By Tia Lynn Ivey
Six local candidates running for office in the upcoming November 8 elections, gathered at a public forum co-sponsored by The Morgan County Citizen and Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce to answer questions and present their goals for the county if elected.
Participating in the forum were Republican Ben Riden Jr. and Democrat Crystal Benford Thomas, who are running for the County Commissioner District 3 seat; Republican Philip Von Hanstein and Independent Incumbent Ellen Warren, who are running for the County Commissioner District 4 seat; and Republican Incumbent Robert Markley and Democrat Kenny Stewart, who are running for Morgan County Sheriff.
The candidates fielded questions about how they intend to improve public safety, reduce crime, cut spending, improve county and city relations, what the county’s role is in the financing of new hospital that is planned to be built, and how they will increase transparency between government and the public.
Newcomers Riden and Thomas, both promised to learn the ropes of being a county commissioner. Riden focused on his financial accounting experience as an asset that he would use on the Board of Commissioners if elected. Riden He also pledged to strengthen county and city relations through dialogue, cooperation, advocating for cooperation and collaboration of services. Riden also elaborated on what kind of issues he would support a public referendum on—which he said would be on “big ticket items” that would affect taxpayers for more than a decade.
“Obviously, you cant run a government by submitting everything to the voters. We are elected to make those decision about how to spend the county’s money on your behalf and in your best interest …but obviously there are certain big ticket items that are over certain dollar thresholds that affect the taxpayer for multiple years into the future. Those are things that we should consider a referendum for,” said Riden. If you are going to be saddled with more taxes or something to pay for up to 10 or 15 years, I think we should consider a referendum.”
Thomas focused on her career as an educator, pledging to invest in the youth of Morgan County.. She pledged to increase government transparency by utilizing technology to get information out to her constituents. She also supports recruiting a mediator to help resolve city and county disagreements. Her main platform is staying in consistent contact with the constituents of her district to adequately represent their voices, needs and views.
“I would bring a fresh point of view,” said Thomas. “I think the main thing is for me to knowledgeable of situations, so I can go back to my constituents to let them know what is going on—so I can come back with the position my constituents want me to represent.”
Incumbent Ellen Warren focused on the county’s positive achievements during her 11-and-half years on the board, including the county’s AA bond rating, the renovated courthouse, the construction of a new library, public safety complex and aquatic center, reasonable debt level, new industries setting up shop in the county, and recently reduced millage rate.
“Our county is in great shape,” said Warren.
However, Von Hanstein argued that Warren’s rosy picture of the county’s state of affairs was inaccurate, arguing that the county’s reserves are at “a historic low,” hovering dangerously near the lowest level allowed, at 16 percent (15 percent is the lowest allowed). Von Hanstein also argued that the county has more debt than Warren was letting on and that taxes are too high. “It doesn’t look like we are in the best shape we have ever been in to me,” said Von Hanstein.
Warren rebutted that Von Hanstein made the county’s situation sound worse than it is in order to get elected.
Warren and Von Hanstein also disagreed on the new Morgan Memorial Hospital planned to be built, with Von Hanstein questioning the hospital’s ability to pay their share without further funding from the county and Warren arguing that the hospital is a good investment for economic development of the county and full faith that the hospital will be able to make its loan payments. Warren and Von Hanstein also held different views on bringing high speed internet to the county. Warren is committed to finding a way to establish high speed internet throughout the entire county despite the challenges of cost and installation. But Von Hanstein believes it’s not “practical” to invest millions in it when the technology is changing. Von Hanstein promised to bring change and more fiscal responsibility to the county and to look into securing a water source for the county. Warren stood firm on her experience on the Board of Commissioners, and promised to be accessible to her constituents and to make decisions as a commissioner in the best interest of Morgan County—which incude securing a water source, establishing high speed internet connection, supporting new industries coming to the county, and supporting the new hospital.
The candidates for County Sheriff debated the different approaches to law enforcement. Stewart pledged to expand the county’s personnel, with more road deputies and investigators. Stewart, who worked in the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department for 18 years, pledged to make the Sheriff’s Department more “proactive” and better staffed if elected. “I’ve seen changes take place, and it’s more of a reactive department now,” said Stewart. Stewart also pledged to establish a community night, where citizens can come and interact with local law enforcement agents and voice their concerns.
Markley argued that the current tax base of Morgan County does not allow for such an expansion of staff. Markley thought it better to ensure Morgan County offers competitive salaries and benefits in line with surrounding communities to attract the best quality of officers and to invest in better training programs. Markley also pledged to continue using “innovative” and “collaborate” methods to better enforce the law.
“Law enforcement is always evolving…we have to keep coming up with new ways to enforce the law and to keep our community safe,” said Markley. Markley specifically pledged to continue focusing on reducing theft and using the Internet to help catch sexual predators with other law enforcement agencies.
Each of these three local races will be decided on November 8.