Allegheny Mountain Radio and The Pocahontas Times hosted a political forum for Democratic County Commission candidates on April 30. A forum was not conducted for Republicans because those candidates are unopposed in the primary election.
During the forum, candidates were asked five questions, including questions on courthouse security and agriculture. Candidates who answered questions first were given one minute for a response. Here is a transcript of the candidates’ responses to the security and agriculture questions.
Question: This year, citing a lack of funds, the County Commission voted to not implement an enhanced security system for the courthouse, which would include at least two full-time guards and cost the county an estimated $110,000 per year. Would you support an enhanced security system in the future. Why or why not?
Northern District Candidates
David McLaughlin: “I don’t think I would support that criteria. I’d like to see the courthouse opened up more. When I come to the courthouse and walk around and stuff, I want an open door. The courthouse is open to people. I think it should be open for the people. As far as security, how are you going to secure a courthouse unless doors are chained and bolted? Someone could come in, go to a door and open it up and let someone in. That’s a lot of money for Pocahontas County – $110,000. So, I didn’t support that courthouse security.”
Patti Heinemann: “I do not feel that we really need to secure our courthouse at this time. I don’t think this county has a crime rate to suggest that a security system such as this would be needed in the county. So, I would not support something like that. I agree with Dave [McLaughlin], I think that the courthouse should be for the people. It’s our courthouse and we should have access to it. As far as the courts are concerned, they’re already secure. They have guards guarding the doors if it’s a juvenile case and we have guards in the courthouse. I don’t think there’s any necessity to further implement such a program.”
Kenneth Varner: “I would not support this security at the courthouse, at this time. I don’t like having to go down there and walk around the courthouse, as Mr. McLaughlin said. Other people have complained about that several times about the way the courthouse is. You have to go through the front door and I just think it’d be a waste of money and time. I also don’t think that we have such a rate of people that’s coming in there and endangering anybody. I mean, have we had any cases of this happening? I don’t think so. So, I personally think it would be a waste of money, at this time, and we could better spend that money on other things.”
David Fleming: “I think all three candidates gave good answers to that. Judge Pomponio brought this information to us and we had an opportunity to apply for about $160,000 in federal grant money to get equipment for free. Of course, we did our due diligence and looked into the matter. In the meantime, while it was going on, we entertained the idea of blocking off ingress to the rear door and side door, so that ingress had to be done through the front door or the ADA door. Of course, you have to allow for egress for fire code reasons. But, in the end of the day, it was going to cost us $110,000 for personnel. The grant would not provide for that. I think we’re going to have to revisit this and see what we need to do with the doors. Now that we know the grant is not going to be applied for – the deadline was April first. So, I think the best security would be personnel, boots on the ground. That’s what works for most counties throughout the state. But we really have a lot more homework to do on that. I think we don’t really need any more equipment or security apparatus, at this time. We’re pretty good, safe county.”
Southern District Candidates
Shay Huffman: “I’ve talked to this, at length, about this issue with Connie Carr, who’s the Circuit Clerk of the Court. She told me that she has, on a regular basis, incidents in the courthouse, which have threatened some of the employees there. We’ve looked at other options besides having armed security guards, that would provide better security for the courthouse. One would be key cards for each office, and that way, former employees could not be able to get into the private offices. We talked about security cameras in the halls. There are panic buttons right now that go to the 911 Center, but really, they need to go through the Sheriff’s Department, as well as 911 Center. We talked about the possibility of having some kind of alert, like a light alert system, so that if a panic button is pressed by one employee, others would be aware. All of this would be available at no cost to the county through the grant that, you know, people in the courthouse work together to secure. I think this would be agreeable to many people, because it would not cost the county anything and we could provide enhanced security. I think it’s something that we need to look at. As far as the metal detector, we do have one upstairs at the courthouse. If they wish to use that during the court hearings, the bailiff could deal with that and address those issues. He’s already being paid there. So, we could have enhanced security without any cost to the county.”
Sarah Riley: “I think we have to work very hard to make sure every space in Pocahontas County is as safe as it can be. I do not believe that, at this point, investing county money in hiring two full-time security guards for the courthouse is the most strategic way to do that. So, no. I don’t support it at the moment.
William Beard: “I could go on for a long time on it, because I’ve been at it for several months through the whole process. I can see the courthouse employees. They do have problems. But the problem is – it’s expensive. I don’t care which way you go, whatever equipment you have, you have to have service costs on the equipment. And it’s a very expensive thing to venture into and that equipment is very expensive. In the first place, you can get grants that will pay for it in the beginning, but you will have to have service costs right along with it to maintain that equipment. I feel too that our school system – that’s an area where we ought to consider security, on our school system as much as the courthouse. Any security equipment is very expensive and, at this time, I can’t see how this small county can afford very much of it.”
Shay Huffman response: “I would just like to say that when I worked at the hospitals, I worked in the OB unit, and we were a lock-down unit. We had security cameras. We had panic buttons and it really did not cost very much. But there were occasions we had to use it. I think that minimal security for the maximum benefit for the employees should be re-examined again and look at really long-term costs to the county to maintain that equipment.
Question: Agriculture is a major industry in Pocahontas County. What would you do as a county commissioner to support the agriculture industry?
