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Wednesday, February 22,2012

Commission candidates grilled on the big issues

By David DeWitt

With such a large slate of candidates for Athens County commissioner, a candidates forum Tuesday night at the Athens Community Center saw very few fireworks, though the evening's conversation did touch upon some of the most controversial issues facing the county.

Democratic primary candidates in both races for county commissioner spoke during the forum, covering topics such as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, gassing at the county Dog Shelter, whether Athens should leave the joint Solid Waste District with Hocking County, and what's to be done in the face of shrinking budgets.

In one race, former union official Charlie Adkins is squaring off against Nelsonville businessman Gary Edwards for the chance to face Republican incumbent Larry Payne in the fall.

In the other, incumbent Democrat Mark Sullivan is seeing a primary challenge from party stalwart Mike O'Brien, local farmer and festival organizer Chris Chmiel, Trimble Township Trustee Paul "Smoke" Barrett and former Nelsonville City Councilman Robert Baughman. Republican Randy Mace is also vying for the seat.

O'Brien kicked off the evening by declaring himself the only pro-active, progressive Democrat on the stage. From there he launched right into the fracking issue, saying that he has called for a statewide moratorium until a study of its impacts on the environment and human health can be completed.

"The citizens of Athens County and the complex challenges we all face deserve full-time attention from our elected officials," he said.

Barrett positioned himself as a blue-collar candidate who knows the needs of the various townships and will bring a strong work ethic to the table.

"I want to pledge 5 percent of my commissioner salary will go to food banks, the senior citizens, veterans league or some other worthy local cause," he said.

Sullivan cited his work on economic development and experience in office, pledging to continue that work if he is "fortunate enough" for voters to return him to office.

"I think my experience is very important during these tough economic times, and your continued support and vote on March 6 would be very much appreciated," he said.

Baughman pointed to a variety of projects that are currently underway and extolled his priority of promoting economic development in Athens County.

"We need to get some economic development in here, and we need partnership with private investors to bring things in," he said.

Chmiel cited his strength of being able to turn problems into solutions, pointing to his home being constructed using old tires as a foundation. He said his concerns include fracking, the solid waste district and economic development.

"That's the way I like to think," he said. "I feel like I've been able to take an idea that sounds impossible and turn it into reality. And these are the types of things I'd like to bring to county commissioner."

In the other race, Adkins cited his experience working for Ohio University, in the union and for the state retirement board. Edwards, meanwhile, pointed to his experience in retail management and his long-standing ambition to serve Athens County.

Edwards was the only candidate who said he opposes the fracking resolution recently passed by the board of commissioners; he said neither drilling advocates nor anti-fracking groups were happy with the end result.

"We need to make sure it's environmentally safe," he said. "We need to make sure we protect our people, our water and our property."

O'Brien said that fracking is the most important issue facing the county right now, even with budget constraints.

"My first focus as commissioner will be on fracking," he said.

Chmiel said he agrees fracking is the biggest issue, and he'd like to see the newly formed advisory committee remain proactive in gathering research.

"I think best management practices is a process that needs to be engaged in, where it's constantly being updated, working with industry on advancements that make it as safe as possible," he said.

Baughman said his number one issue is economic development.

"One of the things I'd like to do is encourage regional investors to invest in Athens County," he said. "For me, a job-friendly atmosphere is here. One of the problems we run into is that there's not enough space for industry to move in."

Barrett said his priority is jobs.

"There are people out in the county that are hurting, truly hurting," he said. "So we need jobs. Jobs would be high on my priority."

Sullivan said his priority would be to continue to work with other officeholders to make sure that basic services are provided.

"The budget is tight every year," he said. "That's always a big issue. And it's going to be a big issue as long as the state and federal government tries to balance their budgets on the backs of local municipalities, townships and counties."

Edwards said that the county needs to work on being fiscally responsible and developing a five-year plan for the future.

"There's a lot of opportunities for economic development in the county but we have to be on sound financial ground in order to do that," he said.

Adkins said that with regard to fracking, appropriate testing is important.

"I think jobs and the safety of the people in this county are the most important issues to me," he said.

ON THE GAS CHAMBER AT THE county dog shelter, Sullivan said that cost is a concern and that the county needs to figure out liability issues with regard to lethal injection drugs.

Baughman said that finding homes for animals is the first priority, and while injection is preferable the county should not do away with the chamber itself.

Barrett said he sympathizes with the animals and would like to see them put to sleep in the most humane way possible.

Chmiel said that the consensus seems to be that lethal injection is the way to go but the post-traumatic stress of the person injecting the animals should also be kept in mind; funding is an issue, too, he said.

O'Brien said the only appropriate answer is a no-kill facility.

Adkins said he's totally against the gas chamber, and it should be done away with.

Edwards said he'd rather see the county use lethal injection but he recognizes the cost and liability concerns, adding he doesn't want to see the chamber deconstructed.

On the question of whether Athens should drop out of the joint Solid Waste District with Hocking County, Sullivan said that the county shouldn't do so just yet, acknowledging that it may come to that point.

Barrett said the commissioners must do what's best for Athens County citizens, and it's critical to make recycling work by increasing availability.

O'Brien criticized Athens for being "incredibly behind" on recycling and said that while joint districts can be cost-saving, recycling is the priority.

Chmiel said while it seems like Athens should drop out, a joint district is ideally the way to go, and Athens County is holding the cards.

Baughman said that the county needs to see what happens with a request for a deadline extension but it should be remembered that the Nelsonville landfill is privately-owned and must remain profitable or it will be closed.

Adkins said he believes it's probably time to go with a single-county waste district, and that the issue should be addressed as soon as possible, pointing to working with Rural Action's Zero Waste Initiative and forming a committee to get the ball rolling. Edwards said that district member Logan City Council is balking at a $3 tipping fee, but the district can't afford for the state Environmental Protection Agency to write a plan. He said he hopes Logan will come back to the table.


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