Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Oconee County Republican Candidates In May Primary Introduce Themselves At Party Forum, Talk About Their Goals If Elected

***Transparency At School Board Discussed***

The Oconee County Republican Party assembled 17 candidates on the stage at The Barn at Hadden Estate on Monday with the assignment that each spend five minutes answering questions from WGAU News Director Tim Bryant.

All of the candidates except incumbent Probate Court Judge Mike Hunsinger are running in the Republic Party Primary on May 21. Hunsinger is running unopposed on the nonpartisan judicial ballot.

Five of the remaining 16 candidates are running without opposition in the Republican Primary, but three of those five have Democratic opposition in November.

Seven of the 11 candidates with opposition are competing for three seats on the Board of Education, and four are seeking spots on the Board of Commissioners.

Bryant did not ask a standard set of questions of all of the candidates, but he did ask the Board of Education candidates to comment on what he called an issue of transparency at the Board of Education.

The only strong audience reaction during the evening came when Sheriff James Hale criticized incumbent Democrat District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez and Bryant recognized Kalki Yalamanchili, who has qualified to run as an Independent against Gonzalez in November.

Yalamanchili was in the audience seeking the signatures he needs to have his name on that November ballot.

First Four Candidates

Bryant asked Hunsinger, the first of the six unopposed candidates, “Pretend I don’t know anything about a Probate Judge does. What is a Probate Judge, what does he or she do?”

Hunsinger (left) And Bryant As Forum Gets Underway

“Our office is a catchall for the court system,” Hunsinger responded, “but primarily the Probate Judge, our mission is to preserve families and to help protect their futures.”

Bryant asked incumbent Coroner Ed Carson, unopposed in May and in November, “to tell me about the job.”

“One of the main tasks we do is certify and do death certificates,” Carson said. He said he also works with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as needed.

Incumbent Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle, running unopposed in May and November, said most people “see our office about twice a year. They come and pay their property tax and they come and get their (automobile) tag.”

Incumbent Clerk of Courts Angie Elder-Johnson said “we handle your real estate property, we do all the Superior Court civil and criminal filings, we do Magistrate Court civil and criminal filings, we do Juvenile Court civil filings, we handle plats, and just different things like that.”

Elder-Johnson has no opposition in the Republican Party Primary on May 21, but Laura King has qualified as a Democrat, without Party support, and is unopposed in May so will be on the ballot against Elder-Johnson in November.

Bryant didn’t acknowledge the Democratic opposition, and Elder-Johnson didn’t correct him.

Sheriff Hale

Sheriff Hale told Bryant his goal for the next four years is “just to continue to try to provide professional law enforcement service that we’ve tried to do for the last three years.”

“I got into public safety just because I felt the need to contribute to society as a law enforcement officer,” Hale said.

“I’ll drag you into a bit of local controversy here,” Bryant said. “It’s documented now. You put yourself out there. You are not a fan of the district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, who is running for another term. Why? You don’t have opposition yourself. What are you going to be doing about that race?”

“Well, I mean, Tim, here’s the thing,” Hale said. “It is hard to do a law enforcement officer’s job when you make arrests and nothing happens from there.”

“So it is one of those things where we can take the crime off the streets, but if we’re not putting them into prison or they’re being punished in a proper way, then we’re going to be dealing with them again,” he continued.

“And the next time we encounter that person it may be a more violent encounter. And I don’t want my deputies to have to go through that on a daily basis, so I’m really hoping that we can get some things changed,” Hale said.

Bryant called out Yalamanchili in the audience, saying “we’ll see how that one plays out in November, producing a loud response of approval from the audience.

Hale does not have opposition in the May Republican Primary, but Reginald Wade has qualified to run unopposed for Sheriff in the Democratic Primary, so he and Hale will meet up in November. Wade is running with Democratic Party support.

Commissioner Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas also does not have opposition the May 21 Republican Primary, but Suzannah Heimel has qualified as a Democrat in the May 21 Democratic Party Primary, without opposition and without Party support. So she and Thomas will meet in November.

Bryant asked Thomas to talk about how the Board makes zoning decisions.

Thomas said many decisions the Board makes are restricted by the laws governing zoning.

“There’s certain avenues, as far as a rezone, that you have to look at from the legal side of it, and so you really don’t have a lot of variance.”

Thomas told Bryant he would like to continue working on broadband service as well as simple cell service, particularly in the south of the county, if he is re-elected to the Commission.

“Most people don’t have a land line any more,” he said. “Everybody has a cell phone in their pocket. And if you can’t call out if you have an emergency, then that’s a problem,” Thomas said.

Post 5 BOE

Bryant next turned to Post 5 on the Board of Education, with candidates Stephen Aleshire and Brock Toole competing for the Republican Party nomination. Katie Green is running unopposed for the Democratic Party nomination, with party support.

Aleshire said he decided to run because “I want to answer some problems that I perceive to be in the Board of Education.”

