Local sorority chapter hosts candidate forum: Part 2

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, October 18, 2016


AMERICUS — The Omicron Alpha Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., alongside several local pastors and lay leaders hosted a forum on Oct. 6 for local/area candidates whose names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.
Those present were the following:
For Georgia State Senate, 13th District — Ruenett Melton, D-Tifton. It was announced that incumbent Greg Kirk, R-Americus was attending a similar forum in Cordele that evening.
For Georgia House of Representatives, District 138 — Incumbent, Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, and challenger, Bill McGowan, D-Americus.
Sumter County Board of Commissioners, District 1 — Incumbent Clay Jones Sr. Opponent, Harvey Claiborne, R-Americus, was not in attendance.
Sumter County Coroner — Incumbent, Greg Hancock, D-Americus, and challenger, Scott Aldridge, R-Americus.
During the question and answer period, members of the audience wrote questions on cards and indicated which candidate they wanted to answer.
The first question dealt with the South Lee Street Bridge, asking if it is to destroyed or replaced and how truck traffic will be rerouted from West Glessner onto South Lee Street.
Mike Cheokas answered first.
“I’m familiar with the issue but I really think it’s a local issue and I think it’s more to deal with county commissioners and the mayor and city council, and let them decide what they think is appropriate for the Lee Street Bridge.”
Cheokas’ opponent, Bill McGowan, also answered.
“This is a state highway that goes down Lee Street … There’s a state railroad under the bridge and I live on Lee Street so I’ve seen extensive engineering down there for the past three or four months, so something’s obviously going on. Transparency would not be a bad thing because everybody really wants to know what is going to happen to the bridge and how traffic will be rerouted if anything does happen to the bridge. … The representative (Cheokas), I read his letters to the people in the Times-Recorder, and he stated early last year, in 2015, that the bridge was structurally deficient. So something’s obviously going to happen. What’s going to happen I don’t know. I’ll leave it up to the representative to comment on his comment to the people that it was structurally deficient.”
District 1 Sumter County Commissioner Clay Jones was also asked to comment on the question. “The bridge on South Lee Street does not have sufficient height … the rail bed has been lowered in order to send out larger containers. Trains with that cargo cannot pass under the bridge. They take an alternate route. They bypass Americus … We’re in the process of trying to get the bridge raised  … We’ve been working on this a couple of years, not knowing that Georgia DOT was working on it, so they’re ahead of us. … They’re going to dismantle that bridge and build a new bridge. … They’re going to have pictures and meetings so everyone in that area can look and see what they’re going to construct there. That’s going to be in the next two to three years. … As far as rerouting the traffic, I couldn’t tell you that once they start the process.”
“What would you do, if anything, to improve the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice,” was asked of candidate Rhuenett Melton.
“When it comes to juveniles, we need to understand that these kids need … some attention. We are so quick to form opinions about our juveniles, throw them into places they don’t need to be into, treating them just like they are adults. So we need to come up with some programs that’s going to work for the juveniles … It’s not just a one-person decision-making process. It comes with people sitting down and let’s come up with the best solution that’s going to work for these juveniles because we have to understand, these juveniles … these are our future. All those children, these high school kids, the kids out of school, these juveniles, they’re going to be adults one day. We want them to feel that they are loved and that they are going to be protected. So we need to make sure we have some laws in place that’s going to protect them. First we need to listen to them. We need to understand what the situations are and come up with the best solution to solve our problems.”
For the coroner candidates came this question: How do you separate the coroner’s responsibilities versus your private funeral home business? Please share more clarity around what is expected from our county coroner.
Incumbent Greg Hancock answered first.
“As far as how I separate it from my personal business, when I receive a call as the coroner of Sumter County, I’m the coroner of Sumter County. I don’t own a funeral home at that time. I’ve had people where I’ve gone out on a coroner’s case that I already have pre-paid funerals on them at my funeral home and I know that. And when I get to the house and we get through getting all the information, and the medical information I need, doing the job as the coroner, I ask them which funeral home they would like to be contacted to handle your loved ones. They’ll say ‘Greg, you know you’ve got pre-arrangements on mama or daddy,’ and I say that’s beside the point because I’m the coroner right now and not the owner of a funeral home. And then when they tell me they want to use me or tell me whichever one they want to use, I call the funeral home. If it’s my funeral home, I call somebody else to pick the body up … It’s every important to separate that. Number one, it’s illegal to combine the two. I’m not going to jail for nobody. I’m not going to jail over one call from my funeral home. It’s plain and simple. I’ve been inside a jail because I’ve been on a coroner’s call there and I didn’t see nothing inside that jail that I like and I don’t plan on staying there …
