Mayoral hopefuls appeal for votes at forum

Published 10:06 am Thursday, April 5, 2012


FRANKLIN—The three candidates for mayor pressed their cases for election at a Wednesday night forum, each citing a strong commitment to the city and a desire to lead the City Council in hopes of bettering the lives of citizens.
A standing-room-only crowd of 175 people listened intently in the Paul D. Camp Community College Workforce Development Center Technology Theater as incumbent Mayor Jim Councill and challengers Raystine Johnson and Greg McLemore appealed for votes in the May 1 election. The audience was the largest ever for a candidate forum sponsored by The Tidewater News.
“I’m speaking from my heart,” said McLemore, who represents Ward 3 on the City Council. “I’m not a politician. Franklin is in dire straits with high unemployment (11.6 percent) compared to the state average of 6.8 percent. For economic development, I have a plan. But there will be two more years of deadlock otherwise if I’m not elected. As mayor, we’ll have a different composition on council. There will no longer be dysfunction.”
Johnson, who is Ward 4 councilwoman and the city’s vice mayor, reminded the audience that she was born in the city, proudly graduated from Franklin High, works as a licensed funeral director, and serves on the Redevelopment and Housing Authority, to name a few ties.
“I pledge to repair damage done by disruptive council meetings, won’t overstep my bounds and be a consensus builder,” she said.
Councill, seeking a ninth two-year term as mayor, said: “I grew up in a home where people served,” citing his parents and even the family’s dentist as examples of public servants. “It feels really good to serve. I serve God and you by giving to others. It’s an honor to serve, and for two more years I’ll continue the momentum.”
There were eight questions, with heavy emphasis on the economy, public safety, council cooperation and education.
Here’s a look at some of the questions and the candidate’s responses.

What initiatives would you champion to improve economic development results and create more jobs in Franklin?

Councill said successful programs already are in place, including partnerships with the Chamber of Commerce, Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., Southampton County and Isle of Wight County. He pointed to the Franklin Business Incubator as a place where businesses can start. Further, he said he’s working on getting an apprenticeship program in shipbuilding in the city.
Johnson said of FSEDI: “We need to re-establish open dialog and evaluate opportunities. We should look at other resources, such as the airport and Pretlow Industrial Park, as well as privately owned resources.”
McLemore said the two other candidates “believe in the same thing. I would do things differently.”
“I’m a patented inventor with marketing experience. We have to think outside the box. Bold leadership is needed to search out opportunities other than through the failed FSEDI.”
Johnson rebutted, “During this tough economic time, we should remain with regional support and move forward.”

Michael Clark, recently installed as the new president of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, called for “a new course” for the community. Do you agree that a “new course” is needed? If so, what should that direction be?

Councill noted that Clark is a third-generation resident and an example that “more and better involvement by all is needed. The course we’re on is good, but there’s always a better way. It’s time to implement and collaborate.”
Johnson said Clark’s speech gave her ideas to study. “Yes, we have untapped resources, our citizens and their ideas,” she said, adding that along with Clark’s input, “we need to utilize them.”
McLemore agreed that a new direction is needed but chided his council colleagues for passing on an opportunity to explore his idea of making Franklin a “solar city.”
Councill replied that solar-city project was directed to FSEDI for study. “We felt it was a business opportunity for the agency we fund,” said the mayor.

Where does public safety rate among your priorities? How would you work to make Franklin safer?

All three candidates saluted Police Chief Phil Hardison and his department and acknowledged that law enforcement needs more resources.
McLemore called employees and volunteers with Franklin Fire and Rescue “true heroes.”
Councill noted that the police, fire and rescue agencies “do a really good job. We always want to give them more.” But schools and other city needs must also be considered. He noted that the crime rate, according to the chief, is down. The mayor also urged people to volunteer where they can, such as in fire and rescue.
“More volunteers do a lot,” he said
Johnson added that “street lighting is key to public safety,” and a Neighborhood Watch program she helped form ultimately got this done. McLemore disputed Johnson’s account, saying he was the one who led the charge for better lighting.

City Council meetings have become more acrimonious and less orderly in recent years. Is this a problem, in your view? If so, what would you do about it as the presiding officer at council meetings?

“It is unfortunate our character is diminished” by such displays, Councill said. “I think we’re much better than we used to be, but still have a long ways to go.” He cited work with a University of Virginia consultant to bring more civility to council meetings.
Johnson agreed that council members’ conduct during meetings has been disruptive.
“It’s unfortunate because businesses and schools, etc., look at this, and it puts us in a negative light. I pledge to you to run more effective meetings, maintain structure and adhere to the rules,” she said.
McLemore said he knows that he talks too much, but “I am passionate. You can blame me all you want.”

With the assumption that public education is vital to the interests of our community, what is your assessment of Franklin Public Schools? If you believe that improvement is needed, what do you plan to do as mayor to make things better?

Johnson said that when it comes to schools, there are three priorities. “First, children are our future and most vital asset. Second, dedicated teachers. Third, the limitation of money as it relates to the school system.”
She recommended four joint meetings a year between the school board and City Council.
“We can develop a true partnership,” said Johnson. “We have to discuss the tough issues, such as the dropout rates. Council is a key partner to the school system.”
McLemore called teaching the “best profession.”
“They should be compensated better, respected more,” he said. “We overwork them. They need to know what we want, which is not to settle for less than the best. We need money and to be involved. We should shoot for the moon, and if we miss, we’ll still land among the stars.”
Councill cited “the elephant in the room” – the “irresponsibility of families” – as the main source of education woes. This can breed disruptive students in classrooms, for example.
He said he wants to break a historic barrier between the city and the Southampton County School Board and collaborate with the county.
“They don’t want our problems,” he acknowledged, but added that cooperation could not only save money but enable better learning opportunities for those students.
Councill also stressed the importance of Western Tidewater Smart Beginnings and the Boys and Girls Clubs, which focus on children.

In his closing statement, McLemore said: “I‘ve done my best. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to try. Do you want to the status quo or change? I don’t think we can afford to keep things as is.”
Johnson said: “It’s only through teamwork we can effect change. I’ll work tirelessly for you, the citizens of Franklin.”
Councill said there are “economic, social and educational challenges, and with a new and capable city manager, we’re all in this together.”
Leadership takes passion, time, opportunity and experience, and he said that he has those qualities.
Afterward, citizens said they found the forum useful.
Faye Foreman said it was “very informative. Each candidate spoke on what they felt was the right thing for people to hear. Also, it was orderly, and that’s very important.”
Brent Kimlick said he was “happy to hear about their forward direction.”