Newton County Chair candidates took to the horseshoe table at the Newton County Historic Courthouse Thursday, explaining their views on the special purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST), the county’s solid waste, its legal services and its future planning during a forum sponsored by SmartGrowth Newton County, Newton Trails, The Covington News and the Newton Citizen.
Some of the public’s recent outcries were talked about right away, as each of the four candidates who attended the forum made their introductions. Democrat candidate Marcello Banes did not attend.
Another Democrat candidate, Michael Syphoe started out talking about the questions concerning his qualification, saying his “mother has been demoralized by my opponent’s surrogates,” in regards to questions of his residency. The board of elections recently ruled that Syphoe was a resident of Newton County and could remain eligible for election.
Republican candidate Levie Maddox then touched on one of the hottest topics surrounding Newton County in recent years — former County Attorney Tommy Craig.
“I continue to ask my opponents if they’re going to take advice from the former county attorney,” Maddox said. “Citizen’s need answers. It’s simple; we can return to the past or move to the future.”
Maddox’s Republican opponent, Aaron Varner, replied to the question, saying that he planned to abide by the district commissioners decisions, and if there was a tie, not break it, but urge the commissioners to work together.
“I don’t plan to take anything from anybody for a vote for anything,” Varner said. “I have not been put in this race by any individual, and I’m not backed by any individual.”
The county’s procurement of legal services was a question posed by the forum’s moderator Johnathan Paschal later in the event. Throughout the last few years, the former county attorney had billed more than a million dollars for legal services. In November, the board of commissioners (BOC) voted to replace him with an in-house attorney. In the interim, the firm of Jarrard and Davis are serving as the county’s legal advisors.
Varner stood by what he said in his introduction, that he would leave it “up to the district commissioners to decide what they want.”
“I would not interfere with that,” he said. “If they want to hire Donald Duck, I’ll try to learn how to speak like a duck. If they want to put it out to a bid, that’s fine. If they want to go in-house, which I thought is the way they were headed, that would be alright with me. “
Maddox said the option for an in-house attorney is not currently being considered because of the work Jarrard and Davis has been doing for the BOC.
“In the future we need to bid out these services, along with every professional service every three years,” Maddox said.
Democratic candidate Phil Johnson said the county needed to focus on becoming less dependent on legal services.
“The [former] county attorney had to answer every question,” Johnson said “We can’t do that again.”
He laid out two items that needed to be done for the procurement of legal services.
“Number one, we need to ascertain what the competitive rate in the market place is and, number two, make sure we have counsel that has the capability to perform the task he’s been assigned,” Johnson said.”
Syphoe said that the county needed to add a procurement system for legal services, and that he didn’t understand why the BOC was using a law firm that was in Cummings, 77 miles away from Newton County.
The format of the forum called for the candidates to answer questions from Paschal and speak directly to the audience. The forum was not set up to allow debates between candidates. However, Maddox and Varner had an exchange when asked if the newly created Solid Waste Authority should operate as an enterprise fund and have authority over solid waste and operations, including the recycling centers.
Maddox said he expected the group to modernize how trash is handled from the house to the landfill.
“My number one role would be to make sure the authority has the resources it needs to be successful,” he said. “We cannot return to the era of 2000 to 2008 when we had annual multiple Environmental Protection Division (EPD) violations.”
Varner, who was the county’s chair from 2000 through 2008, didn’t take the implied criticism kindly.
“I can take only so much crap,” Varner said. “Not a single thing we were cited for, we did not get in compliance on.”
Varner said the authority that was created is open-ended on how it would operate.
“What’s the revenue stream? Who’s going to pay for it?” Varner asked. “I bet you, dollar to a donut, before it’s over with, there’s going to be a request from the board of commissioners for a multi-million dollar bond issue.”