The 20-Year Epic Debate: Extensive Planet Coverage of an Extensive Thursday Night



The library was packed Thursday night for KWN's candidate debate. The crowd thinned out some as the debate pushed four hours, then dragged it behind.

At Thursday night’s local candidate debate, held at the Dade Public Library by local news station KWN, incumbent Scottie Pittman answered a question about term limits: “I think if you serve 20 years they should build a statue of you.” After Thursday night, a good number of candidates, audience members and let us not omit the long-suffering press may feel deserving of statuary as well.

Dade is a residually rural county that eats its supper early and goes to bed with its chickens. The April 19 debate was an endurance marathon that had participants dining at midnight and chickens sleeping alone. Eyes glazed over and might have, had it not been for the coffee graciously provided by library staff, squeezed shut entirely before the debate, which began at 6:30 p.m., finally wound down at quarter of 11. Two-hundred-fifty-five minutes does not add up to 20 years, but throw in hunger and fatigue and there should be at least a bust on a pedestal in there somewhere.

Lest The Planet seem to complain, though, let it be noted that the debate was put on as a community service by the news station and hosted as a community service by the library. Admission was free. So was the coffee. Anyway, local candidates had few enough opportunities for politicking before the debate; they may now feel they’ve knocked it all out at one whack.

If you’d like to watch the entire thing, KWN has posted on its FB page the live-streamed video, also as a community service. Here’s a link:

https://www.facebook.com/724413344359369/videos/1278402298960468.

But readers may want to check popcorn levels, ice down some more Pepsi, and maybe nip out for a preemptive urination before settling down in front of the screen.

The event, which was emceed by Chris Goforth, was not really so much a debate among the candidates as a forum in which each candidate answered questions submitted by the public. A good many questions. Some got better responses than others, and some such served to illustrate what issues were non-issues. The term-limit question, for example, turned out to be a nonstarter. A candidate here and there bit: Patrick Hickey, a candidate for District 1 commissioner allowed he believed in term limits. But most agreed with the statement, “We have term limits; they’re called ‘elections,’” made by Lamar Lowery, who is running for the District 1 seat that he held for eight years before being “term-limited” in 2010 by a successful challenge from Mitchell Smith.


Arming teachers was another dog. It gave Colton Moore (left), who is challenging John Deffenbaugh for the District 1 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, an opening for an affectionate quip about not trusting his English teacher with a gun, reminding the audience that the 24-year-old Moore’s English teacher probably still remembers which seat he sat in, and that it’s probably still warm.

But mostly candidates hemmed and hawed with the same polite caution exhibited by the sheriff and schools superintendent when the subject comes up. Only Ronald Baldwin, the plainspoken Democratic challenger for Dade's District 1 Board of Education seat seemed to speak his mind: “That’s the most ludicrous idea ever,” he said. “I think it’s crazy. At the rate we’re going in 20 years it’ll be the old West.”

Which brings us to the B of E candidates. The April 19 debate started with them, and we might as well here, too.


Dist. 1 school board candidates, from left, Cindy Shaw, Daniel Case and Ronald Baldwin

Cindy Shaw, the District 1 incumbent, is challenged in May by fellow Republican Daniel Case and in November by Ron Baldwin. Ms. Shaw was able to brag about reducing the board’s budget deficit, about beefing up security in the schools and about hiring the system’s current popular superintendent two years ago. Case, the hardware store proprietor whose wife is a teacher, presented himself as a moderate voice for change, interested in bringing to Dade students the scholarships he’s seen rained down on the heads of kids in adjoining counties.

And then there’s Democrat Baldwin, who introduced himself as a frank outsider, representing those shunned by the system because they may have the wrong last name or the wrong address. “I’m running so a group of people who are never heard will have a chance,” he said.

For District 2, incumbent Jennifer Hartline, a young mother and a realtor, is challenged by Larry Williams, a retired teacher and agricultural missionary. They were asked the same questions with much the same results, agreeing there’s never quite enough schools can do for school security and there’s never quite enough money to do it because schools have to live within their means.

The biggest splash in that debate was a question Ms. Hartline pointed out must have been drafted with her specifically in mind, asking whether board of education members with school-age children could reasonably be expected to send them to Dade schools. All right, she said, so her daughter planned to go to Girls Preparatory School; so what? “My first job is as a parent,” she said. And: “I think we have a fantastic system, but she is my daughter.”