He said he wanted to “emphasize academics over rote SAT scores.”

“The School Board right now is very translucent,” he said. “It is not transparent whatsoever.”

“The School Board should be overseeing the superintendent,” Aleshire said. “But I think the roles have been flipped here.”

“We have a great school system,” Toole said. But his experience as a former Assistant Superintendent and Chief Operations Officer for Oconee County Schools tells him “that even with a great school system there are things that we could do better.”

“I think a well rounded student makes a much better adult,” he said. “I think we do a lot of good service work. We have a lot of good kids. We have great families here in our county. But I believe we can do a better job for every student.”

“I believe the Board’s transparent,” Toole said when asked by Bryant, “but there’s a whole lot of information to disseminate and put out to everyone...Communication here can always get better.”

Post 4 BOE

Bryant turned to Post 4 on the Board of Education, being vacated in December by Board Member Tim Burgess. Three Republicans are seeking that party’s nomination, and Sheri Ward Long qualified, without party support, to run as a Democrat.

Andy Pippin said a “good school system, as part of a good community, is extremely important to me.”

“I can bridge this perceived gap between the community and the School Board,” he said. “Perception is reality for whoever is perceiving that,” he said.

“I want to make sure that folks feel heard when they come to express an opinion,” he said.

Russell Toms said he decided to run for the Board of Education because “I just care, at a very, very high level, about the education, and the athletics, and the lives of our children.”

“We have a very unique situation in our county with a fantastic school system and I want to make sure that it continues to improve and stays the best school system in the state of Georgia,” he said.

“I’ve always felt that the School Board was transparent,” Toms said. “To be honest, I think it’s a small minority of our population that thinks that our School Board is not transparent.”

Adam Hammond said he got into the race “because I feel like I have a unique perspective and experience that can have a positive impact on our students and schools and really elevate what our school system is doing while also being thoughtful about the money that we’re spending from our taxpayers.”

“I’m an eighth generation Oconee Countian,” he said. “If I’m elected to the School Board, I’ll be the only School Board Member who is a product of Oconee County Schools.”

“I believe whether there’s a transparency issue or not,” Hammond said in response to Bryant, “if there’s a perception of a transparency issue, there’s an issue. So if we’re already talking about it, there’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Post 1 BOE Chair

Michael Ransom, currently holding Post 5 on the Board of Education, decided to run for Post 1, the Board Chair, when current Board Chair Kim Argo decided not to seek re-election. Joyce Reifsteck has qualified to run in the Republican Primary as well. No Democrat has filed for the position.

At the request of the School Board, Rep. Marcus Wiedower and Rep. Houston Gaines, who represent Oconee County in the General Assembly, introduced legislation that will put on the November ballot a referendum that would have the effect of cancelling the election of the chair.

Neither of the candidates mentioned the referendum directly, and Bryant didn’t ask about it.

Reifsteck said as she began her comments that she didn’t chose to run for the Board of Education because she wanted to be chair. “I wanted to run for School Board,” she said.

“Oconee County has such great schools,” she said. “We have fantastic teachers. We have parents who are involved. We have kids who really work hard and excel.”

Reifsteck said she has been talking with citizens, and “When people talk about interacting with the School Board, they use words like arrogant, self-important, detached, and secretive. And I think those words should be replaced with words like humble, unpretentious, caring, transparent.”

In response to a question from Bryant, Ransom said “the chair works closely with the superintendent to set the agenda, and kind of works as a liaison between the rest of the Board and the superintendent.”

Bryant asked Ransom to respond to the charge that the School Board isn’t transparent, and Ransom said “We could do a better job on not just communicating but explaining what we are communicating. There’s times that we put out a lot of information and maybe don’t explain some of the finer line items.”

“I talk to the county commission guys fairly often about different things,” Ransom told Bryant when he asked about the relationship between the two boards. “That’s definitely a close relationship. It could always be better. I don’t think there’s an issue with it right now.”

Post 4 Board Of Commissioners

Victoria Cruz and incumbent Mark Saxon have qualified to run for the Republican Party nomination for Post 4 on the Board of Commissioners. No Democrat has qualified for to run for the seat.

Bryant asked Cruz why she decided to run for the county Commission, and she said “I did not get involved in government at all until 2020. Anybody can attach any significance they want to to that. A lot happened to us in 2020. The pandemic hit. The summer of love hit. And then our election.”

“I’m definitely worried about food security for the county,” Cruz said. “There is a lot of farmland being developed now and I wish it wouldn’t be. I wish more people were involved in farming.”

“I want our county to see that it not important to get the next flyover,” she continued. “It is not important to build the next shopping center. It is important to look at what’s happening around the world and prepare this county to withstand it.”

Bryant asked Saxon “what are you supposed to be doing” as a commissioner, and Saxon said “policy making, budgeting to make sure the money is spent fiscally responsible, and zoning, to keep the impact on the school system down as well as the community as a whole.”

