Candidates spar over Navy vote

Published 9:39 am Thursday, March 29, 2012

C. Earl Blythe, who is running the Ward 1 seat on Franklin City Council, answers a question during a Wednesday candidate forum at Paul D. Camp Community College. Looking on are Ward 4 candidates Mona Murphy, from left, and Linwood Johnson, Ward 1 incumbent Barry Cheatham and Steve Stewart, moderator and publisher of The Tidewater News. -- Dale Liesch | Tidewater News

FRANKLIN—Economic development, shared services, improving schools and the city’s handling of discussions on proposed Navy pilot training were debated during a City Council candidate forum Wednesday.

Hosted by The Tidewater News and moderated by Publisher Steve Stewart, the forum featured Ward 1 incumbent Barry Cheatham and challenger C. Earl Blythe and Ward 4 candidates Mona Murphy and Linwood Johnson.

Speaking before the 75 in attendance at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center, the candidates were split on the city’s handling of negotiations last year with the Navy for using the Franklin Airport.

Blythe believes the Navy had the right to use the airport after giving it to the city after World War II in exchange for the Navy being able to use it if necessary.

He said he thinks Mayor Jim Councill did the responsible thing by attempting to broker a deal.

“In order to support the military, I would’ve leaned towards supporting it,” Blythe said.

Cheatham, 61, saw no economic benefit to allowing the training and stands by the City Council’s decision to cut off negotiations.

“It was a break-even contract and may have even cost us a lot of money,” Cheatham said. “Franklin couldn’t afford it.”

Johnson, 59, believes the council made the right decision.

“If they had brought jobs here I would’ve voted for it,” he said. “There’s a lot of land in the State of Virginia where they can do what they do. They made the right decision.”

Murphy would’ve taken a different avenue.

“I would’ve liked to see it happen,” she said. “I’m a supporter of our war fighters.”

Candidates agreed that focusing on shared services with Southampton County would be a good way to save money.

Murphy, 58, said there are many ways the county and city can work together to consolidate services, including schools, and fire and police departments.

A Franklin School Board member and Defense Supply Center employee, Murphy used Williamsburg and James City County and their school board as an example. She said the three entities saved $1 million last year sharing more than half of its services, including maintenance, purchasing and technology.

“It is a must that we go into our communities and our back yards,” Murphy said. “It is a must.”

Johnson, a broker with L.W. Johnson and Associates, suggested the neighboring localities share trash services to save money and criticized the Southeastern Public Service Authority, which handles trash for the city.

He said other avenues related to sharing services, like combining the police and sheriff’s departments, could be researched.

Cheatham, a certified public accountant in Virginia Beach, said he’s on a committee researching possibilities of trash collection after 2018 when the agreement with SPSA expires.

He also suggested the school districts of Franklin and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties develop a better trade school to improve economic development opportunities.

Blythe, 69, a retired social services director for Poquoson and York County, believes the three localities should hold a summit to discuss opportunities for consolidating services.

Each candidate believes the City Council should help attract industry to the area.

Blythe would like the city to do more to offer benefits to companies looking to relocate. He added that Franklin is “uniquely positioned” to bring in small businesses because of the Workforce Development Center at Paul D. Camp Community College and the Small Business Incubator.

“Council should get the word out,” Blythe said.

Cheatham believes the council plays a huge role in attracting industry. The city’s Enterprise Zone provides incentives to lure business. The city’s Business Friendly Committee, which he chairs, has made changes to help large industry and small businesses.

Johnson said bringing in jobs is an important issue. One way to bring in more industry would be to improve the school district’s low state test scores.

“One of the first things a company looks at is education, and if the SOL scores are low, they don’t want to come in,” Johnson said.

Murphy said making the streets safer and strengthening the housing program could help attract industry.

All the candidates agreed that Franklin schools need to improve.

Johnson said switching to an elected school board might help.

Murphy agreed that school improvement is needed, but also said there are a lot of good things happening. She noted that 20 to 25 students received scholarships last year and the district has had a Gates Millennium Scholar the last two years.

Murphy would like to see the School Board and City Council meet together more than twice a year.

Blythe said a lack of success on standardized tests is a problem, and he doesn’t know if “throwing money at the problem is a solution.”

“My take is it starts with the administration and the teachers,” Blythe said.

Cheatham said a loss of jobs is a contributing factor to lower standards in the school district, but he also blamed standardized testing.

“A mandate to maintain SOL standards was the worst thing the government could have done to us,” Cheatham said. “Teachers teach to the test instead of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.”

He said improvement in the school district is important.

The council candidates were asked who they support for mayor.

Johnson said he doesn’t support any candidate, but liked the way Councilman Greg McLemore, 53, handled the recent debate over amending the city charter. Cheatham and Murphy support Councilwoman Raystine Johnson, 53, while Blythe supports incumbent Jim Councill, 67.