Her daughter had longed to go to GPS since attending summer camp there, said Ms. Hartline, and had worked hard to keep her grades high enough to get into the exclusive private prep school in Chattanooga. “It’s a selection process,” she said. “It’s not just paying to get in.”

It did seem a prickly situation—committing as board member to make Dade schools as good as possible for other people’s children, while sending one’s own someplace a tad tonier—but Ms. Hartline’s challenger, the courtly 70-year-old Williams, said he’d never dream of holding such a thing against her. He gave her a big hug at the end of the debate.

65/5

The B of E candidates were asked about Dade’s “65/5” exemption, which allows residents 65 and over to exclude their houses, however expensive, and up to five acres of land from the school part of the county property tax. This is not an inconsiderable exemption. The school tax is 70-plus percent of the property tax bill. It’s calculated as a percentage of the value of a house and land, and Dade has some fairly stately mansions in its brow and other nicer neighborhoods.

All the school board candidates were willing to admit the 65/5 exemption was problematic for the schools. It shifts the tax burden onto younger people struggling to raise children, pointed out Daniel Case, and furthermore, the wealthier households Dade may attract as a tax-free zone skew average incomes. “It makes us look like a wealthy county and affects the funds we get from the state,” said Case.

“It has hurt our school system,” admitted Cindy Shaw. And Jennifer Hartline said the exemption could be amended. “I have grandkids in the system,” said Larry Williams. “I have no problem paying the school taxes.”

But they all stuck tactfully to the leave-it-to-the-voters approach. Only Ronald Baldwin gave 65/5 the outright finger across the throat. “I think it should be done away with, the whole thing,” he said.

The county commission candidates were not asked about 65/5, though Lamar Lowery boasted helping institute the tax break as among his accomplishments as a former District 1 commissioner.

But Georgia House Representative candidates Colton Moore and John Deffenbaugh were. Moore advocated—as he has in an opinion piece in this newspaper—limiting the exemption to householders who had lived here a certain length of time, to keep wealthy outsiders from profiting by an exemption meant to reward elderly residents, at the expense of young people like himself. “We’re not just a retirement community,” he said.


Incumbent Deffenbaugh said—sounding perhaps a little defensive—that at the time 65/5 was introduced it had generated a lot of talk about how it would affect the schools. “But it passed,” he said. Later, said Rep. Deffenbaugh, he had been asked to carry a bill to the House that would have removed the exemption. He had not; the bill would have failed, said Deffenbaugh, and: “What would that have accomplished?”

Now let’s back up a little and touch on some high points of the long, arduous questioning of the District 1 and 2 county commission candidates.

In District 1 the candidates are Jane Dixon, running as a Republican after an earlier Board of Education run as a Democrat; Lamar Lowery, running as a Republican after winning two terms in the District 1 seat as a Democrat and losing reelection in 2010 when he switched parties; and Patrick Hickey, a Democrat without much history of past elections; he’s 27.


Dist. 1 Commission candidates, from left, Jane Dixon, Lamar Lowery and Patrick Hickey.

Jane Dixon introduced herself as a retired school administrator with extensive experience in management, budgeting and personnel. “I can lead and I can follow,” she said. Patrick Hickey explained he’d lived in Dade three years after marrying a local girl. “My heart is in Dade County,” he said. “I love the community.” Lamar Lowery began with the statement, “I was born poor, white and naked,” which The Planet transcribes here faithfully whatever images it may evoke, on the principle that references to nekkidity are sparse enough in small-town politics that none must be left by the wayside.

In District 2 the field is more crowded with four candidates, all Republican though Scottie Pittman, the incumbent, was a Democrat before also switching parties in 2010, in his case without ill effects though it must be noted he was running that year unopposed. The challengers are retired postal worker Michael Scott, contractor Phillip Hartline and mechanic/soccer coach Warren Johnson.

Michael Scott introduced himself as a veteran, former mailman and firefighter, with a voice like Ernest T. Bass [The Planet would have said somebody played by Marlon Brando—Stanley Kowalksi?]. Philip Hartline said he’d decided to run when the choices he saw before him were to learn to keep his mouth shut, move or get involved. “I think it is time for a younger generation to step up,” he said.


