By the time the District 4 county commission candidates got their shot at wowing potential voters at last week's marathon broadcast-only candidate debate, staged by local station KWN and hosted by the Dade County Public Library, the midnight oils were burning, viewers' eyes were getting bleary, and no doubt the candidates were feeling the pinch, too. In any case, whether it was the performance of the candidates or the perception of the viewer, answers sometimes seemed a little wobbly and all over the board.
Allan Bradford (right), the two-term incumbent District 4 commissioner, spent part of his introductory remarks apologizing for the hour and the rest of it seeming to apologize for how much money floods and tornadoes had cost the county--"people don't realize the expense"; and "we have to take that into consideration." He ended by summarizing his accomplishments with a terse: "We do have some reserves."
Jeremy Dyer, the challenger for Bradford's seat who became familiar to Dade political junkies as the agriculture expert who served on the citizens committee that drafted last year's landmark heavy industry ordinance, said when he served on the committee: "It became apparent to me we have the same problems as we did four years ago." Becoming frustrated at the way local government worked, young Dyer decided to step up himself, he told us.
And candidate no. 3, Randy Stone, took the opportunity to review his proud Dade County
bloodlines--Grandpa founded Clark Lumber, and Ms. Leila Kimbrough, a presumptive though unspecified ancestress, gave a whole lot of money to the Dade Public Library, Stone informed us.
He also provided some history on his former wade through local government, serving on the Trenton City Commission during a time when something called "the digester" exploded at the sewer works. "I mean, the whole thing just blew up," recounted Stone. "It was just a crappy mess." Stone said he owned his own business doing "all kind of forestry stuff. "I'm about to retire and I thought this would be a good fit for me," he concluded.
Asked how the county commission could better communicate with the public, Stone replied: "I think Ted and them's done a really good job getting out information out to the public about this COVID-19." But, he added: "You always got the same group of people that's always there, and they're always complaining about something," You'll never get rid of that, but that's an issue."
Stone guessed the commission could "just print stuff in the local paper" but added: "People don't read the paper much out anymore."
"There's got to be a way to do it," he mused by way of finale.
Jeremy Dyer said the problem with communication with the commission is: "It tends to be, they listen to the people but then they do what we want." Another problem was that the commission had the bad habit of not posting measures it would be voting on at commission meetings in sufficient time for citizens to review them. Look at the heavy industry ordinance he'd helped to draft, said Dyer: The citizens had not gained access to that until 24 hours before it came before the commission.
"That was just a click that we didn't get that done," said Commissioner Bradford of the heavy industry ordinance glitch. "I would like things to come out much sooner" But in general, he said, Dade was doing a great job communicating with the voters. "I don't know we could do any better than what we're doing now, because social media is probably covering everything and what it doesn't get Evan gets on his radio and TV show," said Bradford, referring to Evan Stone, who owns KWN.
One real issue this year is the proposed Lookout Lake Reservoir, for which the Dade County Commission and Dade Water Authority famously bought a piece of pastureland on the creek for $500,000. Asked about the reservoir, Jeremy Dyer, who had accompanied Commissioner Phillip Hartline to Atlanta to speak about the project with Georgia State Sen. Jeff Mullis, had a lot to say:
"I think the reservoir is a good idea in theory, but I don't think it's practical for our county," said Dyer. Dade had been promised grants to cover construction of the reservoir, he said, but "GEFA loans money, they don't grant money." GEFA is Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, the agency from which the water company borrows money for big projects like this (and from which the water authority borrowed $400,000 for its portion of the creek acreage).
Sen. Mullis had "patted us on the head" and assured Dyer and Hartline the county would qualify for U.S. Department of Agriculture Loans, said Dyer, but Dyer had researched the matter and found maximum grant money of half a million dollars, which would never pay for the project. "It's going to be too expensive and it's not going to provide enough water," he said.
Asked the same question, Randy Stone went back to the purchase of the Lookout Creek parcel: "I think it's some very expensive farmland." There had been no core drilling, he said. "Does anybody know how deep it is to the bedrock?" he asked to the attendance at large. Anyway, he'd been told by people in the know: "It'll never hold water." As far as grant money, there wasn't any, said Stone. "Jeff Mullis lied to everybody about it," he said. As far as the current status of the project: "This is where we're stuck at now." said Stone.
Allan Bradford interjected here to say Dade can bring the Corps of Engineers in to help with the project. Only after the county had paid $250,000 for initial paperwork, said young Dyer. At that point the discussion was highjacked for a space by Randy Stone's memories of Trenton's sewer problems and the engineering they had entailed back in the 1980s. "Boy, we took a lot of heat--a lot of heat--from the citizens of the city of Trenton," he reminisced: And: "This whole city needs to be dug up."
But emcee Chris Goforth stepped in eventually and offered Commissioner Allan Bradford an opening to weigh in on the issue: Bradford responded: "I am for the reservoir but I think we do need to find out what we can do, and what we need to do, to make it a reservoir." He went back to his initial assertion: He had talked to the Army Corps of Engineers and been told they would come in and check out the reservoir at no cost. "We just haven't done that yet," he concluded.
Asked about economic development, Stone replied that there just wasn't the land base for much of that in "the area that Allan and I live in," except for residential projects, of which he currently had one himself. "I guess you could say Allan and I are in a different position than some of the other commissioners," he said.
Allan Bradford agreed that where he and Randy Stone lived there wasn't much room for development, and as for the county as a whole: "We don''t have enough people in Dade County to get the big restaurants to come in like they talked about. and we'd love to have that." He'd met a guy at Ollie's, said Bradford, and though "he was one of the head people there" and though he followed up, the upshot is Dade just wasn't big enough for the likes of Ollie's.
