By Alex Bridges
TOMS BROOK -- From taxes to tourism, jobs to farming, candidates vying for seats on the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors diverged little in their opinions at a forum Thursday.
The Shenandoah County Education Association hosted the forum at the Toms Brook Fire Hall. It was co-sponsored with the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau. Several dozen people filled the hall for the event.
Republican candidate Steve Shaffer and Democrat Emily Scott are seeking the board seat to represent District 4. Supervisor Dennis Morris, a Republican, is seeking re-election to the District 5 seat.
Independent candidates Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz, seeking the District 4 and 5 seats, respectively, did not attend the forum.
At least one member of the audience saw the forum as a positive event.
"I think it was a great idea," said Luther Santiful. "It would have been nicer if all of the people had been here but even with those that were absent it still turned out well. I think everybody learned something."
Bill Wheat, a guidance counselor for the county school system, served as moderator of the forum. Wheat noted at the beginning the event was not a debate although, at times, Morris targeted comments at his opponent. Each candidate had time in the beginning to make comments. Wheat read questions provided by residents before the event and each participant had a short time to answer.
The first question asked candidates to describe their leadership style and how that would help the county. Scott said she tries to reach consensus on issues so that "everybody's on board with the idea." Scott said she likes to inform people and help them "see eye to eye." Shaffer noted that he is "a team player" and understands the importance of bringing people to the table for open discussions. Morris said leadership comes from listening and, as such, diplomacy and respect. Morris added that supervisors face a problem with "so much misinformation" in the public that some "gullible" people believe the first comments they hear.
As for the county's most pressing, short-term needs, Shaffer pointed to support for education and tourism. Morris noted a need for more volunteers in the area of fire and rescue. The supervisor commented that his opponent had, at the Toms Brook Fire Hall, recently met a paid firefighter and expressed at that time that she didn't know the county had paid firefighters. Scott said the residents and the board need to decide what kind of county Shenandoah should be and then work out a way to afford it.
A more specific question asked candidates what they would do to protect and enhance agriculture. Morris pointed out that the county needs to continue land-use taxation and to support conservation easements. Scott said she agreed on the land-use taxation and that conservation easements appear to work, but that the county needs to look at balancing industry and business with agriculture. Shaffer said he supports the farming community and noted that the county can do more to promote the sale of local agricultural goods and services.
The question "If the supervisors represent the people, how can they have closed meetings or have meetings at awkward hours, when the business doesn't involve personnel?" sparked varied responses.
"Gee, I wonder who asked that question," Scott replied. "I believe in open meetings. I don't believe in closed-door meetings except for personnel or legal issues."
Scott said the board should hold meetings at night to attract more attendance and participation. Scott noted that she can't attend day meetings unless she takes off from her job. Shaffer, a former School Board member, pointed out the "strong legal reasons" for some closed-door meeting topics
"There are certain things we can do to be more open, one, to put the county budget on the website with enough detail so that the voters know what their money's being spent on," Shaffer said.
Morris explained that supervisors more than 20 years ago decided to hold one meeting at night and the other during the day to accommodate people with different work schedules.
"Let's speak about transparency -- there are some people that are not here tonight that should be here are blowing smoke," Morris said. "We have a very tough attorney. If there's any gray area out there, we don't go behind closed doors."
Asked what, as a supervisor, they would do to bring employers to the county, Morris began his answer by noting the county's involvement in the regional approach to economic development. But Morris also pointed out the need to promote the county's existing industry.
Scott acknowledged the importance of the existing industries but said the county needs to attract businesses that provide good jobs and benefits. Through attracting industry the county needs decide what kind it wants, Scott said. She noted that many existing businesses "don't pay that well," and pointed out that the median income in the county is around $30,000.
Shaffer said the idea of attracting industry and jobs to the county comes down to its schools. He noted that medical professionals, a major, growing industry, would look at the county's schools as a reason to move to the area and seek an education for their children. Shaffer added that the county could use its attributes to attract technology firms.
After answering the questions, candidates made closing remarks.
Scott noted how much she and other candidates agree on issues.
"To a great extent this kind of forum is a wonderful thing, but I think we kind of missed an opportunity to emphasize the things we have in common and the positive things about Shenandoah County," Scott said.
Shaffer described government as a large ship.
"One person can't come in and yank the wheel and jerk anything too far in any one direction," Shaffer said, noting the need for balance.
Morris spent his time on closing remarks thanking his family and fellow supervisors but became choked up and emotional, taking pauses to stifle tears.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org