1:10:44 in the video.
Dickerson and Leathers began speaking at 1:12:51.