Dist. 2 commission candidates, from left, Michael Scott, Phillip Hartline, Scottie Pittman and Warrent Johnson.

Warren Johnson, a U.S. Navy veteran and coach of Dade’s recreational soccer league, said the county had assets that were underutilized. Later he was more specific, telling the story of how he presented a proposal for a soccer tournament at the Four Fields to the county executive. “I was shown my way out of his office,” said Johnson.

Incumbent Scottie Pittman, a railroad electrician who was first elected in 2002, could boast of 16 years’ experience. “I’ve just worn the shoes,” he said. He said that serving on the commission was one of the most fulfilling parts of his life though he acknowledged it could be frustrating, and as issues arose through the discussion he could reminisce fondly how he’d been boiled in oil over them through the years.

The short form is The Z Word; the short answer is NO!

Questions asked the commission candidates reflected the issues of the day, and as in the B of E debate, some dogs fought better than others. No one, for instance, would touch zoning. “The short answer is no,” said Lamar Lowery, who had served long enough on the commission to know what kind of hackles the “Z word” raised.

Jane Dixon, a forceful speaker who managed with each question to fit in answers to others, said no but worked in a point about taking pride in local beauty, and asking her neighbor if she could help clean up his property. Phillip Hartline said that if anybody did that to him, he’d chase that helpful party off his property.


But another seemingly dull question, asking whether candidates supported continuing to pay a full-time economic development director—background: the old one, Peter Cervelli, is retiring, and a new one is shortly to be announced—brought some surprising answers.

Yes, said Phillip Hartline, but not one who will be influenced by getting a piece of the action. The economic development employee should not accept kickbacks or percentages of deals he made on behalf of the county, said Hartline. More than once. The Planet called him later for clarification, but Hartline maintained he was not pointing a finger at Cervelli, Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Chairman Nathan Wooten or anyone else.

Hartline also brought up under that subject that economic development might have been furthered had Dade been given what it voted for in the liquor by the drink referendum. For background on that, the county OKed liquor in restaurants in November 2016, but an ordinance drafted subsequently by the county commission has effectively quashed any efforts to serve anything stronger than Pepsi.


Incumbent Pittman asked residents to remember that Dade was new at the booze biz. “It was not an easy call,” he said. And: “We’re in a learning curve.” In fact, Pittman’s was one of the more progressive voices during the LBTD discussions that led to Dade’s current restrictive ordinance, and he pointed out during the debate that he was the one who had originally proposed putting the issue up for referendum.

But Pittman also maintained that no one had come forward asking for a variance from the ordinance, when in fact one requested by the Trenton Golf Club was discussed at the December and February commission meetings, and remains unresolved even now to The Planet’s knowledge.

Warren Johnson used the economic development opening to bring up his beef with the county's Four Fields policy. He said soccer teams would pay $5000 in cash for a weekend tournament if the commission would allow them to rent the fields. “They will come here if we open it up to them,” he said.

And he also used the economic development question to make a point about Vanguard, the manufacturing facility that IDA with the county, city and state governments brought at some trouble and expense to Dade. “You can’t make a living at $10 an hour,” said Johnson, “not with a family.”

Vanguard received $1 million in cash from Georgia to bring jobs to Dade; IDA, Dade and Trenton have all ponied up funds for roads and other perks; and the city plans to use a long-anticipated ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission) grant to mop up the Vanguard paving. But Vanguard has had trouble recruiting and retaining enough workers, and the resounding criticism has been that it doesn't pay well enough.

TSPLOST

The proposed TSPLOST—transportation special purpose local option sales tax, which would raise local sales taxes from 7 to 8 cents on the dollar—on the ballot for May 22 was also an issue covered in the debate. In District 1, Patrick Hickey came out solidly in favor of TSPLOST because he wanted to see better roads and better-lit highway exits. Lamar Lowery also supported the tax, saying it was designed to keep property taxes down. Jane Dixon said she needed to know more about it but seemed also to lean toward support: “To make money you have to spend money,” she said.

In District 2, TSPLOST got no help from anybody but incumbent Scottie Pittman, who said the measure was so necessary he urged voters to vote him out before they voted against it. Pittman said TSPLOST if passed could allow the commission to lower property taxes.