On zoning, Saxon said “We do our due diligence to make sure we are looking at everything that’s good for the community or if its something that is the character of the Comp(rehensive) Plan.”

“I want the citizens to know that I enjoy doing this job, that I enjoy representing them, and that I’m going to go out and do the best I can to show you that I still want the job,” Saxon said.

Chair Board Of Commissioners

Pam Hendrix has qualified to run in the Republican Primary on May 21 against incumbent John Daniell. No Democrat will be on the ballot on May 21 or in November.

Bryant told Hendrix she was “asking these people and the folks listening, you are asking them to fire John Daniell and hire you. Why? What’s the case for each of those things.”

Hendrix said the county didn’t need a full-time Board of Commissioners Chair and a full-time County Administrator. “I’m pledging to not take a full-time chair,” she said.

“I’m a taxpayer,” she said, “and I’m seeing government budgets balloon in recent years. It just seems like the spending is out of control. I think we’ve just got to rein it back.

She said she wants the Board of Commissioners to have a financial report given to it monthly. “It’s taxpayer money,” she said. “We’ve got to get away from thinking it belongs to the Board of Commissioners.”

Bryant asked Daniell to respond to Hendrix’ comment that the Chair should not be full-time, and Daniell said “I had the same misconceptions too at some point in my life.”

“I even ran on a campaign similar to what Pam’s talking about going to a part-time chairman,” he said. Daniell challenged then Chair Melvin Davis in 2004. “I was beaten very well on that,” Daniell said.

He said he works with state and regional relationships and oversees the county administrator. The administrator handles the day-to-day operation of the county.

Mission: TimPossible Podcast

Tammy Gilland, secretary of the Oconee County Republican Party, said after the forum on Monday that 91 people signed in as they entered The Barn, including the 17 candidates.

The excerpts above are intended to provide a summary of the key points made by each of the candidates, but they do not reflect the full range of comments the candidates made in their conversations with Bryant.

The Oconee County Republican Party does not allow video or audio recording of its meetings and forums, but the forum on Monday was live streamed on WGUA, and Bryant has put the recording of the forum on his Mission: TimPossible podcast site.

The audio has a slight delay at the front, and the actual meeting doesn’t begin until 1:12 in the audio. Shortly after that, Bryant began his interview with Hunsinger.

The annotation below is intended to allow interested readers to find the section of the audio of interest.

Bryant finished his conversations with the first four candidates at 20:05 in the audio and turned to Sheriff Hale.

Mark Thomas joined Bryant at the front of the stage for his interview at 23:35 in the audio.

Aleshire came forward to speak with Bryant at 28:52 in the audio and was followed by Toole.

Bryant turned to Post 4 on the Board of Education at 41:39 in the audio, with candidates Pippin, Toms, and Hammond, in that order.

Reifsteck began speaking at 1:01:04 and was followed by Ransom.

Cruz came forward to meet with Bryant at 1:13:53. She was followed by Saxon.

Pam Hendrix began her interview with Bryant at 1:28:56. John Daniell followed.

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Dan Magee said...

Brock Toole and Russell Toms, if y'all think the BOE is transparent, I openly and directly question y'all's judgement.

-For years the BOE meetings have been held in a small room. Not a coincidence.
-For years the majority of the meetings are awards, recognitions, recaps, etc., etc.
-Stream the darn meetings live. And post all past meetings on YouTube or online. It's 2024.
-It's difficult for a resident, parent, etc. to address the board on a non-agenda item.
-The Board of Commissioners holds quarterly town halls (and yes they occasionally get feisty).
The BOE does not. The BOC has invited the BOE to hold a joint town hall, but it's a consistent hard NO from from the BOE.
-The BOE never ever responds to a public speaker at a meeting, no matter how compelling the speaker. Unless Tim Burgess wants to make a brief snarky indirect comment.
-When Lee Becker and others file an Open Record request, the fee is high and/or the records are deemed non-disclosable.
-Occasionally a BOE member will speak at an OC Repub meeting, but not often, and never ever will one speak at an OC Dem meeting. Big props for John Daniell for speaking at a Dems meeting.
-Never ever ever will a BOE member disagree at a meeting, even mildly, with Branch or a fellow BOE member. 100% Party Line. It strains credulity that the five BOE members are 100% lockstep with Branch and each other and there is never even a slight disagreement.
-How transparent for the BOE to have two items on the fall ballot for voters, but not a separate vote for each; they are bundled together...???

C'mon Toole and Toms. Be independent. Be forthright. Ask the hard questions. Y'all can do better.

Harold Thompson said...

Not bringing up the ballot question on whether voters can pick the BOE chair is moderator malpractice.

Shaking my head on any BOE candidate that downplays the lack of transparency by the Board

Laura King said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Magee's comment. A new day is here, as evidenced by the opposition of the three BOE seats, the three BOC seats, and the Clerk of Court races.

Laura King