As for economic development in general, Dade had an employee for that, and: "We kind of leave it up to him to do that," said Bradford. As a sitting commissioner, though, said Bradford: "I try to meet with our economic development guy every week or so to see what's going on and if I can help him in any way."
Jeremy Dyer, speaking third, didn't let the others get away with the "where Allan and I live" stuff--he lived on Lookout Mountain, too, he reminded them. As for economic development, he said: "I can tell you we spent all fall and part of the summer sending out the wrong message." Instead of making a scene about keeping certain industries out of the county, said Dyer, Dade should be assuring them, "We want your industry" and would love to discuss how they can fit in here.
Answering a question about Sunday sales of alcohol, an issue up for referendum on the primary ballot, Randy Stone said if the voters were for it, he was, too. Would-be Sunday buyers could go across the state border and get alcohol anyway, he pointed out. "I think it could be beneficial as far as bringing some restaurants in here such as Ruby Tuesday's and so forth and so on," he opined.
Jeremy Dyer said he felt confident that voters would approve Sunday sales since they'd approved liquor by the drink in the last referendum. "As commissioner I will take a stand to to make sure that the people's voices are heard," he said. If the measure passed, he said: "I'll be sure as commisioner to help implement it."
Allan Bradford declared, "I don't use alcohol at all, as most of you know." (Except, of course, the ones, such as The Planet, to whom he has mentioned enjoying a nip of moonshine "for medicinal purposes." But whatever his personal beliefs, said Bradford, he believed the people should have the right to vote on Sunday sales, and if they decided in favor: "I'm fine with it."
Asked about the job description for a county commissioner, Randy Stone talked about a commissioner's role in deciding how SPLOST (special purchase local option sales tax) should be spent, and treated listeners to memories of how hard it used to be for the city to get its share of SPLOST collections from the county. "There was always a battle," he said.
"You should certainly be the voice of the people," Dyer answered.
Bradford said as sitting commissioner he liked to go among the citizens and help them however he could.
Asked about SPLOST, Jeremy Dyer said, "I believe that SPLOST is a good vehicle; we just need to change the drivers." Big projects were proposed by politicians to buy votes, then never accomplished while the money was spent on more pressing infrastructure needs. The county needs to be more systematic in its approach and check the projects off one by one, he said.
"I've never been a fan of the SPLOST tax," said Stone. He'd seen it abused as a city commissioner, he said.
Allan Bradford said the aforementioned tornadoes and floods had stood in the way of SPLOST projects being accomplished, and agreed they needed to be "characterized" one after the other.
What if SPLOST doesn't pass? What would happen then. Maybe the sheriff's office get by without some of their four-door trucks and big, shiny vehicles, suggested Stone. Why should PPE cost so much? "Are we being ripped off?" And why, he demanded, are there five or six backhoes sitting out in front of the water authority "and they never get moved?"
"Well, you know, you've got to cut somewhere but you've got to watch where you cut and who you cut," pronounced Allan Bradford. But as far as things costing too much, the county government bids everything out, he said, and take the cheapest bid. Anyway, if push came to shove, Bradford would cut services rather than raising taxes, he vowed..
Stop wasteful spending, stop providing unessential services,and purchase cheaper vehicles, said Dyer. "We could find a way in the budget to do this," he said. In any case: "I will not blackmail the voters of Dade County into voting for something with the threat of raising property taxes 2 and a half million," promised Dyer.
Asked which existing SPLOST projects should be prioritized, Bradford discussed the long-promised animal shelter and courthouse renovation, Dyer said infrastructure was important, and Stone said the water pressure on Lookout Mountain should be addressed. "It's ridculous that the power goes off and you can't take a shower," he said.
Asked about zoning, Dyers said Dade had to get over its fear of the word. "If done right, it protects the rights of all the citizens," he said. But Dade was like no other county and would need something done right, done slowly and tailor-made for its unique circumstances. "It's got to be something that everybody is OK with and that protects everybody," said Dyer.
Allan Bradford came out against zoning but said nobody wanted their property compromised by some big, unattractive industry moving in next door, as seemed the case last year in Wildwood, and which had engendered Dade's heavy industry ordinance. He said that ordinance was something the county could work from in the future to protect the citizens.
Stone said he was a "huge conservationist," didn't want a big industry moving in beside him and that, from where he lived, he could hear noises from the flight park. Later, he petitioned the commentator for a couple of extra minutes to add to that, which he used to complain about the trash in people's yards on the road into Cloudland Canyon State Park "as well as on Plum Nelly Road, where I live at." Some code needed to be come up with to deal with their garbage, he said.
"They just throw it out the front door," said Stone. "It's ridiculous."
In their final comments, Jeremy Dyer, speaking first, told viewers it was time for a change in leadership in Dade County. "I think we need to put the good-old boy system out to pasture," he said. It was time to vote for somebody who would make decisions based on facts rather than opinions. Citizens could vote for "a good old boy, a different good old boy" or him, said Dyer, and he hoped they would support him.
Randy Stoner spent his closing remark time complaining, apparently, about the logging aftermath on the side of Lookout Mountain "These rains and stuff that came through, rocks are coming off, waterfalls, trees falling," he said, in part. He'd talked to Georgia Forestry about it. "Whoever gets elected I hope they pay more attention to the environment," he concluded.
Allan Bradford said he'd talked to Georgia Forestry, too, and had paid his own money to get some of the trees removed. He said he tried to do what was best for the citizens as their sitting commissioner, and as for this "good old boy system": "I haven't seen none of that since I've been here."
That's it for The Planet's rundown on the District 4 debates. The Planet will resume this debate series next week.