The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

April 10, 2014

Candidates: Stanly must change EDC strategies

Sheriff hopefuls demand office with integrity

By Ritchie Starnes, News Editor

Thursday, April 10, 2014 — Changes with how Stanly County pursues economic development and ethical standards in the Sheriff’s Office were a frequent theme at Thursday night’s Republican forum.

Political hopefuls answered a series of predetermined questions related to their respective offices at the GOP forum conducted in front of local voters at Stanly Commons. The races included offices for county commission, sheriff, district attorney and N.C. House.

Among those vying to become commissioner in the county’s expanded seven-member board, the general consensus of those questioned was that the county should alter its approach with how it recruits new business.

Bill Lawhon, candidate for District 2, said the county should become more aggressive with pursuing potential business, instead of waiting for suitors to come forward.

“I’m afraid we’ve gone to look for buffaloes and ignored the deer and rabbits,” Lawhon said.

“We need to change the way we look at business.”

He also suggested Stanly grow its smaller businesses, which will then increase the local economy while aiding other small businesses.

Ronny Couick, also vying for District 2, suggested the county retool its business recruitment strategy.

“We need to be knocking down every roadblock to bring manufacturing to Stanly County,” Couick said.

He questioned how the Economic Development Commission lost 80 percent of the 100 businesses that inquired about calling Stanly County home.

Matthew Swain, vying for an at-large seat, was more blunt.

“We need to take a look at our EDC,” Swain said.

“We need to re-evaluate what we’re doing as a county.”

Swain said Stanly needs to better prepare its workforce, including career-ready students graduating high school.

A strong education system will also appeal to new businesses as well as a low tax rate, according to Mike Barbee, a member of the school board and candidate for the commission’s District 1.

“We have to be attractive to businesses,” Barbee said.

He reminded those in attendance that the county’s biggest employer is the school system, which is not ideal in terms of generating revenue.

His opponent in the primary, Scott Efird, also championed calls for a better educated workforce. Efird emphasized Stanly’s need to bolster its self-promotion.

“We need to get the word out that Stanly County is open for business,” Efird said.

All of the candidates stressed the need to preserve the county’s commitment to agriculture.

At-large hopeful Jann Lowder called farming a vital part of the county’s heritage as she rattled off the names of family farms.

Challengers Efird and Barbee agreed.

“Not everything comes from Food Lion,” Efird said.

“I want to see money earned in Stanly County stay in Stanly County.”

Barbee touted the possibility of implementing an agricultural-based school in the western part of the county.

At-large candidates Heather B. Couick and Art Burleson were not present. Incumbent Gene McIntyre (District 4) and Joseph Burleson (District 3) were present, but did not speak because they are not opposed in the primary.

All four GOP candidates vying to become the next sheriff were on hand. They, too, called for changes from the present Democratic administration of incumbent Rick Burris.

With the exception of George T. Burris, three candidates called Rick Burris’ office fraught with issues of integrity.

“There is so much turmoil down there,” Tony Frick, a former sheriff, said.

Melvin Poole was much more direct.

“I’m not running for sheriff to be the administrator of Peyton Place,” Poole said.

Poole, who is retired from the military, was equally critical of the department’s standards. He said the sheriff’s office warrants cleaning up with a higher standard set at the top.

“When I see a deputy directing traffic without a hat on, his vest flapping in the wind and a three-doughnut belly hanging over his belt …  tighten your belt by November because I’m coming,” Poole said.

Michael Whaley said he will lead by example in a department lacking in integrity.

“You will work by a standard or you won’t work for the sheriff’s office,” Whaley said.

In terms of law enforcement experience, only Poole lacks direct experience. He counters that his military career and his approach to responsibility, like his responsibilities in the military and 18 years on the Board of Education, will more than qualify for the job.

Frick served as sheriff from 1998-2006, following years as a police officer and businessman.

Whaley is also a former police officer, with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice set to be completed by May.

George T. Burris touts the most diverse experience within the sheriff’s office, having worked in the jail, as a bailiff, patrol and detective. He also worked as a lieutenant for Oakboro police.

“What I bring to the sheriff’s office is a lot of experience, but I also bring a lot of common sense,” Burris said.

“You treat people the way you want to be treated.”

The GOP primary face-off for district attorney, which will effectively determine the post barring no successful write-in candidate in November, featured a pair of defense attorneys. T. Lynn Clodfelter and Jim Phillips presented different styles during their public question and answer.

After a question about plea bargains, Clodfelter explained that plea arrangements are necessary to control the caseload. He said, however, there are times when plea deals are not an option.

“As your district attorney there are some crimes you don’t plea bargain,” Clodfelter said.

“And armed robbery is like murder — the gun just didn’t go off.”

Phillips took the question as an opportunity to illustrate he’s not afraid to be unpopular for his intolerance to plea bargain.

“Some crimes are so horrendous that you can’t fix them,” Phillips said.

“I’m going to stand firm and say ‘no I’m not going to do this.’ That will not make me popular.”

As for expected changes, Phillips indicated that relationships between the district attorney’s office and law enforcement here are often frayed. He said he will improve communication and accountability between the district attorney and the county’s respective law enforcement agencies.

“The first thing I’ll do is to be certain that I have open lines of communication,” he said.

Clodfelter said his first course of action is to ensure the new prosecutorial district hires the right assistant district attorneys.

In what became the most contentious point of the forum, N.C. Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, squared off with challenger Peter Asciutto for the House’s 67th District race.

While Burr mostly kept to his prepared answers, Asciutto used the forum to criticize the incumbent for what amounted to meddling in county affairs.

Burr illustrated his accomplishments with those of the Republican-led General Assembly. He said he is a part of the GOP legislature committed to rebuilding the state’s economy by implementing policies, reducing tax burdens and regulations in an effort to bolster job growth.

Asciutto blamed Burr for taking away lottery funds that fund local schools.

He also blamed Burr for creating an unnecessary expense by expanding the county’s board of commissioners from five to seven. The added commissioners will cost county taxpayers an extra $45,000-$60,000, Asciutto said.

“I don’t set the pay for county commissioners,” Burr said.

That was the only remark that showed Asciutto’s comments were irritating the state representative.

Asciutto concluded with personal anecdotes of humble beginnings intended to paint him as a people’s candidate, like a time when his mother fed her family by relying on food stamps.

To submit story ideas, contact Ritchie Starnes at (704) 982-2121 ext. 28 or email