By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier
Candidates in three local races met this week in the Athens State University ballroom for a debate designed to give them one more opportunity before Tuesday’s election to get their issues before voters.
The debate was sponsored by the school, The News Courier, Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama Veterans Museum & Archives. News Courier Managing Editor Adam Smith served as moderator and Museum Director Sandy Thompson was timekeeper.
Smith explained that this week’s candidate meeting would be to a different format than the previous two political forums offered to the community.
“This one is different because it is a real debate,” said Smith. “The others were forums and they lacked pizazz.”
Audience applause would indicate that attendees agreed.
After allowing both County Commission District 4 candidates, Democratic incumbent Bill Daws and Republican challenger Ben Harrison, to introduce themselves and give biographical details, Smith launched the first question.
Smith referred to a recent newspaper story in which Harrison had remarked that the party to which a candidate belongs would determine the quality of service constituents receive.
Harrison won the coin toss to respond first.
“I thought I was clear on this,” said Harrison. “[Party affiliation] wouldn’t have an effect on day-to-day duties. But what party a candidate belongs to closely reflects his values. I know Bill doesn’t adhere to the views of all Democrats. But, how I view it is that Republicans are conservative and Democrats are liberal.
“For example, the purchase of the L&S Shopping Center was much more than was needed. It was the poster child from me in how not to use taxpayers’ money.”
Daws strived to refute Harrison’s assertions.
“It’s obvious if you think that the national party has something to do with Limestone County, then you are campaigning for the wrong job,” said Daws. “You brought up L&S Shopping Center. I didn’t think this was a Republican or Democrat issue. We need room for expansion (for Community Corrections) and we’ve got to work together for this program for Limestone County.”
When Smith asked Daws if he had a question for his opponent, Daws declined asking one, but instead directed his question to the audience, asking his constituents among them if they wanted a continuation of the progress he has made in his last 10 years in office, such as in good roads, safe intersections, grants and community storm shelters.
Harrison, however, had a question for Daws in why he does not support the Unit System of county government in the face of District 4 costs experiencing a 25-percent increase.
“I’ve talked with others under the Unit System but I haven’t seen on paper how this would save us money,” answered Daws. “That’s just not the way to go, to put our county engineer over all four districts under possibly two commissioners to control everything.
“Who’s going to work for you if we sell off our equipment? What are we going to do when it’s needed? If there is an emergency situation – ice or limbs falling – we call on the other districts and we work well together. I am concerned if we sell our equipment. We have some of the best equipment in Limestone County.”
In closing, Daws stressed his experience in the job. Harrison stressed ethical government that protects property of citizens without oppressive taxes and debt.
Pitted against each other in this race is 23-year Democratic incumbent Greg Tucker and Republican challenger Ronnie Coffman, a land surveyor since 1986.
Smith asked the candidates what they think of establishing a satellite office in a Madison-annexed portion of Limestone County on Huntsville-Browns Ferry Road, such as has been proposed.
Tucker said he had talked to outgoing Mayor Paul Finley of Madison about a satellite office to serve the eastern part of the county.
“I talked to Mayor Finley about the possibility of sending workers from Limestone County over there to sit in a county pool,” said Tucker. “Technology-wise, we will be ready for growth. I think by 2014 we will be in a position for a satellite office. We must be prepared for growth and we must be accessible to everyone.”
Coffman said he also advocates a satellite office but wants it located in East Limestone rather than annexed areas.
“I have looked at Mobile County,” said Coffman. “They went to Saturday services, from 8 a.m. to noon a couple of times a month. People shouldn’t have to take off work to pay their taxes.”
Smith told Coffman that Tucker serves on a state committee of revenue commissioners that resulted in a pilot program for Limestone County in which insurance verification is required before issuing or renewing driver’s licenses. He asked Coffman what he would do to stay abreast of technological innovations.
“In Georgia, they have vending machines where people have to put in their information,” said Coffman. “There are going to be new things that will make us better and I will do everything I can do to get on that committee.”
Coffman said he has operated a small business “on a shoestring budget.”
“The last four years have been tough on everybody,” said Coffman. “I will go to commission meetings to tell them of our needs to make our office better.”
Coffman asked Tucker why if the average staff size for a license commissioner’s office in a county the size of Limestone is 20 why he employs just 13 workers.
“State and federal governments are going streamlined with fewer employees and buildings and more technology,” said Tucker. “We make sure the workload has not shifted to Limestone County. If we’re getting the work done with just 13 employees, then we’re doing mighty good.”
Tucker said he had no questions for Coffman, but then he noted that Coffman’s father recently turned 80 and asked the challenger what if any influence his father had on him running for office.
“They raised me right,” answered Coffman. “They instilled values, took me to church and taught me to stand for what’s right.”
Coffman, in turn, asked Tucker if he thought taxpayers should have to take off from work to visit his office.
“We have had a mail system in place since I’ve been in office,” said Tucker. “We also have an online system. We are a bedroom community. If an individual has a hardship, I will drive all over the county to see that citizen accommodated. In hardships we see we do all we can do to serve them. Mondays and Fridays are still busy. We are equipped to serve people as quickly as possible.”
Circuit court clerk
Republican candidate Brad Curnutt and Democratic candidate Kris Allen are vying to fill retiring Circuit Court Clerk Charles Page’s office.
Curnutt is currently on campaign leave from his job as a criminal investigator for the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office and Allen is a salesman.
Smith asked Curnutt how in light of cutbacks in personnel and office hours he would best serve the public and the judicial system.
“With a short staff I’ll work the windows,” said Curnutt. “And with evictions, protection from abuse orders, and domestic issues I’ve had a good background in the sheriff’s office.”
Allen said in his job as salesman he brings many years of customer service to the table.
“When they have to come into this office it’s probably not been the best day,” said Allen. “I will walk them through the process with courtesy. With a highly-utilized, automated system, we can speed up the process.”
Smith asked how customer service would aid the judicial system.
“When I’m in the office I’m an agile thinker and can handle multiple things,” said Allen. “In my opinion customer service [and the judicial] work together.”
Curnutt said he has always been known in serving the public as a fair person.
“When people come to the clerk’s office they deserve friendly, good service, but also knowledge of the law,” said Curnutt. “I have the background to help them.”
In his question to Allen, Curnutt cited Page’s excellence performance in the job and asked him how Allen would insure that record of service would not change.
Allen said his grandfather was a district attorney in Tuscaloosa County.
“I’m a quick study and eminently trainable,” said Allen. “Knowledge is important. I have to know my products and I can learn whatever is put in front of me. It’s how you treat people. In my experience, a lot of people think when they are in front of law enforcement that they’ve done something wrong.”
Allen asked Curnutt if his past in law enforcement might intimidate people coming to his office.
“Some of my biggest supporters I’ve put their kids in jail,” said Curnutt. “My background in law enforcement will not affect how I treat people.”
In closing, Allen said he would work 60 to 80 hours a week in the job, if needed. Curnutt said voters could expect the same level of hard work he has displayed in his campaign when he gets in office.