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VIDEO: LWV forum sees nearly all candidates participate

VIDEO:  The Rockdale-Newton League of Women Voters and Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce forum will be aired on in segments over the week starting Saturday, in chronological order beginning with the first sets of candidates that spoke at the forum.

UPDATE: Video is now available from Thursday night's League of Women Voters Candidate Forum at for the Probate Judge, Sheriff, and Clerk of Courts candidates, with more races following throughout the week. 


Nearly every invited candidate in nine races for local elected offices turned out for the Rockdale-Newton League of Women Voters forum, co sponsored by the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday night. 

With so many candidates, each set had only two or three questions asked of them before the forum moved onto the next set. Races covered included Probate Court, Clerk of Courts, Sheriff, Tax Commissioner, Coroner, Magistrate Court, Chairman, Post 1 Commissioner, Congressional Fourth District.

Here are summaries of the Sheriff, Chairman, Post 1 Commissioner, and Fourth Congressional District segments. Check back later in the week for Part II with Summaries of Probate Judge, Chief Magistrate Judge, Clerk of Courts, Coroner and Tax Commissioner candidates.

 The forum will be aired on in segments beginning with the first sets of candidates that spoke at the forum.



The debate among the sheriff candidates came down to experience and ideas.

Democratic challenger Eric Levett, a Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office deputy in the Criminal Investigations Division, said “I'm running for this position, not because I’m running against Sheriff (Jeff) Wigington. I’m running because I’m concerned about the safety and crime that's on the streets.”

Levett said he planned to introduce a crime mapping system and a drug interdiction unit. “My opponent (Wigington) said he doesn't like drug interdiction units because they tend to profile. People choose to profile. If you’re going to profile, you're going to profile based on who you are.”

Sheriff Jeff Wigington, the Republican candidate, said in his opening statement, “You currently have a professional sheriff's office. We’ve provided 3200 hours to the deputies since I’ve been in office… I've returned money back to the county because we've been under budget for four of the last six years.”

Later he said, “Some of the things Eric talks about, we've been doing for years. The crime analyst position, we've been doing that since 2008. We've had an anonymous tip placed on our website for years. If you need us, call us.”

In closing, Wigington said, “Being sheriff is not an easy job. It’s an $18m budget, 400-600 inmates. This race boils down to experience.”

“He also has no budget or management experience and he has one year of college,” said Wigington. “On his website and in previous debates, he said he's going to hire a chief deputy.” Wigington said he did not plan to hire a chief deputy because he has the ability and experience to run the Sheriff’s Office.

In closing, Levett said he had never attended any meetings with the crime analyst and would use some existing resources such as bicycles, motorcycles and Segways to make deputies more visible on the streets as well as implement the crime mapping system.

“I don't have the experience, but the sheriff didn't have the experience when he ran either,” said Levett.


Commission Chairman

The Chairman candidates, incumbent and Democratic candidate Chairman Richard Oden and Republican candidate and former Post 1 Commissioner Jason Hill, were among the last to go. The candidates faced a number of questions submitted from the audience on economic development, quality of life due to litter and illegal home-based businesses, and outsourcing.

When asked what the candidates would do to decrease crime in the community, Oden pointed out the Sheriff’s Office budget had been increased in the last three years. “We will continue to be a partner in the community, to represent all of Rockdale County... You will continue to see a decrease in crime, a continuing relationship with the Sheriff’s Office.”

Hill said he would work with the sheriff to provide what the Sheriff’s Office needed. “The chairman wouldn’t allow him on the agenda to talk about adding more deputies through a federal grant. That to me is irresponsible… We’ve had three fire chiefs, I think two 911 directors. My leadership style is going to cut down on that turnover that will lead to a more stable government and a more stable public service sector.”

On economic development, Oden said he would continue down the path they were going. “What you've got to do address the infrastructure…You’ve got to get the interest rate in place. When I came in office, my opponents were losing 30 percent of our water, infrastructure. We’re down to 25 percent.” Oden also said the county had brought in thousands of new jobs and talked about the county’s upcoming career fair.

Hill pointed out in response, “Unemployment has doubled what it was when I left office” in 2008.

“There's been plenty of things that are important. Fixing leaky pipes are important, but they’re a maintenance issue. They do not bring companies to Rockdale County,” said Hill. “New sewer does, more water availability does… New roads and bridges brings new that open up land for economic development and free up traffic is what will bring more businesses to Rockdale County.”

In closing, Oden said, “In 2008, my opponent lost that race. They went from $52 million to $56 million with no plan how to achieve that. Today he wants to be your leader…

“We came into office, we had a county financial mess. Hearing other folks talk about their efficiencies, their accompanying technology, their approach with method information, science and technology (we had) to make sure we had the technology in place to move the entire county forward. We have the best record now for our county services. We have a AA and AAA bond maintaining.”