Southern District Candidates
William Beard: “Agriculture has been an important part of this county from day one and it will be for years and years to come. As agriculture changes, everybody needs to change with it. I’ve changed in my business at various times throughout my career at it. I feel like, if we can work together, I think that the small farms, as far as producing vegetables and crops like that, I think there’s a big advantage to it any more. More people are wanting homegrown food. I think we can work on that in a big manner. I think even us, who are producing livestock ourselves, we can change to fit the market. I think there’s a lot of opportunities with the increasing population in the United States and across the world. There’s a big need for agricultural products. A lot of the livestock producers are getting bigger and, probably, there’s more smaller people producing vegetable crops, which is a big change that’s taking place. As I feel, there’s a lot of advantages of what we offer here. We offer seasons that usually have plenty of rain to grow crops and to grow grass for our livestock. We have a climate that’s cooler than a lot of places, where the livestock will grow and gain per day better than other places. We have plenty of advantages. We just need to work together and see what fits in the whole world situation, anymore.
Shay Huffman: “I have been a homesteader and a small, organic gardener for most of my adult life. I have been working recently with the Senior Center because the seniors and families who get Women with Infants and Children, WIC, get vouchers for the farmers market. I’ve been working with those groups to try to get the farmers market to come to the Senior Center, so that seniors could actually have access to the market and use their vouchers. In that way, the WIC people could do that too. They are going to accommodate us, as far as Hillsboro having a farmers market on Wednesdays when the seniors are there and at the Senior Center in Marlinton twice a month. It’s a great opportunity for small farmers to be able to sell their produce here in the county and anything extra can be donated to Meals on Wheels.”
Sarah Riley: “I have a farm. We sell free-range beef and pork and lamb on our website. We’re farmers market vendors. At High Rocks, I do a lot of nutrition education and helped start a statewide farm-to-school network. I believe the future of agriculture is in the hands of young people. An hour yesterday I was trying to recruit a new vo-ag teacher, who I think would be fabulous. That means that right now, we also need to work hard on marketing and the ability to bring all of these products together, so that we can really scale. Because right now, everybody’s too little to fill the big markets. So, we need to fill the big markets and, to do that, we need to collaborate; we need to work together; we need to build that together as a community. I believe we can do that and we’re on our way.”
William Beard response: “As a livestock producer, I changed my business in the last several years and went to more of a niche market, as all-natural cattle. I’m approved through the GAP program, which in my business has improved my lifestyle a whole lot. I think there’s other ways that we can do it – from small growers to large growers – there’s always that niche market. For several years, if you get into it, you can profit by doing it. I think there’s a big advantage by finding that. Like Sarah said, we need to work together and we can produce a lot more than anybody can realize.”
Northern District Candidates
Kenneth Varner: “I also own a small farm and it’s tough to do farming in this county. It’s kind of tough question there, too. Anything we can do to help the farmers, I’d be willing to help them. I know a lot of the farmers are interested in this drilling in the county, if the drilling would come here. I don’t think the county commissioners ought to be telling the landowners, which the majority would be the farmers, of what to do with their land. On the other hand, I don’t think that the drilling people’s going to come in here and purposefully destroy somebody’s water. That’s what the big complaint is. That’s kind of like a double-edged sword. In some aspects, it would be good and help the county and you’ve got the other people saying, ‘no, we don’t want it.’ But, on the other hand, we need jobs in the county too. I definitely don’t want to destroy our water. Hopefully, if it ever does come here, I don’t foresee that happening. It would help the farmers and everybody that owns the land and everybody could make money from it and keep our water clean.”
David Fleming: “Pocahontas County and Greenbrier County and Monroe, in particular, who happen to be within the jurisdiction of GVEDC – we are a prime location for the future of local foods. People want more and more naturally-grown foods, organic foods. They want to know what their food is and where it’s coming from, if it’s real food. We have the best farmland, bar none, and we have great potential to grow foods. Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick is working hard to try to establish a food aggregation and distribution center for our three-county area. This would help get our products out to the bigger market. In the bigger market, people pay a lot of money for this premium produce. But the biggest problem we have here in the county is aggregation and distribution because of our distributed communities and our highway system being just long drives to get produce around. So, we need, as a commission, to invest in ways we can do freezer space, aggregation and distribution. We have a lot of potential.”
David McLaughlin: “I’m a fifth generation farmer. I know a little bit about farming and a little bit about farmers. County farmers are growing older. As a general rule, they’re aging. A lot of farmers don’t have a family to leave the farm to. What are they going to do with the farm? They don’t want to sell it; they don’t want to subdivide it; they’d like to keep it farmable. I got a crazy idea about old farmers that can’t do anything else with their land. Why don’t we have a sign-up sheet, if they have farmland they would like to rent or lease. And somebody else has a list, who would like to farm, and get those two people together. There’s a lot of young farmers in the county who would like to farm but they can’t afford a farm. It just costs too much to start a farming operation.”
Patti Heinemann: “Farming is one of our biggest industries, outside of tourism and the timber business. I just feel that we really should encourage farms to continue. As Dave [McLaughlin] said, doing anything possible, that we can continue farms as they are, with renting lands or even, maybe, going into some commercial growing and commercial growers that would be willing to hire local people to maintain their farms and grow the produce or foods that need to be brought to market.”
Kenneth Varner response: “I think Mr McLaughlin has a great idea there about the farms. I was talking to a farmer today about that. He’s 79 years old and don’t know what he’s going to do with his farm. I think that would be a great idea to do that. And also, if you’re trying to buy to start off with, you can’t afford to do that. I’d also support the vegetables and stuff like that. I missed that awhile ago, but everybody’s wanting their organic and everything now. I think that is a good idea. I go to those farmers markets from time to time and you get some good vegetables and stuff there. I think that’s a great idea also.”