Vidalia candidates face issues at political forum
Published 12:24 am Friday, February 19, 2016
VIDALIA — Candidates in the upcoming Vidalia municipal elections faced off Thursday night in a political forum.
The event, hosted by the Concordia Chamber of Commerce at the Vidalia Convention center, included every candidate running for mayor, district 2 alderman, district 3 alderman and chief of police.
Incumbent Mayor of Vidalia Hyram Copeland said he was running on his record of 24 years of mayor.
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Challenger Buz Craft said he thinks a change is needed in the mayor’s office. “The mayor’s primary mission is to make sure his office complies with every ordinance and rule,” Craft said.
One contentious issue discussed by the candidates was their position on the Square on Carter project, a community development project intended to bring upscale shopping and housing facilities to the city.
Craft contended the project was pushed along too soon, and put the town at risk of going into debt without any benefit.
The issue was at the crux of a voter’s decision, Craft said.
“There is nothing about that project that is good for you as a Vidalian,” Craft said. “It’s not good for our town right now. If anyone wants that, vote for him. If you’re against this Square and against taking this debt, vote for me and it will be a dead issue.”
Copeland said he has brought large businesses and many jobs to Vidalia during his administration, and has kept a balanced budget.
“For the last 23 years, this town has operated in the black,” Copeland said. “We’ve had good audits, regardless of what some may say.”
Craft disagreed, saying investigations into the books have shown discrepancies.
“We’re going to look strongly at the budget and see where there is waste,” Craft said. “We’re not far removed from having a budget crisis. It’s been every year, and we’re still blaming it on past people … we don’t have a revenue problem in Vidalia, we have a spending problem.”
The hydroelectric plant, and the way its revenues are to be handled, was another major subject in the discussion.
Copeland said the contracts surrounding the plant made it impossible to keep all the royalty revenues in the city, and the current utility rates could not be helped.
“When I came into office, the system was in disarray,” Copeland said. “We rebuilt that system … the ordinance says how to spend the (Royalty) money. (Craft) said we broke the law, but we haven’t broken any law.”
Craft contends the hydroelectric royalties have been mishandled, resulting in unfairly high prices on electricity for Vidalia residents.
When the mayoral discussion concluded, Sandra Copeland, wife of the current Vidalia mayor, shouted out, asking why Craft left his previous job at Concordia Bank.
Craft said he was asked not to speak about it, but it was not a result of any wrongdoing on his part.
The candidates for district 2 and 3 aldermen largely discussed economic development issues.
Sitting District 2 Alderman Vernon Stevens said he was proud of the role he played in projects such as the hydroelectric plant, recreation complex and port.
Stevens described the hydroelectric plant’s royalties as the most complicated subject that could not be adequately explained in his two-minute time limit.
“I was on the council when it started out,” Stevens said.
He agreed with the mayor that contracts prevent revenue from being returned to the city in greater amounts.
He said one of the most important projects in the upcoming term was the port.
“We met with business owners here of major businesses,” Stevens said. “Most of them have said that if that port was open, they could increase their workforce, productivity and plant capability.”
District 2 challenger Robert Gardner said the utility prices were important to the community.
“My bill is $600 or $700 every month,” Gardner said. “I will work on that to reduce price of utilities.”
The state of public infrastructure in his district, Gardner said, was unequal with other areas of Vidalia.
“I want my district to be treated like all others,” Gardner said. “Things need to be done in my district: beautification, alleyways, sewage and drainage, and it has been brought forth time and time again. The present people have said we just patch it up. We’re tired of patching up.”
Raymond Murray, also running for District 2, agreed.
“Walking through neighborhoods I’ve seen several things,” Murray said. “There is a line. One part of city is kept up and looks great, but from Alabama Street back, it looks terrible.”
Murray, who is the grandson of former mayor Sydney Murray, who started the hydroelectric plant project, said the handling of the plant’s revenues is a major issue in his campaign.
“One real reason I’m running is making sure hydro royalties get where they belong,” Murray said. “The ordinance needs to be followed precisely. It’s citizens’ money.”
In District 3, incumbent Ricky Knapp faced challengers Sabrina Doré, Tommy Probst and incumbent Jon Betts. District 3 will elect three of the four candidates running.
Knapp said his experience with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gives him a valuable perspective on infrastructure projects.
Knapp made the motion to move forward with the Square on Carter project, he said, and stands by the project.
“I’m for growth and the future of Vidalia,” Knapp said. “A city not growing is dying.”
Knapp said he would vote to move forward with the project, if the issues in it were addressed.
Doré said she would bring a unique perspective because she is younger than other aldermen.
Doré said she hoped to create a Vidalia her young children would never have to leave for work.
“We’ve got to create such a wonderful standard of living that they can’t imagine leaving,” she said.
Doré, a business owner, said she was invested in the growth of Vidalia.
Probst said his primary focus was on representing the wishes of the public, rather than pursuing any single agenda.
“As alderman I want to do one thing only — represent the people,” he said.
Betts, who serves as District 3 Alderman, said he does not support the Square on Carter project, and wants to support town-wide development.
“I want to be a representative for all the town, but I just happen to live in district 3,” Betts said.