MOUNT VERNON — The three Republican candidates for county commissioner went head-to-head Monday night in a forum sponsored by the Knox County 9/12 Project. Democratic candidate Rebecca Jordan was invited as well, but was not present due to a previous engagement.
Incumbent Commissioner Robert Wise, Fredericktown Mayor Roger Reed and local businessman Tim Smith organized their comments around the central thrust of their respective campaigns. Smith is running as an outsider, a nonpolitician who seeks to bring fresh insight to the problems of county government. Reed is running as an insider with years of administrative experience from his terms as mayor of Fredericktown and his work as supervisor of Knox County Animal Control, in which position he has worked with many of the elected county officials. Wise is running as the incumbent, emphasizing that the currently sitting board has done an outstanding job during very hard economic times.
One audience member asked what regrets or mistakes would each candidate own up to in their careers as public servants.
Wise addressed the controversy about remarks he made at the CES Credit Union in 2007 which caused a teller to feel threatened. Wise admitted that in a moment of anger over a loan dispute, he compared the situation to the kind of frustrations which lead to violence, such as the then-recent Virginia Tech shootings.
“I am very sorry that I said that,” Wise said. “I didn’t realize that I could be scrutinized for everything I’d ever say, probably the rest of my life. It did not mean anything.”
Reed said he had done many things during his years as mayor of Fredericktown that he wished he hadn’t, but added that he was also man enough to admit it if he made a mistake, and that he would then make it right.
“I’m the nonpolitician, so I don’t have any regrets,” Smith said.
Another much-discussed element was Reed’s endorsement by 83 percent of the Republican Central Committee over Wise. Wise said it was no surprise, considering that a large portion of the committee was made up of elected officials whose budgets Wise has been slashing for the last two years. He likened their urge to spend to Democrats in Washington. Reed pointed out that many of the central committee members were not elected officials.
State Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl had a question for the candidates: Is commissioner a part-time job? Smith said it was a full-time job, but that he has worked two jobs for years, and could keep up with his real estate business through modern technology and showing houses on the weekends and in the evenings.
Wise said his business, Wise Choice Propane, has been set up for his family to run. He said he has great employees who have learned to run the business without his direct supervision.
Reed said that as county commissioner, he would have one job and one job only, promising to hold daily office hours with an open-door policy.
The next question was whether county commissioner was a career or civic duty. Reed said he didn’t consider himself a career politician, despite his years in office. Wise said he regarded the position as a duty, not a career, despite his recent years in office.
“They have shown you they are career politicians,” Smith said. “I only intend to serve a term or two as a public service.”
In terms of specifics, Smith offered few details, pointing out only that his study of county departmental budgets found a $25,000 “miscellaneous” line item in one department’s budget. Wise questioned that, saying he was not aware of any such entry.
One woman, who identified herself as an employee of Reed’s at the county dog pound, said that originally she was opposed to his appointment as Animal Control officer, but that she had to admit he has run the department with great professionalism and indeed with an “open door” policy for those with concerns. She also told Wise she was very unhappy that the county had no rainy day contingency to help deal with the recent economic downturn.
One audience member asked why so much money was spent on the new dog pound building. Wise said he found it disappointing that meeting specifications and regulations for government building contracts added costs to projects not normally encountered by private citizens.
When one person asked what budget surprises were yet to come, Wise quoted new county sales tax figures, which may suggest the county has turned the corner of the recession.
Another audience member asked if it was true that sheriff’s deputies have a workout room at the sheriff’s office as well as gym memberships.
“The sheriff is an elected official,” Wise said. “I’m not elected to run his department for him.”
Wise said he felt the amounts he had already cut in the sheriff’s office budget already cost him the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement, which went to Reed.
On the question of eminent domain, Reed said he opposed it; Smith said it has to be decided on a case by case basis. Wise said he opposes the use of eminent domain, but that he wasn’t averse to using it, as the commissioners recently had, as a bargaining tool to force a railroad to sell an old roadbed to the county without any legal strings attached.
The moderator asked a final question: Would property taxes go down based on falling property values due to the current economy? Wise said he expected taxes would go down some, but not a great deal, as the devaluation was expected to be a temporary state.