Commissioner candidates take center stage at Chamber forum
Ten candidates vying for three commissioner seats opening up in November were in the spotlight Thursday at Trinity Oaks.
Co-hosted by the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce and Catawba College, the “Power in Partnership” morning forum put the eight Republican and two Democrat candidates in front of more than 170 people to not only introduce themselves, but also answer a question from Dr. Michael Bitzer.
The responses were as diverse as the candidates who gave them.
Bitzer, provost and political science professor at Catawba College, threw a series of questions focused on economic development, business advocacy and support of education at the candidates.
“For any candidate to put themselves out for public support, they need to be willing to share their ideas, values and what they want to accomplish,” Bitzer said. “It is forums like this that allow the citizens to hear those perspectives. We decry the fact that voters aren’t informed. These are opportunities for that information.”
All questions came from the Chamber’s governmental affairs committee, Bitzer said.
While each candidate was asked one question, the nature of the questions differed every few candidates.
“We have many assets here in Rowan County to attract the businesses that will bring jobs. We just all need to work together. There is a lot of confrontation among the different organizations, councils, commissions and boards,” said Brandon Cupp, Republican candidate for commissioner. “That needs to stop, and this year is a good year to stop it so we can move forward.”
Joe Coladarci said one of Rowan County’s greatest assets is having 2 million people reachable within a one-hour drive.
“We have an opportunity to create good-paying jobs for the residents that we presently have in distribution,” Coladarci said. “By maintaining a stable tax base that we have maintained for the last few years, that helps business decide what they want to do.”
Coladarci advocated continuing to go the same direction the county currently is going.
Greg Edds, another Republican candidate and former chairman of the Rowan County Republican Party, said education is essential to job recruitment in the area.
“We don’t really have a countywide economic strategy. We need to do that. We need to narrow the focus on the jobs we think we can attract and go after them wholeheartedly,” Edds said.
Jim Greene said there is “not any one thing” a commissioner can do to repair and strengthen the relationship between the county and the school system.
Greene, another Republican candidate, said commissioners have to fulfill the obligations they are charged with.
“We are charged with raising the money and providing the facilities that the school system needs. That’s the first thing we need to do,” Greene said. “We have taken that step forward, finally. But, we need to see our schools as the jewel that they are. We need to have our children prepared for the 21st century.”
Public schools have been the backbone of the state’s education and progress for 200 years, Greene said.
“We have to support our schools. We do it through being involved. We do it by being involved with the PTA,” Greene said.
Judy Klusman, a former Wisconsin legislator, is running as a Republican for a commissioner seat and said the county “needs a lot of repair.”
“I believe that our current leadership in the county does not work hard enough to sit down and have breakfast once a week or once a month with leaders from other communities,” Klusman said.
Klusman said strong leadership is what will bring the relationship between the county and the school system back into good standing.
“I’ve attended several forums over the past couple weeks, and the things I saw emphasized were collaboration, communication and cooperation,” Klusman said. “We don’t have that right now. That, to me, comes from experienced leadership — leadership like they did in the state legislature.”
Republican candidate Johnny Love said repairing the county’s relationship with the local school board has a simple solution.
Love said it is time for all government entities to come together, check egos at the door and stop focusing “on who has the most money and the most clout.”
“The best way for us to (mend it) with the schools is to let the schools do their job — and fund it,” Love said.
Another Republican candidate, David Roueche, said commissioners working harmoniously with the county’s various municipalities and other boards is a plan that needs to be “moved forward with positive thinking and energy.”
Commissioners must allow the county’s department heads to work and do their jobs on their own, Roueche said.
Running to retain his seat, Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides said some of commissioners’ meetings with the school board are forced meetings.
“We’ve come to a point to where it is either we give them what they want or we go to court,” Sides said. “I can give them the whole $99 million that we have, and we won’t have any of the other services. We could do away with 26 departments we have in the county, but I think it is a matter of negotiation. I think that is what we’re in right now.”
Democrat candidate Rick Locklear said there is a connection between economic development and the reputation of the county’s education system. “One of the things that we need to do when we go out and recruit corporations or companies to come in our county is we need to let them know what we have here,” Locklear said. “We’ve got two fine colleges in Catawba and Livingstone College. We’ve got a fine community college. We need to educate corporations as to what our community college is offering and the type of workforce that is here.”
Leda Shuping Belk, the other Democrat on the panel, said economic development and the school system are tied in a knot. Rowan County cannot recruit good industry unless the county has schools those leaders want their children to be in, Belk said.
Funding the schools also is crucial, Belk said.
“We have great colleges. We have a great community college. They turn programs around on a dime to try to serve the industries coming in,” Belk said. “They reinvent overnight out there. They have stretched their dollars.”
At the local level, Belk said the county is lacking everywhere from upkeep of facilities to keeping teachers in the classroom.
“We have teachers bailing every day and leaving Rowan County,” Belk said. “They’re signing up at Mecklenburg because they get a bonus. That has got to stop. We will not recruit good industry until we invest in our education.”
Although they didn’t sit on the panel, both Raymond Coltrain and Gene Miller also are pursuing commissioner seats via a unique strategy. Coltrain, a former commissioner, and Miller, a retired Rowan-Salisbury School System assistant superintendent, are trying to get 4,000 signatures before June 27 so their names will be on the November ballot as unaffiliated candidates.
Chamber President Elaine Spalding said she was pleased to have every commissioner candidate in the primary participate in the forum.
“The idea was to try and give folks just a little bit of a taste of each candidate. With this breakfast format, we wanted to focus on business advocacy issues,” Spalding said. “The focus also was on economic development and education issues. It was about how to attract new businesses while working with our existing businesses.”
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