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Candidates gather to talk issues

COVINGTON - The following is a summary of responses given by candidates for county commission chairman and sheriff at a forum held Thursday night at Turner Lake Complex. The forum was sponsored by The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, Newton County Farm Bureau and The Covington News. For more forum coverage, see Tuesday's Citizen.

Chairman

What do you feel is the commission chair's single most important duty?

Democratic candidate Kathy Morgan said managing the day-to-day duties of the county, keeping the county on budget and fostering economic development and planned growth are the chairman's most important responsibilities.

Republican incumbent Aaron Varner said being a good communicator, working with diverse groups of people, cooperating with local government officials and listening to the people are his top duties.

How would you, as chair, encourage greater economic growth in the county?

Varner said the county must look at "what we've got, what we can offer people and where we are weak." Commissioners often don't get credit for what they have done to promote economic development, such as Georgia Perimeter College, he said.

"I don't think a bird flew over and dropped a seed and it sprouted and all of a sudden we had that beautiful facility down there," he said. He also pointed out that 20 international businesses are located in Newton County, many of them drawn through tax incentives.

The Newton County Leadership Collaborative, which includes local officials from government, the school system and water and sewerage authority, has been working on an economic development strategy, he said.

Morgan said the county must assess the current situation, determine what assets and weaknesses there are, mitigate the weaknesses and look at complementary businesses.

For example, the county should try to attract suppliers for businesses that are thriving, such as the agricultural industry, and survey businesses for names of companies that might be looking to relocate or open new locations, she said.

Specifically, why do you believe that you are the best choice for the job?

Morgan said skills she has learned as a small business operator and through her current job, where she finds and markets commercial real estate opportunities for customers throughout the state, qualify her to be chair. In her banking career, she also has managed portfolios for large companies in financial trouble and helped turn their finances around. Morgan said she will bring a "fresh new approach, new ideas, a positive attitude" and leadership skills to the job, which she will use to empower the community to help lead itself.

Varner focused on his past accomplishments.

"Folks, I have a record. It's just plain and simple. Look at my record," he said, citing accomplishments such as adding public safety personnel, the new judicial center, new sheriff's office and administration building.

"It's not about dreams, although it's good to dream. It's about reality. What can you afford and how can you get it done?" he said.

Varner said he has "no hard feelings" to those who don't approve of some tough decisions the board has made.

"They've got their agenda, and I've got mine, and mine is the people in this great county. I will always represent them with honesty and integrity," he said.

Sheriff

What is the most pressing need of the new sheriff, and how do you propose to handle it?

Bridging the gap between the community and law enforcement is most important, according to Democratic candidate Lt. Ezell Brown. He promised to be a "working sheriff," traveling the roads, working with all department divisions and being accessible to the public.

Republican candidate Lt. Bill Watterson said burglaries, domestic violence and narcotics are the top three challenges faced by the sheriff's office. He plans to change the mission of some units in the department to address those issues and wants to partner with schools, churches and businesses to help at-risk youth and start more neighborhood watches to bolster community involvement in fighting crime.

Given the far-reaching duties of the sheriff's office, tell where your strengths lie, and what is your most significant weakness?

Watterson, the lieutenant over the criminal investigations division, said his strength is in leading by example, adding that he's at most crime scenes. "My shoes are right next to the initial deputy's shoes," he said. That depth of personal involvement is also his weakness, Watterson said, noting that he doesn't micro-manage, but "I like to do things myself."

Brown said he has been sent to many management and homeland security schools to learn how to be sheriff and has worked with every division in the department.

"It seems as though the sheriff pulled me out and hand-picked me. I have been the voice of the sheriff," he said.

Sheriff Joe Nichols said he is not endorsing either candidate, adding that he believes the citizens will be well-served by either one.

As for his weakness, Brown said, "I work too hard. I'm not willing to let go."

What can you do to control the rise of crime and cycles of violence in Newton County?

Brown's platform is war on the "big three:" drugs, sex and violence, focusing on prevention, early intervention and bringing violators to justice. He also wants to revitalize neighborhood watch programs designating someone in the sheriff's office to work with watch groups.

Watterson said he will develop specific units to address various crimes including burglaries and theft of recyclable material, Internet predators, fraud and mortgage fraud.

He would also enlist community help and encourage citizens to report crimes.

"The community has got to help us. We can't do it by ourselves. If you stand up and tell us what you saw, we'll put them in jail. I guarantee that," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.