A capacity crowd filled the auditorium at Dawson County Middle School on Monday night to hear from local candidates running for office in the July 31 primary.
Sponsored by the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the county's Republican and tea parties, the forum featured the hopefuls in contested city, county and state races.
"Tonight's event was a great success for the organizations involved," said Clint Bearden, county GOP chairman.
Separate debates were held for sheriff, tax commissioner, surveyor, commission chairman and mayor, as well as the races for District 9 State House of Representatives and District 9 U.S. House.
The candidates, all of whom are Republicans, fielded questions compiled by a committee of representatives from the three sponsor groups. They did not see the topics ahead of time.
"We are very fortunate to have sincere people with good intentions willing to run for public office and serve our community," Bearden said. "And we're also blessed to have such a strong level of participation from our local citizens that attended."
Prior to the political forum, Melissa Sessa was on the fence about which candidates would receive her vote.
"[I] hadn't really made up my mind yet on the candidates and I wanted to hear the candidates' viewpoints on the questions presented tonight," she said.
Mark Summerour attended the forum to learn how congressional candidates plan to address matters of local importance.
"I just wanted to see what the candidates had to say about the issues and how they will affect Dawson County and the congressional district," he said.
Resident Barney Sullivan said he's never missed an election as long as he's had the opportunity to vote. He came to the forum to ensure he would be able to make informed choices at the polls.
"I think it's a bit stupid to go and vote when you don't know who you're voting for," he said.
The next forum of the campaign season is set for 2 to 4 p.m. June 16 in Big Canoe Chapel at the Broyles Center.
The event, which will feature candidates running for races in Dawson and Pickens counties, is being organized by the Big Canoe Homeowners Association.
COUNTY COMMISSION CHAIR
Job creation, annexations and a possible unified government topped the issues discussed Monday by the candidates for Dawson County commission chairman.
Incumbent Mike Berg is facing Mike Connor, a former District 3 commissioner, for a four-year term leading the county's governing body.
Connor said during the forum that he believes incumbents should have opposition in political races.
"I think in our electoral process, you need more than one person running for office," he said. "If you keep walking back in, that's not a "I'm running because I really do care about the people in this county."
The chairman prepares and presents the annual budget to the board of commissioners for approval, sets the board's weekly meeting agenda, makes appointments to various county boards and votes in the event of a tie.
Berg said he stands behind the work the county has accomplished during his previous two terms.
"The chairman's role is different than the county commission," he said. "The chairman's role for me [is] I have to prepare and present a budget.
"The last eight years I've done that, I've asked for no millage rate increase. We haven't had a millage increase in the last eight years."
While both candidates agreed the economy and creating jobs should be the top priorities for the upcoming term, they differed on how best to accomplish them.
"It's very important to have a tax base that promotes business," Berg said. "A tax base for business means property owners aren't paying as much tax.
"When I started about seven and a half years ago, we had about 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial. We're now about 60/40. That means the business that comes here ... has to bring the tax base."
According to Connor, the county needs to look at retaining existing businesses.
"I think what we've been looking too far down the road," he said. "I think we need to look at what we currently can do to have folks in Dawson County."
Connor used shops closing at the outlet mall and in the downtown area as examples.
"Why can't we concentrate on helping them out, figure out how we can save those people?" Connor said.
The candidates agreed that consolidating the county and city governments could cut costs and end annexation issues.
"I don't care if my position is eliminated. I don't think 23,000 people need two levels of government," Connor said. "I think we could all work together and we could save some money."
"In this day and time with the economy like it is, certainly it would be far better to have a unified government that can take care of any expenses you'd have separately, and I look forward to it," he said.
The two men seeking to become Dawsonville's next mayor talked about their credentials and discussed plans for pursuing municipal development during Monday night's forum.
Former Councilmen Calvin Byrd, 28, and James Grogan, 69, took turns addressing land-use regulations, local industry and potential consolidation of the city and county governments.
An image of two candidates both born and raised in Dawsonville emerged.
Byrd stressed his Christian faith, business management and family's five-generation roots in the city.
