Mayoral debate may help voters decide

Monday, July 19, 2010

Two of three men running for Marshall County mayor exchanged views on leadership Friday night in the community theater on Lewisburg's public square where a third seat was conspicuously empty.

Subtle differences between County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett and his challenger, local businessman Mike Spence, were revealed by the debate witnessed by an audience of about 130 voters. The candidates' styles, although literally silent, were overshadowed by a gentlemanly discussion led by moderator Barry White.

Spence, at times, confirmed the incumbent's answers in response to the regional banker's questions. Comparable answers revealed the complexity of the mayor's job that relies more on initiative - perhaps charisma - than executive and judicial power that was adjusted by state law decades ago when the job title changed from county judge to county executive. Subsequently the job title was changed, but not the duties.

Meanwhile, White reported that County Commissioner Scottie Poarch, the third candidate in the mayor's race, had telephoned him about two and a half hours before the debate to say that he didn't think he'd be able to attend because he had to work. Poarch had substantially said the same thing earlier Friday to a Tribune reporter who'd heard it before - some three weeks earlier when the candidate was asked if he could adjust his work schedule to participate.


After responding to White's request for a description of their adult lives, Liggett and Spence stated their understanding and interpretation of the county mayor's job.

Protection of the county is a chief responsibility, Liggett said. He noted required classes to familiarize county leaders with emergency management roles, such as county spokesman during emergencies, but Liggett also included a duty to deal with issues leading to the unemployment of county residents.

The County mayor "wears many hats," he said. That includes working with county commissioners. While the county has a budget office with staff to tend financial accounts, the larger issues are on the mayor's shoulders.

"We go out to the state and federal officials," Liggett said. "We're the voice of the county."

Spence compared the job to that of a plant manager and a chief executive officer, CEO.

Mayors must "keep a finger on the pulse" of the county, said Spence, and "take care of the entire scope of things."

It's important to "get industry back in here," Spence said, placing an emphasis on that responsibility "to be out there and recruit business."

Liggett explained the mayor is limited or empowered by the county commission because much of what a mayor endorses will be successful "if the commission wants to listen."

"A lot of it," Spence said, "is who you have chair the commission."

The county mayor here can be elected by the commission to chair that panel. Liggett sought that role, but was defeated early by now-former Commissioner Sam Smith.

A county mayor who also serves as chairman of the commission has "a little more influence," Spence said.

"I'd rather be right than popular," Liggett replied, to loud applause, and Spence said, "I think we're in agreement there."


While Liggett is the incumbent, Spence extrapolated on his experience in factory management saying that a mayor has "got to be able to talk to the president of Ford and say 'Marshall County's got to be where you build your next factory.' You've got to be a salesman."

Liggett's agricultural background also came out as he countered: "On a farm operation, you are the manager. You make all the decisions."

Liggett has also "taken 60 hours of courses trying to get better" at the job because he realizes there's always a new challenge.

"Look at what happened in November of 2008: Our economy crashed," Liggett said, turning to one extreme step when faced with what may seem like insurmountable odds: "As a leader, I'm not too proud to beg. That's how important this county is to me."


The moderator cautioned against saying "Jobs, jobs, jobs" as a response to his request for the top three priorities, but the responses were all labor related.

"Jobs," Liggett said. "Jobs in health care, jobs in retail, build the tax base. We have to continue to keep building retail. We have to improve services. We've got provide services, keep fees down. Solid waste is going to be a big issue."

Spence said "Industry, jobs, sales-tax revenue" are his priorities. "Getting people to work, but also getting industry" are among his other related priorities.

As the unemployment rate goes down, retail businesses will come, he said.

"Nobody will come to build new restaurant with 20 percent unemployment" here, he said.

"No different from what we're doing," Liggett said, adding that the solution is to work harder.

"We've worked closely with the IDB (Lewisburg's Industrial Development Board) and the JECDB (Joint Economic and Community Development Board,)" Liggett said to a more mature audience including county employees and others who would know the acronyms.

Liggett said the county mayor must continue to make contacts with businessmen to build a better network of contacts for development.

Spence advocated the salesman's tried and true method: "You've just got to be there knocking on those doors. Say 'If you're tired of rat-race in Franklin, come to Lewisburg."


Waste Management's request for expansion of the landfill west of Lewisburg may be going through an administrative hearing board process now, and expansion may become an issue for the civil courts, but there are still opportunities to state a preference for or against expansion and so White asked about that.

"Do what's right," Liggett said. "If professionals have said it shouldn't be there, don't do it. Let experts decide."

Spence seemed to mostly agree with Liggett and he pointed out there have been some delays: "foot dragging" by those participating, but that if the landfill is unsafe, then the state should have said so, and not leave it up to public opinion.

The mayor's job includes a responsibility of representation, to convey the residents' position, Spence said. "If a majority of the people are for it, he should convey that..."

Waste Management tried to be safe, but "Accidents will happen," Spence said.

As for accidents or leakage of undesirable liquids or fumes from the landfill, Liggett said, "I don't think it's a question of if, but a question of when."

The mayor also noted the differences between clay liners under garbage buried since the 1990s and the current manmade fabrics used to line landfills now.


Liggett said the county should not be working to land "minimum-wage" employment opportunities for county residents.

"People have to pay their bills," Liggett said.

Spence said he doesn't think that anybody is satisfied with the results of efforts to recruit new employers, although the challenger acknowledged that he's not yet an insider to know what opportunities exist.

An effective way to recruit new employers here is one-on-one conversations to convince people that "Marshall County is the best place on earth," Spence said. "You've got to spend money to make money. Like buying a car, people are looking for best deal out there."


White spoke of cooperation between the various local governments in the county, including the historic view that arose from the physical barrier of the Duck River between parts of the county. The two debating this responded somewhat differently.

"Sometimes barriers good," Liggett said. If people are always agreeing on various issues, then you won't get both sides to consider.

Still, it's good to "let each entity conduct business," Liggett said. Leaders in other governments ought to help when they can.

Conditions are improving and the mayor cited work of the JECDB.

One example, not specifically mentioned, was the plan to have four local governments in the county hire a professional planner to deal with growth, development and land-use zoning issues.

"There has been history of animosity," Spence noted of local government relations. "But things are progressively getting better. We could always improve. We're all in this together. We've got to pull together."

Spence would "love to see another new employer in the city's business park, but if goes to Chapel Hill or Cornersville, that would tickle me, too."


White had been encouraged to ask the candidates how they would vote on the sales tax referendum that's on the Aug. 5 ballot, but his question on taxes drew indications on that issue, and the broader prospect of other ways to make revenue support spending.

"I don't think we can guarantee anybody anything," Liggett said.

County commissioners know that cutting services is a way to reduce spending and commissioners are loathe to increase taxes and so at some point, government must either cut services or raise taxes.

"I don't like to pay taxes, but I've got to hope the money is spent wisely," Liggett said.

Also avoiding a dismissal of the prospect of higher taxes was Spence as he told the audience, "Never say never." He would "hate" to raise taxes, but government must provide services.

"Hopefully money will come from somewhere," Spence said, looking toward larger industry "and not on backs of taxpayers."

Liggett: "We've got a long, hard battle ahead of us. I don't think anybody in this room will dispute that point."

Staff writers Clint Confehr and Karen Hall, and copy editor Dean Fox contributed to this story.