published Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Hamilton County's District 7 candidates spar in debate

District 7 County Commission candidates:

Democrat

Ezra Maize

Don Brown

Republican

Perry Perkins

Phil Smartt

Sabrena Turner

Pitching ideas, discussing their views and exchanging a handful of jabs, the candidates for the District 7 Hamilton County Commission seat gathered Saturday at Christ United Methodist Church to debate the issues facing the district.

With the May 6 primary creeping closer and campaign signs now peppered along East Brainerd Road, the three Republicans and two Democrats in the race introduced themselves to several dozen district residents in an auditorium at the church by discussing recent spats, school construction issues and more over a 90-minute span.

With incumbent District 7 Commissioner Larry Henry running for Circuit Court clerk, the seat is open. Tensions continued to rise Saturday between a pair of Republicans vying to replace him.

After a Facebook post by Sabrena Turner's campaign manager Thursday questioning the validity of the Mormon faith that Phil Smartt practices, Smartt addressed the issue head-on.

In his opening statement, Smartt acknowledged receiving an over-the-phone apology from Turner, but emphasized the sincerity of his faith in Jesus and expressed his disappointment in the direction the incident took the race.

"Faith is so important in my life and to have it attacked is a very difficult thing for me," Smartt told the audience. "I'm concerned about those types of attacks that we're getting in the gutter instead of talking about issues."

Turner said she did not want to argue about anything and that she respects anyone's religion.

Though the duo also engaged in back-and-forth throughout the debate about Turner's role in fighting annexation, the issue garnering the most discussion Saturday was schools.

Democrat Ezra Maize, a local pastor, touted his experience helping to keep Knoxville's Austin-East High School open. He said he chose to live in District 7 because he wanted his daughter to go to East Hamilton High School.

Maize said dividing time between his work and the commission would simply be a continuation of the work he already does in the community as a pastor who does not like to spend his time behind a desk.

Republican candidate Perry Perkins described the lack of funding for a new CSLA building as "an atrocity" and said he spent time with some of the school's parents this week.

Though he does not have children, Perkins said his track record of working with schools speaks for itself.

"I believe if you're going to make public education better, you don't pull your kids out and put them in private school," said Perkins, a Tyner High School graduate. "You step up to the plate and make your school a better place just like they do at CSLA."

Turner, an Ooltewah graduate who did not send her three children to public school, quickly countered that.

"I commend that statement coming from someone who doesn't have any kids," she quipped.

Democrat Don Brown advocated for a better school maintenance system that would keep the county from needing to take on the burden of funding new school buildings as frequently.

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Mickey Barker moderated the debate and posed the night's final question: If elected, how are you going to get school funding?

Several agreed that, first and foremost, the $11 million owed to the schools by the city in liquor taxes would be a good start.

Perkins and Maize proposed examining strategies used by surrounding communities or other states. Smartt said that local officials should push continue to push for the allocation of more funding for Hamilton County through the state's Basic Education Program.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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