Grogan emphasized his family, business leadership and training with the Georgia Municipal Association.
Both candidates expressed a concern for keeping the city's rural charm, while embracing new business and industry.
Grogan, who currently serves as acting mayor, suggested he has already assisted in promoting economic development by supporting the Atlanta Motorsports Park and the new apartment project Farmington Woods. He has also encouraged further subdivision development.
Byrd said he's interested in working with and encouraging new businesses, as he has done previously with the North Georgia Network, a fiber-optic company, and Lanier Technical College, which is building a new local facility.
In response to a question, Grogan said he was in favor of the possibility of a local airport.
"There are individuals still looking at [the Elliot Field airport] every day ... Something is going to happen with that airport at some point and I'm not afraid to stand up and talk about it," he said.
He suggested it could be better used for private jets, not commercial air traffic.
On the other hand, Byrd said that until the speaker of the state House of Representatives changes his mind "the issue is dead."
The speaker, David Ralston, rejected the issue last year, saying the city council hadn't followed the proper channels. Ralston's district includes some of Dawson County.
However, Byrd and Grogan agreed on the issue of city and county government consolidation. They said that it's important to keep municipal government strong.
Concluding the mayoral debate, each candidate listed his goals.
Grogan said he would like to "continue to have a community very similar to what we have now," as well as to see projects, such as the city's sidewalks, through to their completion.
Similarly, Byrd listed two main goals: To keep Dawsonville's traditions while being open to new businesses. He added a wish to one day see a designated fairgrounds in the city.
During a forum Monday night, the candidates for Dawson County sheriff sparred over management styles, budgets and the war on drugs.
Four-term Sheriff Billy Carlisle has two challengers: Political newcomer Johnny Glass and veteran lawman Kevin Ellison.
Since all three candidates are Republican, the contest likely will be decided in next month's primary.
Each candidate touted their leadership and managerial experience and discussed goals to improve the agency over the next four years.
Carlisle wants to continue his efforts to make Dawson County a safe place to live by further lowering the crime rate.
Glass plans to reduce the budget and increase morale, while Ellison said he would focus on getting drunk drivers off the roads and drugs out of schools.
Ellison, a major and precinct commander for the DeKalb Police Department, said he wants to bring his unique management style to the local sheriff's office.
"I have a different management style than a lot of other people have. I tell them what I need done and they get it done for me," he said. "With that, that increases morale and a better work product and reduces complaints."
A proponent of term limits, Glass, who has no law enforcement experience, said he believes it's time for a change.
"Attitudes have sort of taken a back slide," he said. "I want to pick those attitudes up. Most people say two [terms]. I would love to have three. I think it takes the first four years for anybody to kind of restructure things."
After reviewing similarly-sized agencies operating with fewer employees, Glass said downsizing the department could be on his agenda.
"I'm not talking about patrol officers, most are middle management," he said.
Carlisle sees the region's current economic situation, coupled with unfunded state mandates, as the office's greatest obstacle.
"When the economy goes down hill ... the crime rate only goes up," he said.
The challenge, he said, is to continue providing the same quality of service without spending more money.
"We took a hard look at our crime rate here in the county and different things we could do. We looked at every person that works in the sheriff's office," he said.
Ellison said reconnecting the agency with the Appalachian Drug Task Force is one way to curtail drugs. He also wants to create a drug interdiction unit that would be funded by seized assets to work the county highways.
"We've got to get the drugs off of the highways before they get in the schools," he said.
Carlisle said he is proud of the work of his narcotics unit and of the programs in the local schools that encourage positive lifestyle choices and drug awareness.
"We've also gotten involved with drug courts here in the county, where drug dealers are going to drug court to rehabilitate them and with our inmates in our jail," he said.
Glass said a citizen advisory board would be his eyes and ears throughout the community.
"Not only from a crime standpoint, also from personnel," Glass said.
He also plans to be out in the neighborhoods talking to residents to learn about their concerns.
