As in past local elections, growth has emerged as the most important and defining issue for Macon County. November’s election has the potential to change representation in three of the county’s five commissioners seats.
One-term incumbent Jay Dee Shepard already lost his bid for re-election in the Democratic primary, coming in third to incumbent Bob Simpson and challenger Ronnie Beale. Now Beale and Simpson are vying against Republican candidates Harold Corbin and Rick Mashburn for Shepard and Simpson’s two District 2 (Franklin) seats.
Also, incumbent Allan Bryson is facing challenger and political newcomer Brian McClellan for District 1 (Highlands). Bryson is the board’s current chairman.
While the commissioners each represent a specific area, the county as a whole votes on their candidacy. All candidates except Mashburn attended the forum.
Following brief introductions, league moderator Susan Ervin asked candidates a series of questions focusing on growth, from steep slope development to soil and erosion controls. Though candidates each responded to the questions, in most cases they failed to take a definitive stand on any beliefs or prescribed courses of action.
In response to a question as to whether they would support a steep slope development ordinance, candidates erred on the side of caution saying that they would listen to the public, or that efforts were being made to control development, or that many of the problems with steep slope development were a result of a shortage of enforcement staff.
Beale, a contractor by trade, warned that while steep slope development would have to be discussed, regulations should not hamper the county’s major industry.
“Construction in Macon County is what wags the dog,” he said.
However, Corbin — a former county commissioner who lost re-election but gained popularity for his work in preserving the Needmore Tract — said that steep slope development increasingly affects those who already have homes here. Corbin said that a new road cut on land neighboring his own had severely eroded and run onto his property.
“Guess where his road’s at now — my lake,” Corbin said.
The erosion killed the trout in the lake. Consequently, Corbin said that something has to be done to improve the standards for roads to prevent such washout.
His response tied in closely with the next question regarding soil and erosion control. Some have said that soil and erosion ordinances are not being enforced due understaffing, Ervin read. Would candidates support additional staff and a subdivision ordinance that would require developers submit plat reviews, Ervin asked?
Candidates predominately were in favor of additional staff. Beale and Bryson, owner of Ace Hardware, both said that there’s no point enacting new rules if they’re not going to be enforced. Simpson, also a contractor, said that he does support hiring additional enforcement staff, but cautioned that such personnel require salaries.
However, McClellan recommended a slightly different approach.
“I think we need to reallocate the resources we currently have,” he said.
Rather than just create a new position, the county should look at using the workers it has to get the job done, he said.
But to make a subdivision ordinance effective, or any other type ordinance for that matter, will mean heavy fines for those who violate it, Simpson said.
“That’s what it’s going to take,” he said.
Candidates largely were in favor of fines — except McClellan, who said that for big-time developers an increase might represent no more than “a nickel” versus “a penny,” in terms of financial severity.
And any subdivision ordinance the county passes will have to factor in landowners who have held their property for generations, and not consider them to be the same as a big-time developer, Simpson said — a sentiment Bryson shared.
Tied in to the issue of big developers and their impact on the county, Ervin posed the question of the job elected officials must perform — representatives or leaders — and whether money controls too much of the power in Macon County.
All candidates answered resoundingly that their job if elected is to serve as representatives of the people.
“You can’t get up in the morning and decide the whole equation,” Beale said, of the need to listen to the people.
Corbin concurred, saying that he felt he had done a good job balancing interests during his previous term, having been elected to serve as chairman once by a Democratic board majority and once by a Republican board majority. The aim is that even when there’s disagreement, you remain honest and open to discussion, Corbin said.
As to the influence of money, all but Beale disavowed any connection.
“Money does play a part in anything,” he said.
Though so far, “nobody’s offered me any,” he said.
Ervin asked candidates their plans for bringing more and better jobs into the county.
Candidates were in favor of high-tech jobs to replace those lost in manufacturing and to help attract young people to stay in the area. McClellan said that while bringing in high-tech industry sounds good, there’s more to it — students must be educated to fill those jobs and incentives offered to businesses to locate here. The caution to keep in mind, he said, is that high-tech industries also may befall the fate of manufacturing and be sent overseas — which Bryson agreed with.
Beale pointed to his own industry as a source of job growth.
“In the near future that’s your economic base in Macon County,” he said.
However, the county could consider hiring a grant writer to search for funds to use as incentives to bring in other businesses, Beale said. Corbin vehemently disputed the need for a grant writer , citing the success of raising funds to conserve the Needmore Tract as evidence of local giving power.
Simpson wants to restructure the county’s economic development commission.
“We need a full time economic development chairperson,” he said.