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No drama at first forum for local candidates

    The 2014 local political season got off to a calm start with only incumbents present in the school board race and the challenger for a commission seat praising the incumbent during a Tea Party sponsored forum Feb. 25th.
    Roughly 50 members of the public attended the meeting at Chattahoochee Tech, hearing moderator Dr. Bert Loftman pose questions to the candidates.
    For the commission race, incumbent Jerry Barnes is running for another term on the three-person board which was formed two years ago. Barnes represents the western part of the county. The term will become four years after this election.
    Barnes is challenged at this time only by Bart Connelly, who ran two years ago and has become a regular attendees at public events since then.
    Connelly said he is friends with Barnes and thinks he does a good job as commissioner. “I haven’t found Jerry to do much wrong,” Connelly said.
    In his opening, Barnes noted that he has lived his whole life within a half mile of where he was born in west Pickens.  Barnes said he always been active in the community with the Hinton Fire Department, which was built completely from raised private funds with no tax dollars. He is also the choir leader and Hinton Methodist church.   
    Connelly said he retired from construction work after 33 years and is active in numerous community groups including serving as the chairman of KPB adopt-a-road program.
    Describing key issues, Connelly was blunt saying, “the budget is the big thing.” Connelly attends most finance meetings in the county and says he regularly studies the audits and budgets.
    Incumbent Barnes said since moving to a three-member board, the county has operated under budget. He said they keep a close eye on finances and are now working on a nepotism policy.
    Both commissioner and school board candidates were asked how they felt about federal intrusion with programs like the first lady’s childhood obesity prevention efforts.
    Connelly said it’s very easy to blame the feds for many things, but they are only part of the problem. He noted the federal government launched the war on poverty 50 years ago and spent several trillion on it and there will always be somebody living in poverty.
    In a humorous aside, Barnes noted they didn’t have discipline problems back at Ludville Elementary as parents were quick with spankings. He also asked if Connelly had put them up to asking an obesity question. “I’m taking the fifth on obesity,” he said to laughs from the audience.
    Discussing the perennial question of past spending, a question was posed about the county’s $11 million debt. Barnes said it’s important to recognize that the debt includes $8 million in county loans that went to water lines that is being paid back as planned using water bills. Another $2.2 million was from the recreation center and there are 3 fire trucks on a loan. Commission chairman Rob Jones, who was in attendance, said when looking at the debt of $11 million, you need to balance it against more than $30 million in capital assets the county has developed over the same period.
    Connelly said, “You can’t change the past. But you can learn from it.” Connelly noted the recent commissioners’ meeting where they “thanked the common citizens for holding their feet to the fire.”
    Connelly stuck up for the county administration responding to a question about the decision to not conduct a forensic audit of past spending. He said if anyone has knowledge that something illegal went on, they need to come forward. “Just calling for an audit of 10 to 12 years is not necessary unless someone has something specific,” he said.

School Board
    Present were incumbents Wendy Lowe (who has served as the board chair since being elected) Byron Long and Dan Fincher. All three were elected four years ago to the five-person board. No one has announced plans to run against them but qualifying has not opened yet.
    In brief openings: Wendy Lowe said she has lived in Pickens County for 24 years after growing up in Cherokee County. She and her husband run the Joy House (a Christian ministry for teens that includes school work and a residential program). She felt her work on the school board is an extension of her desire to help children. She said her goal if re-elected is to “keep improving on the things we have begun.”
    Byron Long said he had recently the bought the house where he was born in Talking Rock and is a lifelong resident of Pickens County. He has two kids in the public school system. Long said he is regularly asked why he wants to spend all the hours required by being on the board and he never has a good answer. “Someone has to do it. Kids are our future.”
    Dan Fincher said he believes the three members of the board up for election have made a big change. “Our goal is to improve even more the next four years.”
    Fincher, a veterinarian, has previously served in the state senate and ran for congress. “I thought my political career was over,” Fincher said. “Then I was asked to run four years ago [for school board]. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”
    When asked about federal program and also about single parent households:
    Lowe said obesity is not a national problem; it’s a personal problem. People rely too much on the government.
    Long said the easy target for these problems is the economy. Money issues are a cause for divorce for families already struggling and you end up with single parents. “Values end up missing due to the fact that parents aren’t there to do the parenting,” he said.
    Fincher said, obesity is an individual choice. The government can’t dictate. You see things on television that aren’t good for you and you eat things that are not good for your body.
    When asked about allowing students to say prayers, all the incumbents said they supported it on a personal level, but there were restrictions and it really wasn’t up to them to change the established precedents which would likely draw a lawsuit.
    Lowe noted also that students can pray whenever they want.
    On Common Core standards, Lowe said it is good to have some uniformity so that students who move from one county to another will be able to enter the new school system that is on a similar academic plan. But she noted that Pickens goes well beyond the mandated minimum in developing the curriculum here. “We do a lot more in Pickens County and other county school systems should too,” she said.
    Long said the standards are needed. Board members are not trained to set standards so they need to be set by professionals. “As far as Common Core goes at some level I agree,” he said. “But the problem is that it draws the federal government in.” Long noted that education is clearly defined as a state issue in the Constitution.
    Fincher said he had been to a workshop with 20-25 teachers and they were in agreement that Common Core could be modified and improved, but it should not be done away with. “From their feedback I support it,” he said. “You need basic standards.”