But Phillip Hartline said he wouldn’t vote for it and disagreed with the way it had been placed on the May ballot after being voted out in November. Michael Scott said he voted no in November and Warren Johnson said he would vote no in May, resenting the threat that property taxes would be raised if TSPLOST didn’t succeed. “It’s a fear thing,” he said. Incumbent Pittman said that wasn’t so. “I haven’t heard the threat,” he said. “I’ve not not made that threat.”

Asked whether the commission had done a good job communicating with the public, Lamar Lowery used TSPLOST to help communicate his answer: “No,” he said. “The TSPLOST has been handled poorly.” But the commissioners are doing the best they can, said Lowery, and in his own case he would make himself available for communication 24/7.

The other candidates agreed the commission could do a better job getting their message across. Scottie Pittman pointed out, though, that people would know what was going on if they came to commission meetings as they used to. “Now we’re lucky if we have 12 people coming,” he said. He said the commission is trying to maintain a Facebook page now, but that his own was for keeping up with family and friends, not arguing with people whose minds he had no hope of changing.

The Great Lake Debate

Other much-discussed-on-Facebook issues brought some predictable answers and some surprises. Should the commission continue its course of buying land for the eventual purpose of building a reservoir on Lookout Creek? Amid answers of maybe-not-right-now and I-need-more-information, came this: “Simply saying no is not an answer,” said Lamar Lowery. And: “Tennessee American would love to come in here and take over our water company.”

Lowery referred to the background that it is the Dade Water Authority that initiated Dade’s bid for the Lookout Creek acreage as part of its 2005 20-year strategic plan; and that part of its reasoning in doing so, besides securing adequate water supply for future growth, was securing its access to Lookout Creek in the face of a takeover bid from the corporate giant American Water, which offered to buy Dade’s water system in 2014.


​​Asked the same question, District 2 incumbent Scottie Pittman also supported the reservoir idea but also brought up the recreational side benefits of the proposed lake--though it was the sudden introduction of this idea of a recreational lake, seemingly out of the blue, that excited such heated resistance to the Lookout Land purchase in the first place.

The Courthouse Question

Another project the commission takes heat for, the renovation of the historic county courthouse, also made an appearance at the debate. All the District 1 candidates came out in support of Dade’s one old building: Patrick Hickey said he was 110 percent in favor of the restoration, and that to be otherwise would show disrespect for county history. Jane Dixon said it was a matter of pride in the county. “We have to pay for things that we want,” she said. Lamar Lowery agreed: “The old courthouse is our history,” but added that to be fiscally responsible the county had to work on it commensurate with its financial ability to do so.

That is the route the sitting commission has taken, and the one Scottie Pittman also espoused at the debate. “When you think of Dade County, you think of the courthouse,” he said. “It’s a matter of pride.”


But the District 2 candidates were less patient with the approach. “They’re a day late and a dollar short,” said Phillip Hartline. “They tore every other historical building down in Trenton.” He said if the courthouse reno was paid for privately, “Let ‘em hammer away,” but public funding was another matter. “I can’t support that out of taxpayer money,” agreed Warren Johnson.

Scottie Pittman pointed out taxpayers always balked over spending money. “I’ve been cussed out over this library several times,” he said, making similar observations about the local chamber of commerce and ballfields. For every cause, there was always flak to take. “If elected, one of these guys will learn that real quick,” he said.

Judging the Judges

Judges are little kings in their courtrooms. They wear flowing robes, they must be addressed in the third person, and they can with a gesture have offending citizens hauled off to the clink by burly cops. But at the circuit level they are elected like other officials and like other candidates incumbent Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Judge Ralph Van Pelt and challenger Melissa Hise were at Thursday night’s debate stumping for votes.

Debate organizers did not treat their Honors like little kings but kept them waiting until after 10 p.m. as successions of B of E and district commissioner candidates had their say first. “I have spent the better part of my adult life in courtrooms,” Van Pelt told the audience. He may now feel the rest of it was spent at the Dade Public Library. Vann Pelt also listed as one of his judicial qualifications: “I will sit and listen until you’re done talking.” On Thursday night, he sort of did.

Initial questions posed to the judicial candidates at the debate concerned the duties of and qualifications for the open judgeship, with which both candidates were of course intimately familiar and able to reel off for the benefit of the audience. They also described their backgrounds: Van Pelt is a former district attorney on the circuit who was appointed to the bench in 1996, Ms. Hise a Walker County lawyer and magistrate judge who presents herself as a reformer.


