COVINGTON - Candidates for county commission chairman laid out their platforms and fielded questions before a packed boardroom at the Newton County Historic Courthouse on Tuesday night.
Republicans Ed Hutter and Susette Monk and Democrats Hubert White, Emmett Denby and Kathy Morgan were on hand at the forum, sponsored by the Newton County Voter's League, in hopes of winning votes in the upcoming July 15 primary.
Denby focused most of his comments on government ethics, saying, "You can trust me to work hard and have an honest, open and accountable government. My door will always be open to everyone. We can prioritize road and water projects based on need, not politics."
He went on to say that the current board is "arrogant and corrupt," alleging that members engage in special interest deals, use their positions to pad their pockets and do favors for family and friends. Denby did not give specific examples of his allegations.
"We need to clean house, and I think I'm the man to do it," he said.
Denby criticized incumbent Aaron Varner for not attending the forum.
"He thinks he's got it sewn up, and you need to make your voice heard," he told the crowd. "I have never witnessed in any other county, and I've been all over, more arrogance than in this county."
Varner said he did not attend because of a prior personal engagement.
Denby also said there's a problem with property tax assessments, with some residents paying less than their neighbors. He said this is due to "special deals" being made with friends of county officials, and claimed he knew specifically of one instance in which someone had their taxes lowered because they were friends with someone in government.
Denby said he will not engage in any special or secret deals and will hold open meetings and maintain open records, which "will be unusual for Newton County."
On transportation, Denby said while he understands the county's hands may be tied when it comes to state and federal highways, the county could move forward with improving intersections and local roads.
"There's no excuse for us not doing those things," he said.
Hutter promised to "sell Newton County" to industries and retail in order to improve the tax base and create more local jobs.
"We've got to do things to make us a shining star to businesses and industries and make them want to come to this community," he said.
Attracting commercial growth may be the answer to funding transportation improvements, Hutter said, adding that the county can't make enough revenue relying only on the residential tax base.
"I don't have a magic wand. I can't work miracles, but as an engineer, I can solve problems," he said.
Hutter also promised to treat all citizens equally, saying his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, FaithWorks and the Community Food Pantry has taught him that "none of us is any better than any other individual."
"As a taxpayer, you are a customer and you will be treated with respect by the board," he said.
"I can promise you can trust me with your tax dollars," Monk said.
"If we stick together, we can bring in folks that have great ideas and change this county. We are going to be forced to change. We don't have a choice anymore," she added.
Monk also said the county needs to address imbalances in assessments of property taxes, adding that in some areas, where "you're comparing apples to apples," assessments are much higher on one parcel than another.
Monk said the widening of Salem Road has been on the back burner for too long and the county needs to aggressively pursue it. "We talk about state and federal funding like it's manna from heaven. We forget those funds are tax dollars, too," she said.
Monk said the county can move ahead with purchasing right-of-way along the road now that land prices are low.
"I'm running for office because I feel like I have the qualities to lead Newton County in the kind of change we need here. I believe timing is critical," Morgan said before outlining her platform: a sustainable tax digest; effective leadership; strong infrastructure and quality of life; and respect for all citizens.
Morgan, who participated in the county's comprehensive transportation plan study, said more than $800 million worth of transportation projects need to be done in Newton County, and more than 50 percent of those projects are on state or federal highways and can't be improved without help from the DOT.
But, she said the county can work on putting turn lanes and traffic lights at intersections and work as closely as possible with state and federal officials to bring in more funds.
While Morgan said she would not support bringing in a public transportation system immediately, she thinks the county does need a service to transport people like senior citizens into town to run errands.
She said the county could also build parking lots to support bus services that will take commuters back and forth to Atlanta.
Morgan pledged to give all constituents equal respect.
"I will give you my undivided attention. I will listen to your issues and address them to the best of my ability ... I'm going to be honest with you. I'm going to be fair with you," she said.
White said he decided to run for chairman to make the county better for his 2-year-old twins. He said he has sold out most of his development business to take on the position of chairman.
He said the county needs more industry and retail, pointing out that during his previous term on the board, the county attracted 11 industries. He said the county is no longer actively recruiting new business.
White said he met his wife in Belk, a store that has since gone out of business.
"We need more retail ... I don't need another woman, but I do need new clothes, because I'm losing weight. That's a commitment I've made so I'll be around for these little ones," he said.
White said he believes the county can work better with state representatives on transportation and provide local transportation options for people commuting to Atlanta.
He said he wants commission meetings televised so citizens can keep an eye on the board from the comfort of their own homes.
"You need scrutiny from your constituents. This board's had no scrutiny. The board needs scrutiny from the press. The press doesn't need to be in bed with the board," he said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.