Webster County candidate forum draws crowd

Published 3:00 pm Friday, April 29, 2016

PRESTON — Approximately 100 people turned out Thursday night in Preston to listen to candidates for four different elective seats tout their qualifications and credentials. The forum, moderated by former Webster County Commission Chairman Dave Wills, included a series of questions provided to the candidates in advance, plus a handful of questions posed by the audience.
The race that seems to have garnered the most interest is for chairman of the County Commission. That post, currently occupied by George Moore, who is not seeking reelection, is a full-time job that involves managing the consolidated government on a daily basis. Former Webster County sheriff, Tony Kennedy, and current Fire/EMS chief, Darrell Holbrook, are vying for the post, each having qualified on the Democratic ticket.
Kennedy, who currently works for Tractor and Equipment Company (TEC) as a product support representative, served for over 11 years as sheriff, but left the post in 1996. Noting his responsibilities with TEC, managing a large budget, he said one of his primary tasks was finding the best prices for customers, a trait he said he would continue as chairman. “I make mad customers happy,” said Kennedy.
Holbrook, an Army veteran who served five years on active duty and three years in the Army National Guard, and who served a tour in Desert Storm, has been an Emergency Medical Technician since 1981, and a firefighter since 2001. He was appointed as the EMS director for Webster County in 1998. He also serves as the county’s Emergency Management Agency director. Holbrook noted that he has worked for or observed the last three county commission chairs and has been responsible for creating and managing public safety budgets, which has helped him understand the inner workings of the county government. Noting his routine attendance at county commission meetings, he said his observations have given him an in-depth understanding of the government.
Webster County, which is geographically small at just 210 square miles, has a relatively small budget of approximately $2.3 million, but according to the 2014 audited financial statements, has just over $2 million in unreserved fund balance. Asked if they favored retaining that level of fund balance, both men indicated that the county should continue to have sufficient funds on hand to weather any unexpected downturn in the economy or other events that would deprive the county of revenue.
Responding to a question about the need to generate economic growth in the county, Kennedy said he’d like to see an effort to attract business that either serves Interfor, a large pine timber sawmill and the county’s largest employer, or that uses their lumber, turning it into a value-added product. Holbrook, in a nod to a previous question and comment, said he’d support restarting a local chamber of commerce. Kennedy also supported that idea and recalled a past effort which successfully brought to Preston a tool and die shop which is now part of Eaton Industries. Locally the shop is referred to as Prestec.
Nikki Adams, a local entrepreneur and pharmacist, said she believed that attracting new business and families to Webster County would be enhanced by having a county-funded recreation program. Currently, the county does not have a formalized program. She asked each candidate what his position was on establishing a county recreation program. Kennedy, who said his goal was to enhance the quality of life in the community, reported that during his tenure as sheriff, he had successfully sought and administered funds for summer employment programs, but that he would have to carefully consider starting a new program because it would involve the expenditure of taxpayer funds. Holbrook, noting success he’s had in finding grant funds for public safety purposes, said he would be inclined to seek grants, to possibly use proceeds from the county’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax or to seek an incremental phase-in of funding over a period of time to pay for recreational purposes.
In the District 1 race between incumbent County Commissioner Jonah McCluster and challenger Glynn Cobb, both life-long residents of the county, both professed support for improving fire protection services for the northwestern portion of the county, commonly referred to as “Seminole,” so that homeowners’ insurance premiums would decrease. McCluster, who has served continuously since being elected in 2002, expressed support for providing transportation services for elderly residents, while Cobb focused heavily on creating a local economic development “committee” as a means of generating ideas to improve prospects for landing or creating new businesses. McCluster is a retired school teacher. Cobb currently serves as an instructor at South Georgia Technical College and once was a student of McCluster.
In the race to succeed incumbent Tax Commissioner, Lou Heath, who will retire after 28 years of service, Marjorie Hine and Marie Stanfield answered questions, but the third candidate, Tracy Holbrook, could not attend due to illness. Hine, a native of Florida, became a resident of Webster County in 2010. She currently works as the officer manager-secretary of the Webster County Farm Bureau office and formerly worked in the Marion County, Florida, Tax Collector’s office where her duties were similar to those of tax commissioners in Georgia. Hine said she was customer oriented and had an aptitude for learning and changing to meet demands in the workplace. Hines said she holds an associate of arts degree.
Stanfield, a native of Plains in Sumter County, has resided in Webster County for over eight years. She currently works at Wayne’s World in Americus where she manages the office, having a multitude of duties related to financial accounting and office processes. Stanfield said she works with several different computer systems and is technologically savvy and that she is always on-call for her employees from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., the hours of operation for the business. She emphasized her attention to detail for financial transactions, noting that good records are indispensable to good business. Stanfield said she earned a bachelor’s of education degree.
Jimmie Johnson and Deniece Stevens are competing for election to the Board of Education seat for District 1, but Stevens could not attend the forum because of recent surgery. Johnson, a resident for seven years, is a former missionary to African countries and has served as a juvenile probation officer. He has two children who have graduated from Webster County High School and another one who is a junior. Johnson said “education is the key to success” in this era of technology and that “poverty must not be an excuse to not get an education.” He went on to say that each child is gifted in his or her own way and that “we should help them discover that gift and enhance it through education.”
Jack Rowland, a resident and parent of school-aged children, said that some students were being educated in the lower grades in the Webster County school system, but then migrating out to other area high schools to finish their grade-school education. He asked Johnson what he would do to help persuade those students to remain in the local school system. Johnson responded by saying that local test scores were good and that the school represented a “hidden jewel” that should be highlighted by positive media coverage. He said “our teachers care about students” and then gave a personal example where teacher Sue Moncus took personal time to help tutor one of his children who was struggling with a subject matter.
All candidates in the contested primary races qualified on the Democratic ballot, so the winners of the May 24 election will not face opposition in the November General Election unless someone qualifies as an independent candidate. The race for the school board seat is non-partisan, so the winner on May 24 will be seated in January as the representative for District 1.
— Submitted