Nine of 12 candidates running for Ashe Board of Commissioner seats were in attendance at Faith Fellowship Church in Jefferson to offer their reasons for running for one of three open seats on the board.
In attendance were: Richard Blackburn, Larry Dix, Cabot Hamilton, Dan McMillian, Judy Porter Poe, Michael Pruitt, Bruno Richardson, Jeff Rose and Majorie Shinkle. Candidates running that did not attend were: Lynn Graham, Gerald Price and William Sands.
Despite the wintery weather conditions, an audience of approximately 40 people filled the church to hear the candidates speak on issues and answer questions from members of the audience.
The forum was sponsored by We the People of Ashe County, a consevative organization which is loosely affiliated with the “Tea Party” movement. Graham Caddell, of local radio station WKSK, was the moderator for the forum.
This forum comes before the May 6 Primary, when the field will be cut in half. Early voting will take place from Thursday April 24, through Saturday, May 3 at the Ashe County Courthouse and Fleetwood Fire Department.
As the forum began, each candidate was given five minutes to talk about themselves, their beliefs and the changes they wanted to bring to the county. Afterward, three questions from the audience were presented to all of the candidates at the meeting.
Shinkle was the first speaker. She is a Pennsylvania native and wants to focus on economic development and have the county’s workforce better serve industry.
“One of the reasons I am running is I feel like the voices here are unheard,” she said. “I want to hear their voices and make the choices from that.”
Next was McMillian, the county’s former manager and an Ashe County native. McMillian focused on economic development, as well as tourism in the county, but feels there needs to be changes in the county.
“I feel good about what has happened in the county in the past,” he said. “I don’t think we are doing everything we should be doing for economic development and education for the county as a whole.”
Pruitt was next, and is an Ashe County native and veteran of the U.S. Navy. He focused on the strides the county has made in tourism through their promotion of festivals and businesses, but thinks all parts of the county should have those benefits.
“Jefferson, West Jefferson and Lansing have made great strides in the previous years,” he said. “Now it is time for other parts of the county to be noticed.”
Next was Poe, the only incumbent who was at the forum. Poe focused on the board’s work of providing money to Lansing for its park expansion as well as working to expand the Ashe County Airport. Still, she mentioned the main focus of the county should be jobs.
“I have found that we all have the same problem, and that is needing jobs,” she said. “(We need) jobs that will allow citizens to make a decent living.”
After Poe, was Blackburn who served 33 years in Ashe County as a principal and a teacher. In addition, he has served two terms as a commissioner.
“The work that commissioners do is complicated and it is serious work,” he said. “Not only do commissioners need to be informed on the regulatory and statutory issues […] but also it is important when they have to make those tough decisions, they intepret them to the public.”
Next was Richardson, who works in the community as a coach and focused on Ashe County needing to have jobs.
“I have been raised here and I love Ashe County, that’s the reason I am running,” he said. “We need to entice businesses to come here, because it is a great place to live.”
The next speaker was Dix, who works as a graduation coach at Ashe County High School. He said he would base his decisions on the county’s residents, the issues and what he feels is right, rather than politics.
“I am running for county commissioner because I am concerned where Ashe County is heading or not heading,” he said. “I think Ashe County needs a vision. People without a vision will perish.”
Rose, West Jefferson’s Police Chief, was the next speaker. He said Ashe County needed to have more transparency within its government.
“I want to bring accountability to the board of Ashe County,” he said. “By that, (I mean) if we say or do something, we have it out in the open.”
The final candidate introduced was Hamilton, the executive director for the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce. Hamilton said he is not a poltician, but a businessman with over 50 years of experience.
“We have got to find a way to get more jobs in the county,” he said. “Too many people are unemployed and there are too many families that are hurting.”
The first question asked was about education, and more specificially, Common Core. The Common Core objectives are handed down by the federal and U.S. state governments, meaning the Board of Commissioners have little to no say on its future.
Most responses had an emphasis of saying the Board of Commissioners had no say about the changes.
“As county commissioner, there is not too much we can do about it,” Poe said. “As voters, parents and grandparents, we can make changes.”
McMillian said Common Core implementation should be handled closer to home, but should be done through the local Board of Education. Dix said “Education starts at home.”
Candidate Rose said Common Core is state mandated.
“The county commissioners won’t be able to change it,” he said.
The next question was about how the candidates see Ashe County heading into the “22nd Century.”
Most responses involved economic development, education and promoting industry. Hamilton said there was a plan already underway, similar to Caldwell County, where they are trying hard to promote the county. Still it would not happen overnight.
“It’s OK to say you want to see Ashe County grow, but you have got to have a plan,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by just talking about it.”
Pruitt said he would like to see Ashe County grow through incubation and entrepreneurship in the county.
“I would like to see Ashe County grow from within,” he said.
Blackburn said the county needs to keep its rural charm intact. In addition, he placed an emphasis on vocational education and quality of life infrastructure, such as parks and recreation.
The final question was on the topic of transparency, and all candidates expressed support for an open government, as well as having an open door policy on why items were voted on, how they were voted on and what it would mean for the county.
In addition, Richardson said the public’s input is just as important as the commissioners’ votes.
“I think when the major issues come up, we need more responses from the public,” he said.
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.