Com­mis­sioner can­di­dates dis­cuss traf­fic, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment at fo­rum

Half of can­di­dates skip Charles County NAACP event last Thurs­day even­ing

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LAGASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

Res­i­dents wanted to know how can­di­dates for the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers plan to im­prove traf­fic con­ges­tion and bring more busi­nesses to Charles County at Thurs­day night’s fo­rum spon­sored by the Charles County chap­ter of the NAACP.

Five of the 11 com­mis­sioner can­di­dates par­tic­i­pated in the fo­rum, which took place in the Le­gends Club­house at Re­gency Fur­ni­ture Sta­dium in Wal­dorf. Around 40 peo­ple at­tended.

Fund­ing for ed­u­ca­tion and ser­vices for the county’s youth and home­less pop­u­la­tions were also among the is­sues dis­cussed dur­ing the two-hour event.

Through­out the even­ing the can­di­dates ob­served mod­er­a­tor Wanda Wood­land’s stric­ture on di­rectly chal­leng­ing other

can­di­dates, and in fact on sev­eral oc­ca­sions they found op­por­tu­ni­ties for agree­ment on key is­sues.

Can­di­dates had two min­utes to an­swer ques­tions sub­mit­ted in writ­ing by the au­di­ence. To­ward the end of the fo­rum, Wood­land short­ened the re­sponse times to squeeze in more ques­tions.

The first ques­tion, ask­ing can­di­dates to iden­tify what they saw as the big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing Charles County to­day, es­tab­lished one of the re­cur­ring themes for the even­ing — how trans­porta­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment af­fect each other.

Chris Dud­ley, the Green can­di­date for com­mis­sion­ers’ pres­i­dent and Dis­trict 3 Com­mis­sioner Amanda Ste­wart (D) iden­ti­fied trans­porta­tion as the most crit­i­cal is­sue.

Repub­li­can can­di­dates Henry Thomp­son, who is run­ning for com­mis­sion­ers’ pres­i­dent, and James Ash­burn, run­ning for the Dis­trict 4 seat, ar­gued that the county’s most press­ing need was to di­ver­sify its tax base by get­ting more busi­nesses to launch or re­lo­cate here.

Demo­cratic Dis­trict 1 nom­i­nee Gil­bert Bowling tied both is­sues to­gether, ar­gu­ing that while he be­lieved the need for more good pay­ing ca­reers in the county was the most cru­cial is­sue, hav­ing more lo­cal jobs would mean fewer com­muters on the county’s main ar­ter­ies.

Ste­wart and Ash­burn, who are run­ning to rep­re­sent the heav­ily ur­ban­ized dis­tricts in the north of the county, iden­ti­fied trans­porta­tion as the No. 1 is­sue fac­ing their par­tic­u­lar dis­tricts, though Ste­wart, a sci­ence teacher in the Prince Ge­orge’s County school sys­tem and the mother of an eighth-grader, also sin­gled out over­crowded schools as a press­ing is­sue.

Ste­wart, who is run­ning un­op­posed, pointed to her ef­forts to get fund­ing to build new schools and ren­o­vate older ones.

“That doesn’t just hap­pen by chance,” she said. “You have to plan for it.”

Bowling, who is run­ning to rep­re­sent the largely ru­ral Dis­trict 1, iden­ti­fied ac­cess to high-speed in­ter­net as the most im­por­tant is­sue fac­ing that dis­trict.

“A lot of peo­ple in Dis­trict 1 want to be left alone, but they also want ur­ban ameni­ties,” Bowling said. “And that poses chal­lenges.”

Asked how they would work with fel­low com­mis­sion­ers to bal­ance out com­pet­ing con­cerns, both com­mis­sioner pres­i­dent can­di­dates em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of find­ing ways to work to­gether.

Dud­ley pointed to his ex­pe­ri­ence find­ing con­sen­sus among com­pet­ing goals as pres­i­dent of a high school arts booster or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“We may not al­ways agree on how [some­thing] hap­pens, but that’s how you be­have as pres­i­dent,” Dud­ley said. “You’re serv­ing your fel­low com­mis­sion­ers to make things go for­ward.”

Thomp­son stressed the im­por­tance of team build­ing and a re­liance on fact-find­ing com­mit­tees.

“We need to co­or­di­nate amongst our­selves and come to a con­sen­sus,” Thomp­son said. With re­gard to fact-find­ers, “Com­mis­sion­ers will rely on them, so need to en­cour­age them to do the best they can.”

An au­di­ence mem­ber asked the can­di­dates to ad­dress the ques­tion of why the board of com­mis­sion­ers never com­pletely fund the bud­get re­quested by the Charles County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Ash­burn pushed back, say­ing that dou­bling the bud­get wouldn’t au­to­mat­i­cally im­prove test scores.

“Ed­u­ca­tion is ex­tremely im­por­tant, but we seem to have a school board that rep­re­sents what­ever [Su­per­in­ten­dent] Kim­berly Hill wants,” Ash­burn said. He added that teach­ers were forced to spend too much time deal­ing with dis­ci­plinary prob­lems, which re­sults in good stu­dents be­ing ne­glected.