“Watch what’s happening,” said Oden.

Hill said in closing, “Financially when I left office, your taxes were zero. I think for the third straight year, the Chairman’s dipped into the reserve… Cutting wasteful spending is the first way to balance the budget, not to dip into the reserves and budget surplus we left him.”

He added, “By any measure this event should be played on Channel 23. It’s your channel.”

“I’m trying to give you an example of the type of management you’re getting…The decisions that are being made are not for you. They're serve to serve one person. They're not looking out for the people of this county.”


Post 1 Commissioner

Board of Commission Post 1 candidates Oz Nesbitt and Tom Harrison fielded questions involving the possibility of implementing a county manager position, transitioning to a five-member board of commissioners, funding transportation improvements and enforcing the county's ethics ordinance. While both candidates said they voted against the T-SPLOST referendum in the July Primary, Harrison said he supports the concept of a county manager while Nesbitt said he believes an at-large, five-member commission would bring equal representation to Rockdale County. And while both candidates also agreed that transparency is important, Harrison said the current commission is not abiding by the county's ethics code while Nesbitt said transparency is key in his role as commissioner.

"The days of having handshake deals or head-nod deals in terms of folks agreeing to get a job done are gone," Nesbitt said. "Every decision, every choice that is made by the board of commissioners, your elected officials,  should be an open process so that you can see, view and watch everything that is taking place. I believe in transparency."

In response Harrison said, "The current commission did in fact create a new ethics ordinance but they have done nothing to support or increase the opportunity to get the commission going forward. We have an ordinance but it has no governance."

"I promise if elected to bring a more efficient government to Rockdale County and to do that with fiscal responsibility to the budgetary decisions we make," Harrison said in his closing remarks. "I promise to bring my 35 years experience in the water and sewer industry to help improve the infrastructure in Rockdale County so we can bring new business, bring new industry and reduce the residential taxpayers' burden." Harrison also said if he is elected he would ask that the commission meet with city of Conyers officials on a quarterly basis. 

"It is important that you get along with the only city in the county and collaboratively work toward the decisions that need to be made for the future," Harrison said.

Nesbitt said he plans to focus on economic development, job growth and grassroots leadership if elected to a second term.

"I pledge to continue to serve each and every resident in Rockdale County," Nesbit said. "Thank you for allowing me to serve you over the last four years. I think it is important to have leadership that is accessible, tangible and touchable. Someone you can put your hands on, someone you can count on, someone who will represent each and every citizen in this community. Someone who won't get a case of amnesia and play dodge ball once they are elected."


Congressional Fourth District

Congressional District 4 Republican candidate J. Chris Vaughn, a Rockdale resident and Henry County pastor, was the last candidate to take the stage, fielding questions solo as incumbent Congressman Hank Johnson could not attend due to obligations in Washington, DC. 

"There is intenseness in our nation that needs to cease," Vaughn said when introducing himself. "I want to bring a level of community, a level of cooperation to both parties so that the 4th District can be served by the federal government the way it should. So that constituents can receive the benefits and the blessings, because our tax dollars are going up there anyway, and we might as well be getting the benefit back by having someone who is an advocate of the voters and representative of the people."

When asked if he felt the federal education system was effective, Vaughn said he believes schools should be governed on a local level.

"I do not believe that the US Department of Education is effective," Vaughn said. "My opinion is the best oversight is local oversight. The best government is limited government that is closest to the situation."

In closing Vaughn said, "We need someone who will represent all of us and finally be honest with all of the constituents. One of my greatest commitments is that, as a pastor, I know that you should have a level of accountability. I look at people and we all look at the same things. We want life, we want freedom, and we want to serve."


Probate Court

Probate court Judge Lillis Brown, the Republican candidate, and challenger Charles Mays, the Democratic candidate, opened the evening with a focus on communication with the public.

In response to the first question about how the candidate would educate the public about probate court, Mays said he would work with the Clerk of Courts’ Family Law Center. "Probate court is a court that should be visible in the community. It’s necessary for us to go out into the community and have forums," said Mays. "No one knows what Judge Brown does… I plan to bring visibility to the office of Probate." He emphasized the importance of having a Probate court website with all the forms available for the public to download.

Brown said "As far as being visible to the public, I do at least 50, if not 60 presentations a year. I go into the churches. I go into the senior centers. I just did the Parent Academy this past weekend. I will never turn down an invitation to come talk to a group." She added that the Rockdale Probate Court website has a connection to the state probate court site with forms that all probate courts in Georgia use.

