Growth management became a primary focus for candidates Thursday seeking four elected positions during a debate at the Columbia County Library.
The debate, sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee, showcased candidates squaring off in county commission District 1, school board Chairman, school board District 2 and Superior Court judge races.
The Democratic candidate for the commission, Scott Nichols, left no doubt with debate attendees that he favors imposing impact fees on new construction. Impact fees are charged to developers to help offset future growth costs.
Nichols reiterated the point many times in his debate with Republican opponent Ron Thigpen.
He touted impact fees as a cure for nearly all of Columbia County's ills, including transportation and infrastructure needs. Impact fees, Nichols said, would eliminate the need for a $44 million bond referendum, which voters will see on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Additionally, Nichols said he wants to change the focus of the commission away from developers and concentrate more on residents.
"The homeowners should come first in this county," he said.
Thigpen relied on his experience with the county planning commission and the development authority to make his case as an ideal candidate for the commission.
Thigpen said he wanted to establish better relations with the state Department of Transportation to improve the county's thoroughfares and defended the need for a bond referendum, saying the cost of fixing the problems detailed in the referendum will only escalate if not taken care of now.
The second group of candidates to take the stage was made up of school board District 2 incumbent Mildred Blackburn and challenger Sissy Hobbs.
Blackburn expressed her happiness with the current state of the school system, while Hobbs said she'd like to see "little changes" to make a good system even better.
In discussing a replacement for retiring Superintendent Tommy Price, Hobbs said she thinks the next superintendent should be more "hands on" with teachers and parents.
Blackburn said she wants a superintendent with "vision."
Neither woman commented much about a lawsuit Hobbs filed against the system. She sued after her termination as a bus driver last year, saying she was discriminated against because of her affiliation with a bus drivers' union.
Blackburn called the situation with the lawsuit "awkward," but said little else.
Candidates for the county's newest political position - school board chairman - took the stage next.
Candidates Lee Muns and Lawrence Hammond said the board needs to develop a better strategic plan for the rapid growth in the county. Both said school officials should start earlier to identify and buy land ahead of the growth.
"You've got to be much more forward-thinking," Muns said.
Current board member Regina Buccafusco said her year as school board chairman, when the post was internally selected by the board, resulted in several academic successes for the system that she wants to continue.
In the closing round of the debate, Hammond questioned Muns on his academic background.
Muns said he has a diploma from Westside High School.
Hammond said someone expecting to "win the respect of teachers" should have a college education.
Superior Court judge candidates touted their individual experience as reasons voters should choose them for the post.
Candidate David Roper mentioned a variety of civic organizations he belongs to as a measure of his commitment to the community.
Charles "Les" Wilkinson established his credentials as a successful trial lawyer with Superior, state and federal courts.
William "Bill" Williams said he has had a thriving law practice for many years and has a lot of experience trying cases in Superior Court.
Willie Saunders, the youngest of the candidates at age 36, said that his quality of experience as a prosecutor outweighed the experience of his competitors and that his youth means he is more in touch with today's more pressing domestic issues.
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