Ste­wart said that the school bud­get rep­re­sents the sys­tem’s com­plete “wish list,” and that it’s up to the board of ed­u­ca­tion to establish pri­or­i­ties for fund­ing that the com­mis­sion­ers then vote to carry out.

“There’s al­ways room for im­prove­ment, but as a com­mis­sioner our role is to sup­port the board,” she said.

Dud­ley said that by pass­ing “re­spon­si­ble” school bud­gets, the com­mis­sion­ers were help­ing to main­tain the county’s AAA bond rat­ing, a theme Dud­ley re­turned to through­out the even­ing as vi­tal for en­sur­ing a sta­ble eco­nomic base on which to build a di­ver­si­fied tax base.

Pressed on whether they would be will­ing to raise prop­erty taxes in or­der to pro­vide more fund­ing to the school sys­tem and law en­force­ment, most of the can­di­dates talked about look­ing for ways to stream­line the ex­ist­ing bud­get be­fore re­sort­ing to tax in­creases.

Bowling can­didly said that he could not def­i­nitely say whether or not he would un­til he’s had a chance to look at the bud­get, but that he would “go through look­ing for every dime” that could be saved first.

“If we have to [raise taxes] to keep kids safe and pay for the Charles County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, then I will do it,” Bowling said.

Thomp­son said that the west­ern part of the county rep­re­sented a dor­mant eco­nomic en­gine that the county should fo­cus on get­ting “pepped up” to gen­er­ate the tax rev­enue that could be used to fund law en­force­ment and other first re­spon­der agen­cies.

“We need to get that part of the county go­ing so that the steam en­gine starts to work for the county,” he said.

Wood­land com­bined sev­eral ques­tions about the con­tro­ver­sial Wa­ter­shed Con­ser­va­tion Dis­trict into a sin­gle one, ask­ing can­di­dates to state their po­si­tions on it.

Dud­ley un­am­bigu­ously sup­ported it, say­ing that it would help the county “hold the line on taxes” and spur eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment by killing sprawl de­vel­op­ment. Ste­wart, who had voted in fa­vor of it as com­mis­sioner, also sup­ported it but ad­mit­ted that the com­mis­sion­ers had failed to ex­plain its ben­e­fits and what can be built there.

Bowling said he be­lieved that the over­all in­tent of the WCD was good, but that some of its poli­cies needed to be “mended.”

Thomp­son and Ash­burn came down against the WCD, cit­ing what Thomp­son called the “very oner­ous” lim­i­ta­tions on home­build­ing on land in the WCD zone. Ash­burn added that the WCD would ham­per the de­vel­op­ment of the Mary­land Air­port in Bryans Road.

At one point, Ash­burn crit­i­cized the com­mis­sion­ers for seek­ing raises for “only work­ing two days a week.”

The cur­rent com­mis­sion­ers voted ear­lier this year to re­duce the num­ber of pub­lic open ses­sions to al­ter­nat­ing Tues­days, and also voted to grant the in­com­ing board a se­ries of step in­creases to their salaries.

Only the com­mis­sion­ers’ pres­i­dent po­si­tion is a full-time job.

“They need to be on the phone try­ing to at­tract busi­ness in­stead,” Ash­burn said

Ste­wart chal­lenged Ash­burn’s as­sump­tion, say­ing that she had to ad­dress “the ele­phant in the room” and dis­pel the wide­spread be­lief that com­mis­sion­ers only work when they are hold­ing a pub­lic ses­sion.

“My hus­band and son are here and they’ll tell you that I do com­mis­sioner’s work at least five days a week,” she said. “To in­sin­u­ate that I only work two days a month is ridicu­lous.”

Bowling, who like Ste­wart works in Prince Ge­orge’s County but lives in Charles County, agreed with Ste­wart.

“Just be­cause we have an­other job doesn’t mean we can’t com­mit to the county,” Bowling said.

In their clos­ing state­ments, each of the can­di­dates summed up their po­si­tions and asked for vot­ers’ sup­port on Nov. 6.

Ash­burn em­pha­sized the need for com­mis­sion­ers to work with the county’s state and federal del­e­ga­tions to bring in fund­ing for trans­porta­tion and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment. Ste­wart em­pha­sized the need to sup­port busi­nesses by shop­ping lo­cally. Thomp­son dis­cussed his long fam­ily roots in the county and Dud­ley men­tioned his sci­ence back­ground. Bowling fo­cused on the el­e­ments that the can­di­dates had in com­mon.

“We all come from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and part of bring­ing a com­mu­nity to­gether is work­ing with peo­ple who don’t look like you or move in the same cir­cles as you,” Bowling said. “All of us want to leave the county a bet­ter place for the next gen­er­a­tion.”

STAFF PHOTO BY PAUL LAGASSE

The five can­di­dates for the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers who par­tic­i­pated in Thurs­day’s fo­rum were Chris Dud­ley, left, Henry Thomp­son, Gil­bert Bowling, Dis­trict 3 Com­mis­sioner Amanda Ste­wart (D) and James Ash­burn.

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