DISTRICT 9 STATE HOUSE
Ethics reform was a hot-button issue Monday night during a forum for the District 9 seat in the state House of Representatives.
Clint Smith and Kevin Tanner, both from Dawson County, also shared their opinions on funding for charter schools and the proposed state tax referendum.
"Ethics is not something you can legislate. You have to elect leaders that have the internal moral compass to make the right decision," said Tanner, a county native.
"It's not something that we can pass a law in Atlanta to legislate. If we have legislators that are not ethical, and they're not holding the high ethics standard that you expect them to hold, you need to vote them out."
The question followed Smith, who served in the state House from 1995 to 2003, signing a pledge in March to support ethics reform legislation that would ban gifts to elected officials that exceed $100.
"I wish it would be zero, but that's a good starting point," he said. "Ethics reform has always been an important issue for me and it will continue to be in so far moving forward in my campaign and my service in the House."
Smith said his leadership in church, the local library board and in strategic planning for the Georgia Air National Guard would serve him well in the General Assembly.
Tanner said he also promotes transparency in government and would vote to limit lobbyist gifts.
U.S. HOUSE DISTRICT 9
Three hopefuls in the District 9 congressional race opened Monday night's forum.
Republicans Doug Collins, Roger Fitzpatrick and Martha Zoller addressed issues ranging from the economic crisis to Medicare to Middle-East relations.
A fourth candidate, Hunter Bicknell of Braselton, did not attend the forum.
Zoller stressed first getting Barack Obama out of the White House and then working to encourage less business regulation, address major health care reform and to more publicly support Israel.
While Collins shared Zoller's beliefs of addressing health care and supporting Israel, he said the nation should also focus on getting back to being a free-enterprise society.
Lastly, Fitzpatrick also agreed on backing Israel, citing his Christian faith as his guidance.
He then emphasized that Congress needs to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service and eliminate the Federal Reserve.
All three candidates highlighted their public accessibility and their desire to hear from constituents.
In the race for Dawson County tax commissioner, incumbent Linda Townley and challenger Karin McKee see the economy and changes in tax code related to car tags as the greatest challenges for the office.
Both women tout extensive managerial and accounting backgrounds and a desire to serve the community.
Topics discussed during Monday night's candidate forum ranged from overcoming economic challenges to changes in state law.
Townley said the community has always supported her and she wants to do the same for it.
"I love the people of Dawson County and want to help them as much as I can," Townley said.
Now in her second term, Townley said she is proud that the county's tax collections are above the state average.
She also said she is always looking for cost-saving measures and hopes to begin e-mailing tax bills in an effort to trim postage costs.
McKee focused on what she described as "missed opportunities" for the office.
A political newcomer, she aims to improve customer service and reopen the tag office annex near the Ga. 400 corridor.
"I want to not only represent, but work for you," she said. "I hope to eliminate any unnecessary spending and improve communication with taxpayers."
Candidates for Dawson County surveyor outlined their experience and highlighted the importance of the elected office during a forum Monday night.
The candidates also compared methods of training and the constant need to stay abreast of updates and changes in the industry, including technology.
Incumbent Don "Rex" Jones, Ben Trail and Gregg Bagwell are seeking the office.
"Technology has come a long way," said Bagwell, who recalled going out on his first surveys with only a Casio calculator and log book. "I got to learn the old way, but I've seen how technology has grown."
Despite the availability of technological breakthroughs such as GPS and the Internet, Jones said, "There's no substitute for research."
"Survey methods are tried and true. I research each and every parcel myself without going online," he said.
In addition to preparing recordable survey plats to settle land disputes, the county surveyor also serves as an expert witness in cases involving land disputes, which the slate of candidates agreed is a vital function off the office.
A longtime public servant with nearly five decades of experience in the field, Trail said the position was created many years ago with the intent that the most qualified person would be elected surveyor.
Both Trail and Jones, who was first appointed county surveyor in July 2009 following the death of Fred Youngman, also spoke of their knowledge of the area, having worked on numerous developments in the county.
Bagwell said he is running to get more involved and serve Dawson County residents.