By KEVIN HENSLEY
ELLIJAY, Ga. — With eight days left before the 2015 elections, the Gilmer County Republican Party hosted a non-partisan debate for the various candidates and incumbents for mayor and city council Oct. 26, at the Gilmer Arts and Heritage Association theater.
Mayor incumbent Al Hoyle and candidate Jerry Davis were present for the mayoral debate, while Al Fuller, Larry Robinson, Lynelle Reece Stewart, David Westmoreland, Katie Lancey, Scott McBride, Patricia Kyle and Roy Smith took the stage for the Ellijay City Council debate. Rebecca Yardley, second vice chairman for the Ninth Congressional District of the Republican Party, moderated the debates.
The forum was broken up into two parts. The mayoral candidates answered questions drawn at random for 30 minutes and then following a 15-minute intermission, the City Council members were allowed to answer the same questions for 45 minutes.
Hoyle and Davis took the stage to begin the evening. The first question asked if the candidates thought that public service (fire and police) are properly funded. Davis said that he had spoke with the chiefs of both departments and received indication that the funding was sufficient. Hoyle agreed with Davis, while adding, “There’s always improvements to be made. The fire chief is constantly wanting a new fire truck …” which drew laughter from the audience.
The expansion of Harrison Park, a walking trail in downtown Ellijay, was later posed as a topic. Currently, the facility is only a gravel walking trail with two portable restrooms on site. Davis was very passionate about his ideas for expansion.
“East Ellijay has all the retail, but we don’t,” Davis said. “But we have the (Ellijay) river, which is the greatest natural resource that any town in North Georgia can use. Helen is the only other place that has that. I believe we need to utilize that.”
A question about how to fix issues with the city of Ellijay was also given to the candidates. Hoyle stated his belief that finances was the top issue, while Davis believed bringing business back to the city limits was an issue that needed to be corrected.
Questions about arts and festivals, candidate backgrounds and other economic development ideas were also explored by both candidates before the debate ended.
Following an intermission, the City Council debate got underway. Many of the same topics that the mayoral candidates addressed were also brought to the forefront of the Council debate. All eight candidates were given an option to answer the questions, instead of being expected to, due to time constraints. This allowed candidates to only address issues that were very important to them.
The lack of alcohol-sale permits was an issue that McBride deemed important to address.
“I believe our law enforcement would back this up: I don’t think that we’ve seen any kind of spike, or a ‘New Orleans’ type of atmosphere in our community, because of the alcohol sales we already have,” McBride said. “I’d like to expand the zone that we have alcohol sales in, to increase the business that comes to our community.”
Kyle pointed out that while many of the downtown Ellijay buildings have been improved to make the area a tourist attraction, there is still work to be done.
“There are stores downtown and we need to impress upon those owners that they have an obligation to make repairs and to do what is necessary to spruce them up,” Kyle said. “We’re not going to get new merchants if we don’t have a good place to put them.”
Current Council member Fuller also touched on the need for expansion of Harrison Park. “Everybody has their own idea of what the park should look like,” Fuller said. “I see so much promise for the park. I’m hoping, committee-wise, that we can really get things started. I have seen for several years now that an amphitheater would bring in such great entertainment. There’s a barn there, that’s been there for probably 100 years. We have to save that barn.”
Another current Council member, Westmoreland pitched a simple solution to blight within Ellijay. “The best way is for code ordinances to be enforced,” Westmoreland said. “One of the problems that we have is people living in sub-standard housing. It’s embarrassing, in a lot of ways.”
While every viewpoint and topic discussed at the forum is impossible to recap, all the candidates present for the debates helped make the forum a constructive, informative success. Election Day is Nov. 3.