“As far as what is to be expected of the coroner, the coroner should be professional, financially responsible to the county, which my budget now is still the same as it was when I took office 20 years ago. I take care of the county’s money. It just as much comes out of my pocket as it does yours and I think it’s every important to watch the money and not waste money. Our county commissioners can tell you how that works with me.”
The opposing candidate for coroner, Scott Aldridge, also answered.
“He pretty much hit the nail on the head. I would run it in the exact same manner. There’s not much change you can make in this office.”
Cheokas was asked, “do you think your vote for the Opportunity Schools leaves our most vulnerable children at risk of losing out on a quality education?” This question deals with Amendment 1 which will be on the November ballot which would allow the state to take over and operate school districts in Georgia that they deem are failing.
Cheokas responded, “There’s a lot of controversy over that, and I’ve got a unique perspective. As far as the Opportunity School District is concerned, it’s a problem. I represent four counties — Sumter, Schley, Marion, and Chattahoochee. We’ve got four different school districts and I see demographics that are similar in those school districts and I see performances that are very, very different in those school districts. As far as the Opportunity School District is concerned, I voted for the people to m  e ballot. It’s an important issue. I think the people of this state need to study this issue and make their own decision. I voted for them to make that choice. It’s important that we pay attention to the caliber and quality and the rigor of the education we provide our children. That’s the number one issue right there. And each of us in this room has an opinion and each of us … has the right and the responsibility to become educated on that issue and make up their own mind on election day.”
The audience also had three more questions similar to that question on the same issue.
“What are your feelings on Opportunity School Districts, Amendment 1 on the ballot?” “Do you support government school takeover, why or why not?” “What is your position on the Opportunity Schools and governor takeover of potential or so called failing schools?”
State House candidate Bill McGowan answered first.
“I’m opposed to it … and if I had been in the Legislature when the vote was taking place, I would have voted against putting it on the ballot. When you put something on the ballot, you’re standing for it yourself as far as I’m concerned. The Legislature had time to study it … but they chose to put it on the ballot. I would have chosen not to put it on the ballot. I’m opposed to it. I’m opposed to taking over our schools in this manner and I would refer to it as a hostile takeover … It’s not just taking over the schools, you are setting the school board aside … You’re setting the local monies totally into the hands of the superintendent in Atlanta. One question that I would have too is ‘is there a bank account in Atlanta where all the local monies will be going to?’ You’ve got the think about following the money sometimes.”
McGowan read from an Associated Press article, quoting Governor Nathan Deal. “The General Assembly and I have lost our patience in trusting superintendents and local boards of education.” McGowan said he trusts our superintendents and local boards of education to do the job.
“ … I’ve talked to all the superintendents, all the school board members that I can, all the teachers, the retired teachers, parents and otherwise, and they’re all opposed to this. I stand firmly opposed to it.”
Melton was also asked to respond.
“Like I said in my opening comment, we do not need to let the Governor take over our school system. We have the right to vote. We vote for our school board. If this happens, you will not vote for your school board members. The Governor is going to choose his superintendent and he’s going to send down just who he wants … They don’t really know how this is going to turn out. They can’t tell us how kids are going to be affected by this, or teachers. So why do we need to go with something like this? And if we look at it, Republicans are always coming up with something, great ideas about how to operate our school system. No Child Left Behind. Since this came out, all kids been left behind. So it’s time to stop letting peop  le who don’t know nothing about teaching, controlling what we do with our school system. Many teachers, we were trained to teach. Let us teach. And budgets are about priorities. Let education be a priority. But it doesn’t seem to be a priority. So we got folk up there making laws about things that’s nonsense … Lesbians, gays, and homosexuals. We don’t need to be worrying about stuff like this. We got bigger fish to fry, like education, like rural houses, rural hospitals. So I oppose Opportunity School Districts. I’m voting no and I’m telling everybody that I come in contact with to please vote no. We want to control our own school system.”
Cheokas was asked if he had further comment.
“The only thing that I’m going to say in addition is that this need to be structured around the education of the children,” he said. “And the individuals in this room get to vote their conscience. But it’s an extremely important issue and the education of the children should be the determining factor.”

Coming next week: Part 3, more questions and answers.