Catoosa candidates attend public forums as primary nears

Catoosa candidates attend public forums as primary nears

July 26th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

Last night the Chattanooga Times Free Press hosted yet another forum involving all five candidates in the race to become Catoosa County's first new sheriff in more than 20 years.

Those whose names appear on the July 31 Republican Party primary ballot are: Gary Sisk, Ben Scott, Jeff Holcomb, Mike Helton and Larry Black.

It was the third time in the span of about five weeks that these law enforcement veterans have answered questions as to why they are best qualified to be sheriff and how they intend to serve the citizens if elected to that office.

What is unusual about this race, other than five highly qualified candidates seeking the same post, is that this campaign for a county constitutional office - a role designated by the state constitution - has focused on constitutional law. In particular, candidates have been asked time and again to state their opinions about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and about Georgia's open carry law.

The first forum, hosted by the local Tea Party during the last week of June, involved only the GOP candidates for sheriff.

The second, hosted by the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce, was open to every candidate seeking election - even those in uncontested races.

Chamber President and CEO Martha Eaker said 27 office seekers accepted the invitation and most were able to participate.

During this second time when all five sheriff candidates shared a public stage, a brief exchange between Black and an audience member got testy when the citizen shouted that the candidate seemed to be in favor of gun control.

Following the forum, officials noted that the man who took exception to Black's response has himself forfeited the right to possess firearms because of his criminal background.

While firearms and the related topic of fireworks were confined to candidates for sheriff, those seeking other offices were provided opportunities to respond to a moderator's questions about their particular race.

Clerk of superior court

Three candidates - Daniel McMurry, Michael Caldwell and Tracy Brown - agreed upgrading technology and bringing the clerk's office into the 21st century are essential.

Each stressed their leadership skills: McMurray from his years as an educator, Caldwell from managing a law firm and working in Dade County's superior court and Brown for her 18 years working in the office she hopes to head.

School board at large

This contest is between challenger Brent Williams and incumbent Melvin Edwards.

Both agreed redrawing school districts, particularly in regard to Heritage High School, is a non-issue: there is no need to rezone the school.

When asked about the county having a graduation rate lower than the state average, Williams said non-traditional students might benefit from a modified curriculum while Edwards said programs are already in place to help boost attendance and graduation rates.

County Commission, District 1 and

district 3

Incumbent Jeff Long, recently elected to represent District 1 on the County Commission faces a challenge from Joyce Dean on the ballot, but not during the candidates' forum as Dean was a no-show.

That was not the case for District 3's incumbent Councilman Jim Cutler and challenger Steve Henry.

Cutler noted his experience of serving on the commission during trying financial times as making him better prepared to deal with the pressures of maintaining the county's rural nature while at the same time helping it develop economically, particularly in areas near the Interstate 75 exits.

Henry said he sees a need to more aggressively work to expand the county's commercial/industrial base. Such expansion could lead to lower property tax rates in the coming years.

Neither Cutler nor Henry support TSPLOST, a regional referendum that would dedicate a one percent sales tax for transportation projects.

District Attorney

The race district attorney for the four-county Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit pits four-term incumbent Herbert "Buzz" Franklin against challenger Doug Woodruff.

Franklin's experience includes 31 years as a prosecuting attorney, including 16 as district attorney. He has also spent time serving as a juvenile judge.

Woodruff's background includes stints as a sheriff's department dispatcher and patrol officer, school teacher and volunteer firefighter. His 16 years as an attorney has been spent in private practice, as an assistant district attorney and as chief assistant public defender.

Chief magistrate

Incumbent Johnny Gass is in a three-way race with James Ellis and Brad Palmer to serve as the county's chief magistrate judge.

Gass cited his 13 years experience as a law enforcement officer as well as having served in the magistrate's office and on the bench as making him best qualified for the position.

Ellis said his 27 year involvement in the local sheriff's office should count as having provided real world courtroom experience.

Palmer noted serving in the military and for several sheriffs as qualifying him for the office, as well as his years of experience as an expert witness.

The three agreed there is no need to add magistrate judges at present, though Palmer proposed adding services to the Westside, making it easier for deputies and officers to deal with the court.

Among those who had no opponents, either at the forum or on the upcoming ballot, County Commission Chairman Keith Greene said he is proud of his four years in office and "thankful to be unopposed."

Highlights of his term have included working with the Board of Commissioners to shepherd the county through a recession and its associated challenges - particularly those posed during and after last year's tornado.

"We had cash reserves," he said, something that made recovery and rebuilding move more smoothly and rapidly than it has in other counties in the region.

When asked about TSPLOST, Greene, who served on the committee that prepared and prioritized a list of projects for Region 1 that would be funded by the optional tax, offered this advice.

"On paper, TSPLOST looks good and I initially supported it," he said. "Now, I'm not sure it is the right thing to do."

Greene has concerns about adding yet another optional tax having an adverse impact on voters' willingness to approve future SPLOST referendums that fund all capital projects - not just roads - in Catoosa County.

He also doubts the tax's justification, as it seems Catoosa would be "a donor or, at best, a break-even county," meaning it would receive less than it contributes to the TSPLOST revenue pool.

And while retail sales might not suffer from the additional tax, the overall cost of doing business could hinder the county's - and statewide - efforts to attract new business.

"Think about it (TSPLOST), and do your homework," Greene said. "If you look at the big picture, there should be other and better solutions to meeting our transportation needs."