When asked how they would deal with a judicial circuit overwhelmed with drug cases, Van Pelt replied: “I don’t think we’re overwhelmed here in Dade County.” Drug cases would always be with us, he said. And: “I’m a big believer in treatment.”

Ms. Hise said the circuit was, too, overwhelmed. It had the eighth highest number of people on probation in the nation, she said; that’s why it’s instituting the new system of accountability courts and needed to do more. “We’re incarcerating too many people,” she said.

Like the questions about duties and qualifications, others asked of the judicial candidates seemed a little off the mark. How does one, after all, interview a judge? To be fair, the situation is an unusual one for Dade. Van Pelt has been unchallenged for his job these 22 years, and might have remained so had the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit judges not embroiled themselves in their recent well-publicized internecine squabbling.

Dade incumbent politicians including the sitting county commissioners and sheriff advertised recently a dinner they were hosting in support of Van Pelt’s reelection. Most ordinary mortals, though, and anyway the local media, may have found it more prudent to stay well out of the skirmish, following J.R.R. Tolkien’s advice on the subject of other mighty beings who wear robes:

“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”


John Deffenbaugh (left) is challenged by 24-year-old Colton Moore for his Dist. 1 Georgia House seat.

The Georgia House

Above, we covered what Georgia House Representative candidates John Deffenbaugh, the incumbent, and challenger Colton Moore said about the 65/5 exemption. Also on the subject of schools, Deffenbaugh answered a question on whether the schools were funded adequately that they were funded more than adequately. He said this year was the first time it had happened but that Georgia had managed to put more into education than the requirement.

Moore, though, said too much money was spent on bureaucracy. He specifically attacked a program that promised high school kids job certification but which he said really just entailed hundreds of pages of bureaucratic nonsense. Deffenbaugh, though, said the certification really did give a kid a better chance of getting a job after high school.

Young Moore had a lot to say about education, among other subjects. He said teachers were punished for disciplining students and especially for failing them, that the state made them follow a script and that it told teachers how to teach and farmers how to farm. He said the state executive branch had gotten too big and promised if elected to counter it.

Moore complained that during his recent visit to the Georgia House, legislators had been 40 minutes late getting started with their session and had also pushed bills through after deadline. Lest that be taken as brash youth criticizing the slowness of age, Moore finished his point: “No one bothered to read the bills.” And he said despite all the current hype about Georgia being superlatively friendly to business, “It’s pretty hard to do business in Georgia.”

Deffenbaugh was able as incumbent to draw attention to a resolution he’d gotten passed urging the military to devote more counseling to military veterans, and to another bill he’d sponsored on distracted driving. He also pointed out that the problematic state road Highway 136 had finally been paved, and he said the Georgia legislature had been proactive about education, working on things that are making a difference.

The Deffenbaugh/Moore debate was in the last slot of the long evening, and as such the challenger was able to distinguish himself by pure raw youth as looking less zombiesque than the other candidates—and attendees, and press—began to as 10 p.m. rolled around. And as for young Moore’s booming oratorical style—he’s an international equipment auctioneer—when he speaks of making Dade’s voice heard in Atlanta, one senses in his case it’s not entirely a metaphor.

Now, about that statue...

Democratic candidate for school board Ronald Baldwin said at the April 19 debate, in the words of the great Yogi Berra: "It ain't over till it's over," which in his case means November, when he goes up against whoever wins the Republican primary. "Don't underestimate me," he said.

In fact, Democrats have lately made splashy headlines around the South reclaiming former Republican strongholds. And anyway, Patrick Hickey for District 1 county commissioner pointed out the sparsely populated Democratic field was cause for optimism in his case because "I've already won the primary."

But with all the other candidates running as Republicans, most races in Dade County will be effectively decided in the May 22 primary. In the face of such a short campaign season, it is perhaps comforting to have such a long debate.

It is also wearing on the local press, however, and presumably on the reader taxed with slogging through the Iliad-like resulting coverage. So this seems like a good place to stop, and move on to other matters around the county that require journalistic oversight if Dade is to remain safe for democracy. Thus we close this article without further ado, except to beg the public, if a statue is indeed to be erected:


Make sure they get the planetary rings right.


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