By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great local journalism.
Forum follows course
Debate civil, stays with issues
Commission District 3 incumbent Jim Harrell answers a question Tuesday during a Smart Growth Forsyth forum. - photo by Jennifer Sami
Smart Growth Forsyth founder Bob Slaughter asked for civility and that’s exactly what he got during the organization’s candidate forum Tuesday night.

Five of the seven candidates for the District 1 and 3 posts on the county commission attended the event, answering 11 pre-selected questions along with several others from a capacity crowd.

All four District 3 hopefuls — incumbent Jim Harrell, Todd Levent, Josh Shorr and Mark Venco — participated in the forum. The lone District 1 candidate to attend was Brant Meadows.

District 1 Democrat Mary Chatfield was sick and the other Republican in the race, Pete Amos, was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict with the fundraiser for a local boys shelter.

Though Chatfield offered written responses in her absence, the audience voted not to have them read along with the other candidates’ responses.

Slaughter did read a statement from Amos in which the candidate said he felt it was more important for him to be at the fundraiser for Bald
Ridge Lodge and “do all I can do to help them. There will be other candidate forums and I look forward to participating in them.”

The July 20 primary, for which early voting is under way, is the first under the county’s new district-only format. County commissioners and school board members were previously elected at large.

District 1 includes some of Cumming and much of western Forsyth, while District 3 covers the county’s southwestern corner.

Among the questions, Slaughter asked candidates whether they supported: removing stream buffers from the variance process; transforming the Lafarge rock quarry into a drinking water reservoir; and remaining in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

For the most part, the candidates agreed it would be best to keep stream buffers in the process, but to look at each case individually.

All were open to using the quarry as a possible drinking water source, and all said Forsyth can accomplish more as the most populous county in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission instead of switching to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Harrell said he is on record “for supporting looking at using the quarry as a reservoir for Forsyth County.”

“We are trying to get that tested right now to see if that is a feasible thing for us to do,” he said. “A majority of us also voted to look at two other partnerships for other reservoirs outside of the county, so we are exploring every opportunity.”

One forum attendee asked how each candidate would vote if the county were to officially consider buying Lanier Golf Course on Buford Dam Road in east Forsyth.  

Most candidates appeared to be against the idea, with Meadows saying he wasn’t for it.

Shorr said the issue is too contentious to not put before the voters.

Last week, the commission rejected holding a bond referendum on the possible purchase.

Citing the current setup of the course and its price, both Venco and Levent said they could not support the purchase.

Harrell, who has introduced a plan with fellow Commissioner Jim Boff to buy the course for $12 million and lease to a private company that would operate it, said the issue has been demagogued.

“It's easy for people to misunderstand my position,” he said.  “I do not want the county to operate a golf course. I never have.

“This is a prime piece of property that is begging to be set aside from the bulldozer. And if you have any questions on it, I’d be happy to discuss it with you in great detail.”

Candidates were also asked what measures they would take to control development when it restarts in the county, whether that’s next week or next year.

Many offered suggestions like avoiding spot zoning and creating cross-district attractions. Levent said he would like to see the commission guide development, not control it.

“I’d love to see some good architectural designs ... some themes from area to area to go along,” he said.

Before the first question was asked, one audience member spoke out of turn, saying he assumed it has been determined that Meadows actually lives in District 1.

The comment was in reference to the recent discovery that Meadows held homestead exemptions on two properties in different districts.

Though one property is not in the district, Meadows has maintained he lives with his family at the home in District 1.

While he wasn’t given the opportunity to respond to the comment, Meadows later pointed out he lives in District 1.

The county’s election board is scheduled to hold a hearing on his residency today.

“It sure is awful not knowing where you live,” Meadows joked. “I want to thank the Board of Tax Assessors for helping me determine [that].”

All kidding aside, Meadows was vocal when it came to the city of Cumming, noting his “platform calls for the consolidation of the city and county water departments.”

Asked by the audience if Cumming, the only city in Forsyth, should be consolidated into the county, Meadows said yes.

Harrell said he would be for the idea, but the political reality would make it unlikely.

Levent said he needed to see numbers to show consolidation would be the best fiscal decision.

Venco said he’s running for county commission, not a municipal office, while Shorr said the decision would best be determined by voters.

But during an earlier question about how candidates would approach resolving infrastructure disparities between south Forsyth and the rest of the county, Shorr said he wanted to avoid “at all cost, blaming the city for every issue the county has.”

“Now, more than ever, we need to work together,” he said. “We need to make sure that we work with the city, we work with our state delegation, we work with neighboring counties.

“We need to bring a sense of professionalism to the board of commissioners and make sure that we are working together.”

Asked what specific businesses the county should attract, most candidates said high-paying, white collar jobs.

Venco, however, noted that could be a double-edged sword.

“The local individuals that have the restaurants, that have the farm stands, that have the gas stations, all the small businesses,” he said. “I don’t want to lose sight of that.

“Just targeting those larger corporations, it may sound good, but it’s got to be a balance.”

Other than a few jabs at age, experience and no-shows, the forum followed Slaughter’s goal of civility.

“Regardless of your politics, this forum today is your opportunity to find out what your potential future leaders are going to do or what they’re going to say or what they’re going to pursue on a variety of issues,” he said.