Saturday, April 24, 2010

Candidate Forum News

Intrepid voters!

On Saturday morning, April 24, a group of hardy souls braved the rain and gathered on the porch at Sweet Gipsy Coffee Shop on Signal Mountain to hear from the two Republican candidates for County Commission District 2. Incumbent Richard Casavant and challenger Jim Fields spoke and answered questions for an hour on the topics confronting the County Commission and explicated their reasons for running.

Dr. Richard Casavant

The event started with opening statements. Dr. Casavant emphasized his experience and excitement about the future prospects for the county with the pending opening of the Volkswagon plant and several other new and expanding businesses. He mentioned his priorities were public education, sewer infrastructure to drive economic growth “where it needs to be rather than just where it perks”, and supporting opportunities for young families.

James Fields

Mr. Fields emphasized his business experience as a lawyer running a small practice and his volunteer work with his church and other community organizations. He stated he was running as a conservative and emphasized his opposition to any new taxes.

The floor was then opened for questions and education was clearly on everyone’s mind. The first question was about the news of the day that money was yet to be found to support the German “school” or program promised to Volkswagon executives. The moderator asked if the rainy day fund would be tapped or if other sources would be found. Dr. Casavant stated his support for this promise and his conviction that the money would be found. He stated he opposed using the rainy day fund in order to protect the county’s AAA bond rating which keeps interest rates low. He stated that the ultimate problem with funding was at the state level and that the BEP formula was unfair. Mr. Fields also agreed that the funding for the German school should be protected. He stated that education was important and that, rather than raising funds he would look at the cost side for ways to balance budgets. He also stated that private school and home school students should be addressed, but wasn’t specific about just how.

The next question was on protecting the IB program at Signal Mountain Middle/High School. Dr. Casavant stated that he was working on getting the teachers for the IB program. Mr. Fields stated that he couldn’t guarantee any positions and had no specific answer, but would do his best to fund education.

Next, the candidates were asked about Mr. Fields pledge to cut costs and he was asked for specifics. He stated he would “look through the budget” for what is essential, but did not know the specifics although he pledged not to cut “the classroom”. Dr. Casavant commented that there was always room for more efficiency, but that it was more important to be effective and give the teachers the tools to teach. He said that the education budget was already very lean. He stated he was proud of what has been accomplished on Signal Mountain and wanted to be sure that no “sand was put in the gears”. He also reminded the audience that there were other schools in the district that had to be considered, specifically mentioning the new Middle School in Red Bank.

On a related topic, but with a different approach, the candidates were asked “what’s wrong with increasing taxes for schools”. The questioner commented on living in other areas with higher taxes and more resources for schools. Mr. Fields again commented that he opposed increasing taxes unless it was voted for in a public referendum. Dr. Casavant noted that the property tax rate since 1997 had decreased from 2.982 per hundred to 2.7652 per hundred. While this decrease was primarily to compensate for increased assessments, he noted that without the increases passed over the last 12 years the town’s fiscal status would be very poor. He also commented that most of those increases had gone to schools.

Next, Mr. Fields was asked what new ideas he would bring to the County Commission. He corrected the questioner that he would actually bring a new perspective and different experiences. He stated he would focus on the VW plant and encourage local hiring, though again was not specific about how he would accomplish this. He mentioned the idea of having commission meetings at night. Dr. Casavant reiterated his excitement about the future for Hamilton County. He noted that he had seen an increase in his students getting jobs locally and the fact that the VW plant is already hiring and will be making cars soon. He also commented on the changing nature of our community due to international investment in Hamilton County and how important it was for us to prepare for global competition. He expressed his desire to continue to be a part of this economic future.

On a lighter note, the candidates were asked what they would do to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches! They both stated that they supported nutritional meals, but that those specifics were more the responsibility of the school board.

A more pointed question was then asked. The audience member questioned the “rosie picture” of the local situation presented by Dr. Casavant. He mentioned Spring Hill and wondered if the VW plant would just become an albatross, asking if taxes would rise to fund VW. Dr. Casavant mentioned examples such as Greenville, SC and West Point, GA which, unlike Spring Hill continue to have successful auto plants. He noted the importance to diversify our economy to prevent the very problem that the questioner presented and keep the county from becoming too dependent just on VW. Mr. Fields agreed with Dr. Casavant about the need to diversify and again stated his opposition to taxes as inhibiting business.

A related question on what else might be in the works for Hamilton County was put to Dr. Casavant. He noted that we should always be careful about assisting businesses since we can’t predict future success. He stated that we need people willing to risk their own money as entrepreneurs. Dr. Casavant was also asked about a rumor the questioner had heard about “discretionary funds” that each commissioner has and he reassured the questioner that any left over funds stayed with the county and would not be kept by him personally if he left office.

During closing statements, the candidates asked for the votes of the group and thanked them for their interest. The candidates had both agreed to answer questions from each other and Dr. Casavant asked Mr. Fields a final question about whether he had supported the bond issue which allowed SMMHS to be built. Mr. Fields responded that he had voted against that bond issue. He later contacted the moderator to clarify that his vote was not against the high school, but against the funding mechanism.

The group sponsoring this forum is a political discussion group recently formed by a group of friends on Signal Mountain. They plan to meet regularly to inform themselves and the public about issues and the public are always welcome at their meetings. They are meeting under the name “League of Signal Mountain Voters” and future meetings will be publicly announced.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big Weekend Coming Up

Two big events this weekend deserve notice.

First, Saturday morning, April 24 there will be an informal candidate forum with the two Republican candidates for County Commission District 2 from 10-11am at Sweet Gipsy Coffee Shop. Some friends and I have recently started a political discussion group, tentatively called the "League of Signal Mountain Voters". This initially was inspired by the CoffeePartyUSA which was started as a counterpart to the so-called "Tea Party" movement. While the Coffee Party has had a decidedly liberal or progressive approach, we decided to keep this group non-partisan at the local level so are not formally affiliated with them. Our primary emphasis is to discuss issues on a factual basis with openness to opposing and dissenting viewpoints and a polite and civil approach to discussion. So, with all that introduction, we had our first meeting at Sweet Gipsy coffee shop a week ago with about a dozen folks there talking about what we wanted to do with this concept. We decided to put a strong emphasis on encourage voter education, participation and turnout, especially with the county primary coming up on May 4. So, that being said, we will have current County Commissioner Richard Casavant and his Republican opponent, Jim Fields at our meeting on Saturday at 10am on the porch at Sweet Gipsy. This will be open to the public. I will moderate and will expect all to act in a civil and respectful manner. There will be opening comments and then questions from the audience.

On a lighter note, the next day, Sunday April 25 The Orchard Band, featuring Robert and Alice Thatcher and myself will be performing at Sweet Gipsy during their weekly Sunday brunch from 11am-2pm. We will also have guest performers! So come on down for lunch and some good acoustic music!