With the Aug. 4 elections fast approaching, local candidates are eager to carry their messages to county residents. For candidates at the Maryville Huddle’s virtual forum, the most frequent message was a need for change.
Twelve local candidates and one candidate for state office, GOP state Rep. Bob Ramsey, logged on for the event. The dozen local candidates are registered Democrats.
As the forum opened, candidates were given around five minutes to discuss their qualifications and priorities. Many responses built off ongoing community discussion of issues including growth and development. Some candidates, including Robert Hanye, running against incumbent Commissioner Mike Caylor for Blount County Commission District 3, Seat B, said that controlling growth would be a critical priority.
Hanye advocated for detailed study of zoning regulations, arguing that such an investigation would enable local legislators to offer practical recommendations to manage growth.
“I think it’s really important we have some people who do understand planning, strategic planning, operational planning, be involved in setting the parameters for the RFP (request for proposal) of that study,” he said.
Rep. Ramsey noted that the county’s approach to growth hasn’t always been systematic. During his tenure on the county commission, he said, he was tasked with organizing a planning program for the county, as one had not previously existed.
Others, including Jenny Jordan, running against incumbent Rick Carver for Commission District 5, Seat B, said that growth alone isn’t the heart of the problem. The challenge facing the community is adequately preparing for development.
“As of last year, our population growth is 1.8%. Our population is not growing so astronomically. And it doesn’t feel like we’re hitting that growth because it’s just so many people coming in; it’s just, nobody preparing for it,” Jordan explained. “Growth is inevitable,” she commented.
Jordan also expressed concern about proposals that would see the county mandate minimum lot sizes for residential development, commenting that such policies might contribute to high housing prices. “I almost wonder if having maximum development sizes might be more beneficial in the long run,” she said.
But policy differences weren’t the only distinctions Democratic candidates drew among themselves and their Republican rivals.
Candidate for Commission District 4, Seat A Corinne Dooley, who moved to the area from North Carolina, criticized what she called “absenteeism” by local officials. She noted that a recent Blount County Planning Commission hearing was canceled after the planning commission fell one person short of its quorum requirement.
She also criticized her opponent, commissioner Robbie Bennett, for failure to attend commission meetings. “You can’t be aware of the issues; you can’t vote and research, if you’re not there,” she said.
A number of candidates stressed that their campaigns were run, not with an eye to partisan politics, but with a focus on job performance. During the forum, Hanye explicitly rejected partisanship, commenting that his campaign slogan is “it’s all about good public policy and problem solving, not partisan politics.”
Alice Wardrep, running for Commission District 9, Seat B against commissioner Steve Mikels, also foregrounded the importance of community in her remarks at the forum. “Life is so good here, and it’s so simple and it’s so — people are neighbors,” she said.
Phil Tiehen, like candidates Dooley, Wardrep and Hanye, came to Blount County from another state. “We — my wife Terry and I — chose this area five years ago,” Tiehen, who is contesting Commission District 6, Seat A, said. “We don’t have a lot of ties yet — deep ties yet,” he commented. “I think that we can go and not be beholden to anybody, as far as decision making goes.”
Disavowals of partisanship aside, the candidates’ call for change was clear. “If you are happy with the way things are in Blount County, then you need to go ahead and vote the current commissioners back into office. If you are unhappy with any of that, you need to vote all of them — except Jackie Hill (the board of commissioners’ sole Democrat) — out,” Tiehen said.
Other forum participants included John Ross Conley, a candidate for County Commission District 7, Seat B; Phil Young, running for Commission District 8, Seat A; Tracey Farr, District 2, Seat A; Nathan Higdon, state executive committee for Tennessee’s 2nd senate district; Stanley Young, Blount County School Board, District 3; Maude Hannah Volk, register of deeds; and Jeff Russell, Maryville City School Board.
Early voting for the Aug. 4 elections begins Friday, July 15.