When asked about qualifications, Brown said prior to her 20 years of experience as Probate Court judge, she had handled most of the issues that go through Probate Court as a senior paralegal with an attorney. She had also served as a Magistrate Court judge before being elected to Probate court. "When I walked in the first day, I knew what Probate Court was all about."

In his response to the question about qualifications, Mays said, "There are better ways to improve the office. We need a website where we can pull down forms on the website so we don't have to go into the office. Other counties already have this. We don't have to recreate the wheel." Mays is a construction contractor and has a law degree from St. Louis University.


Clerk of Courts

Clerk of Courts candidates Republican Holly Bowie and Democrat and incumbent Ruth Wilson came out of the gate with robust arguments.

Bowie emphasized her experience in the public sector and county government. "I believe there’s a clear choice between the two of us," she said.

Wilson emphasized her management experience and modernization efforts.

"We went from a paper and pencil operation to spreadsheets," said Wilson. "I’m proud of our financial transparency. We’ve improved operational efficiency and maintained friendly customer service."

To the question of qualifications, Wilson said she has an MBA in finance and experience managing large organizations and large budgets.

Bowie replied, "My opponent does have a nice degree but the thing is while she was working for profit while she was working for profit, I was working for the people for the past 20 years." She said she was able to increase code enforcement in her first year over that division and increased adoption rates when she headed animal control. She pointed out she was in the interim chief of staff position during the floods of 2009 and her work drafting countless bills and documents for the Board of Commissioners.

In response to the question of changes that the candidates would make, Bowie said "The first thing I would do is develop the mechanism so that 100 percent of the passport money would be turned back to the county." She said she would also make the office more accessible than it is currently. "The office cannot operate on its own. It is part of a system."

Wilson said she would continue the changes she has been making and said use of technology allowed the office to maintain its headcount and the budget to be less in 2013 than in 2011.

In closing, Wilson said the law gave the office the responsibility of the care and custody of the legal documents for the Superior and State courts of Rockdale. However, "Preparing for the future requires a different skill set. It requires leadership, the ability to get things done with other people. It requires vision, to anticipate what's coming down he road. It requires communication skills, the ability to express complex ideas."

Bowie described the past year as a "year-long interview."

"I’ve been part of this legal community for the past 20 years… I can tell you that after leaving the county attorney’s office, I was sought after to create the department.

"I believe everything in my life has prepared me for this. I’m about serving the people. This position is not an island unto itself. That’s what’s happened."


Magistrate Court

Chief Magistrate Judge candidates Democratic challenger Phinia Aten and Republican incumbent Judge Rudy Horne opened by sharing personal details, such as Aten celebrating her 40th birthday the day before and Horne celebrating the birth of his first grandchild.

In response to the first question on whether Magistrate Court is adequately funded, Horne said "I fight for our budget and every year they tell us we don’t have enough money… We could certainly spend more money. We make do with what they give us."

Aten said the Magistrate court budget has been increasing. "One of the things I’m running on is a platform of efficiency. We can bring those costs down."

A question from the audience asked about the importance of first appearance hearings.

Horne, who described Magistrate Court as the "emergency room of the legal system," said simply, "You’re entitled to first appearance within 72 hours. I tell you what your rights are, what you're charged with, and I set your bond."

Aten said, "A lot of times arrests happen so fast, they don't know what they're charged with. Because Magistrate court is just the first stop, it is very important they're advised not only of their rights but have some idea what they can expect going forward… Education is a big part of what I do with the client." She said she would create instructional videos and materials on Magistrate Court that would not increase the budget if she were elected.

Another audience question asked about the role of part time judges.

Aten said, "They are to help me, not to do my job. I’ve gotten complaints that's why the budget has been increasing, because of Judge Horne’s inability to be on the bench as much as he would like to be." She emphasized her age again. "I’m a young attorney, in terms of my vigor, my energy, my passion for law," she said. "I will be on the bench much more than the current administration."

Horne said "I have two associate magistrate judges. They make the minimum they're allowed to make. They’re on call on judges at nights and weekends. If I’m away on vacation, training or I’m sick, which is not very often, they come in and fill in for me."

In closing, Horne said simply, "I’m Rudy Horne. I am your Chief Magistrate Judge. I’ve been your Chief Magistrate Judge for the past 20 years. I’ve been a Magistrate Judge for 25 years. I have well over 1000 hours of training. I have a highly trained staff… Our court runs very smoothly. There is absolutely no reason to make a change."

Aten said, "Rockdale deserves better and can have better now. This is about today and tomorrow."

"We are too small not to be greater than we are. We can make the Magistrate court top in the state.

"Judge Horne has served the community well," she continued. "I do hear a lot of complaints. But none of us are perfect." She said the training Horne cited is provided to new judges anyway.