Candidates on the ballot for this election cycle gathered at the courthouse this week to make their cases to voters during a three and ½ hour candidate forum.
Each of the candidates or their representatives were given a turn to address the packed courtroom, and for the most part managed to do so without turning on each other.
The would-be office holders were then invited to take questions questions from Sandy Callahan of WLNC radio and Scott Witten of The Laurinburg Exchange. The public also asked questions.
At its most contentious, the forum saw sitting county commissioners Bob Davis and John Alford defend the board’s record of fiscal management.
Asked about warning letters from the Local Government Commission, Davis noted that the board, has since “been commended by the LGC for the measures it has taken” to correct the budget situation.
When asked why the commissioners chose to use a portion of the county’s fund balance toward the budget in previous fiscal years, Alford noted that the fund balance was only being used as it was intended.
“It was either that or raise your taxes,” said Alford.
Alford added that he does not “believe that (the board) will raise your taxes this year, and will still maintain all the other services you are so fond of.”
Williamson Township candidate Ken Haney criticized the current board, saying that “they tried to do their best, but they have failed.”
In an effort to open a better dialogue with the community Haney pledged to, if elected, promote having “quarterly meetings in different areas of the county to let people know that we care about them.”
“I don’t think we are properly using the people of Scotland County,” said Haney.
Former Clerk of Court Whit Gibson, candidate for an at-large seat on the Board of Commissioners, cited as a qualification for the position his “30 years of experience in managing people and budgets.”
“I love Scotland County … it is made up of a tough breed of folks, and while tough times are here, I think tough people will endure them.”
The county’s controversial school funding formula (referred to as the “school floor”) took center stage during both the county commissioner’s and the school board’s portion of the forum, with Alford and Davis both saying that they have reached out to the school board with the goal of discussing the legislation.
Contradicting the commissioners statement, school board member Terence Williams said “I have not received anything from the county and I just (sent a text message) to our Superintendent (Rick Stout), and he said that he had not received anything either.”
School board chairman Charles Brown defended the funding formula, saying that “we need every dollar.”
“We’re in a crunch situation, and we as a school board have made sure that every dollar we’ve spent has been accounted for,” added Brown.
Williams voiced his support for a referendum on the school floor, while candidate Pat Gates agreed with commissioner candidate Whit Gibson, who warned that “to have a referendum in this economy would not be a fair hearing to the kids of Scotland County.”
“Some research needs to be done to make sure everybody understands what the (school floor) means,” said Gates.
In the event of a referendum, Gates said that she believes that “the people of Scotland County would probably support (the school floor) because I think they would want to continue to support the children of Scotland County.”
US House District 8 Representative Larry Kissell was not in attendance, and chose to have a representative speak on his behalf.
Durham lawyer Marcus Williams, who is challenging Kissell in the May 8 Democratic primary, described himself as “a fiscal tightwad” and emphasized the importance of his local ties.
Asked about his opinion on potential legislation that would force I-95 travelers to pay tolls, Williams expressed firm opposition to the idea.
“I think we already pay enough in gasoline and other taxes,” said Williams, adding that he would use his skills as a negotiator to “cajole” industry into the Scotland County area.
Of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Williams said that he supported several of the tenets of the legislation, qualifying his support by saying that he is “into access, not into mandates.”
“There are some serious legal issues with that (legislation),” added Williams.
Representing the Republican opposition was Dr. Scott Keadle, who due to his obligations as a Salisbury dentist was late to the forum.
Keadle pledged to, if elected, reduce regulations, and support a balanced budget amendment and an amendment installing congressional term limits. Keadle also voiced his opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Candidates for the NC Senate seat to be vacated by long-serving Scotland County Senator Bill Purcell had kind words for the outgoing legislator.
“He is widely respected … and I have heard him referred to as the ‘conscience of the NC Senate’,” said Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin.
McLaurin’s Democratic opponent, Anson County civil engineer Daniel Wilson, concurred, saying that “Senator Purcell’s reputation precedes him – he has left huge shoes to fill.”
Asked what, if anything, they would do about Scotland County’s school system funding formula”, only Wilson was willing to commit to working to get rid of the legislation without a resolution from both the Scotland County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education.
“It’s not right for the county commissioners to be strapped to a certain amount (of school funding),” said Republican senatorial candidate Gene McIntyre, a commissioner himself in Stanly County.
“I look forward to having a dialogue on the issue,” added McIntyre.
In light of the recently contentious state of affairs in the General Assembly, McLaurin said that he hoped that turnover in the legislature would lead to better relations in Raleigh.
“Frankly, the turnover will hopefully mean an opportunity to build some new relationships, and we will see some more cooperation,” said McLaurin.
Sitting state House members representing Scotland County, Garland Pierce and Ken Goodman, both of whom are running unopposed, also spoke at the forum.
Goodman attributed his lack of an opponent to his centrist legislating.
“I have tried to be as non-partisan as a person could be, and I have charted a center course,” said Goodman.
Pierce noted the difficulty that Democrats have had, for the first time in decades, being the minority in the NC House.
“Being in the majority makes you somewhat arrogant, and some of us were somewhat taken aback when the other party came to power,” said Pierce.
Asked what he learned during the transfer of power, Pierce recognized the dominating position that the majority party has in the legislature.
“You have got to work with the party in power – You can fail to do that, but you will end up with nothing,” said Pierce.
Register of Deeds incumbent Debra Holcomb touted her record of success over her seven years of service in the office, saying that she “kept (her) promise” to voters by upgrading the county’s records systems and by safely maintaining its expansive set of records.
“It only takes one error to create a liability for the county,” said Holcomb, “and our office, during my time, has never had a complaint.”
Challenger Aletha Poole emphasized her 15 years of experience managing a Wal-Mart store (ten of which were in Scotland County), saying that her experience managing an approximately $500-thousand budget along with her “strengths of loyalty” and willingness to explore technological innovation made her the best option for the job.
There were several heated exchanges between moderator Larry Schultz and speakers at the podium.
Schultz, intent on enforcing moderating rules that limited the length of residents’ questions, was forced to confront Scotland County native Charles Parker who attempted to preface his question with some comments on the history of the school floor.
“You let (the person before me) go on for a minute,” said Parker.
“That was my mistake,” replied Schultz, “and I respectfully ask you to ask your question.”
In response, Parker walked away from the podium without asking the question.
At another point during the evening local business owner Colin Wells was coaxed to wrap up his question by members of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Department, who, at the direction of Sheriff Shep Jones, approached the podium.