Random observations from Monday’s Franklin City Council candidate forum …

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2008

_ In this space last week, I lamented the voter apathy that plagues our community, state and nation. The turnout of 100 strong in poor weather to hear candidates from two city wards left some egg on my face. I’m proud to acknowledge it. Interest in this election is refreshingly high.

_ An old-timer remarked afterward that the audience was decidedly &uot;gray.&uot; He was right, but I suspect the age mix was reflective of the electorate on Election Day. Young and middle-age adults don’t participate in their democracy like their elders do. That’s unfortunate.

_ Less alarming to me was the low attendance by African-Americans. Wards 1 and 2 are overwhelmingly white, so it makes sense that the forum audience would be the same. The black community will turn out in larger numbers, I predict, for a mayoral forum on Wednesday, April 30.

_ All four candidates – Barry Cheatham and Dan Hoctor in Ward 1; Benny Burgess and Charles Wrenn in Ward 2 – held their own in a tough format. They had no advance notice of the questions that were asked. Those questions came directly from voters (nearly 100 in all were e-mailed to the newspaper in advance), and there were no softballs in the group. A couple of candidates conceded afterward that they’d never been as nervous as they were in the hours leading up the forum. Jitters were apparent during opening statements, but the candidates collected themselves and handled the question-and-answer portion well.

_ From this vantage point, no one won or lost the election Monday night, but each candidate scored some points. Interestingly, there were no monumental gaffes. Given the format, I expected a couple.

_ Ever the savvy incumbent, Wrenn used his closing statement to address an issue on which he’s taken something of a beating. He strongly reaffirmed his opposition to fundamental reform of Franklin Power & Light, including the creation of an independent authority or commission to govern the city-owned utility. Interestingly, that question was next on the agenda when time ran out on the Q&A portion of the forum. A citizens task force and this newspaper both have advocated utility reform, but the current city administration has brushed it off. Time will tell whether Wrenn is on the right side of the issue politically, but give him some credit for voluntarily bringing it up.

_ Hint to mayoral candidates: Expect the electrical department to be prominent on the April 30 forum agenda.

_ Two other candidates used their prepared statements to address head-on issues on which they are vulnerable. In his opening statement, Hoctor acknowledged his child’s enrollment at Southampton Academy. Based on a number of similar questions submitted by voters, many believe that elected and appointed officials who govern our public schools should set an example by sending their own children to those schools. We posed the question to the candidates, only one of whom, Hoctor, has school-age children. He defended his decision and left open the possibility that he would send his kids to public school in the future. Burgess and Cheatham, whose adult children attended Franklin public schools, declined to pounce on the issue. They noted their own families’ history with the public schools but respected education as a &uot;personal choice&uot; for others.

_ Cheatham, in his closing statement, acknowledged his out-of-town employment, at which Hoctor has taken a subtle, indirect dig in his advertisements. Cheatham commutes to Virginia Beach, where he’s part of a certified public accounting firm. Cleverly, he lamented a lack of local job opportunities that forces many to commute outside the city for gainful employment. The guess here: Hoctor’s private-school affiliation and Cheatham’s out-of-town employment will offset each other as influential issues in a close race.

_ The Paul D. Camp Community College Workforce Development Center staff proved again why the facility is the desired gathering place in Franklin. Director Randy Betz and staff went above and beyond in preparing a first-rate setup for the forum. The only bug – dead batteries in two of the candidates’ wireless microphones – was corrected quickly.

_ A couple of people have questioned the involvement of mayoral candidate Greg McLemore in the forum. He’s an employee of the Workforce Development Center whose job is event logistics. He was assigned by his bosses to oversee the setup for Monday night’s forum, and he did a terrific job. That said, I’m told that McLemore will have no involvement as a staff member on April 30, when he will be one of three candidates on the platform.

_ Look for discussion of a city-county school merger – whether wholly or piecemeal – to gain some momentum as a result of this election cycle. The topic came up several times Monday night. Dramatic increases in spending and indebtedness – and tapped-out property owners who are rebelling against higher taxes – are forcing both current and prospective elected officials to take a hard look at subjects that have been historically taboo.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.