The incumbents and their challengers, Debbie Bennett, Wanda Wilson Radford and Charlene Thomas, submitted the following responses to a four-question survey to help voters make their choices. The survey begins with the candidates’ introductions and concludes with how they would resolve what has been nearly two years of often harsh divisiveness on the board.
1. Just a little about yourself including employment, work history, family, other?
Debbie Bennett: My late husband Dwight Bennett and I chose to make Unicoi our home because of the immense beauty of the mountains and the close proximity to Johnson City. I am the mother of two beautiful daughters and the grandmother of three beautiful granddaughters and one awesome grandson. I also have seven spoiled donkeys and two adorable Yorkies. I am currently a counselor at Unicoi County High School and I organize and run a 33-acre donkey farm single-handedly. I began my professional career as an Intensive coronary care nurse. I taught many nursing classes including LPN and CNA classes. I enjoyed teaching so much that I decided to go back to school to be an educator. I started working at Erwin National Bank while going to school at night. I have been a classroom teacher on the elementary, middle, and high school levels as well as a system-wide counselor. I have taught English, biology, chemistry, ecology, and physical science on the high school level. I was director of the Family Resource Center for Unicoi County Schools. I was both junior varsity and varsity cheer coach and I worked part-time as an affiliate broker for Crye-Leike Realty.
Kathy Bullen: I have lived in the town of Unicoi for the past 22 years. I raised three children here. They all, along with their spouses, have become productive citizens in our community and region. I am most delightfully a grandmother to four grandchildren ranging in ages from 6 months to 8 years. Along with being a wife, mother and grandmother, my entire professional career has been service-related: registered nurse for 36 years, caring for children and their families; educator for 14 years, previously at Unicoi County High School and currently at Tennessee College of Applied Technology. I am fortunate and I am forever grateful for all that I have learned from those I have loved, cared for and taught. Their successes are my successes.
Roger Cooper: I have been married to my wife Jalaa, for 48 years and we have two children and three grandchildren. I worked for Morrill Motors Inc. for 39 years before retirement. At Morrill Motors I was the Maintenance Manager and oversaw new equipment projects. I was responsible for the equipment that went into Morrill’s China facility and spent many weeks there over a period of several years in support of that operation. After Morrill was purchased by Regal Beloit Corporation, I worked with their engineers in development and production of a new product. I also assisted one of Regal’s Mexico operations on retooling some of their production equipment.
Wanda Radford: I am a lifelong resident of Unicoi County; married 18 years to Willie Radford; two children, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. I am a faith-based individual; participated in several ministries. I have 40-plus years with a working knowledge of managing several prosperous businesses in Unicoi. Also my dedication, loyalty and good working environment with employees while meeting the needs of the general public. Volunteer and civic work includes food ministry, Kids for Christ, Meals-On-Wheels, Sunday school teacher and nursing home visitation.
Charlene L. Thomas: My parents are Herman and Marie Britt, and although I was born in Gary, Indiana, where my dad was working, he brought us back to his home place in Unicoi early in my life. My mom was from Minnesota, which has somewhat affected my accent. I attended Unicoi Elementary and Unicoi County High School. I have college degrees from Milligan, East Tennessee State University and Virginia Tech. My career was spent at Milligan College where I taught humanities, art history and composition for over 30 years. I am married to Ted Thomas, and we have four adult children and two delightful grandchildren. Being a grandmother has definitely been a highlight of my life. My husband and I attend Westminster Presbyterian Church in Johnson City where we celebrate the Lord’s goodness and walk alongside other Christians. As volunteers, we have created several gardens in our area and the Milligan Depot on the Tweetsie Trail. We are great fans of the outdoors. We spend much time biking, hiking, running and exploring the world around us. And even though we have been many places, we are always glad to come back our home in the mountains of Unicoi County.
2. Why are you running for alderman and/or what personal qualities will you bring to town government?
Debbie Bennett: As the wife of former Alderman Dwight Bennett, I am acutely aware of the many issues facing the town of Unicoi today. I have five college degrees and I possess a strong work ethic. I am truly a life-long learner and problem-solver. I treasure the small town atmosphere of Unicoi and at the same time recognize the need to grow economically. I would like to see Unicoi take a more positive approach in meeting the needs of our constituents and at the same time maintain the integrity of the legislative branch of government. We must continue to create policies and search for alternative funding that would help our town to sustain itself without the need for property taxes. If elected, I pledge to be honest, transparent and to conduct myself professionally and responsibly. I am eager to give back to the community that has supported and welcomed me as one of their own.
Kathy Bullen: I am seeking re-election to continue to serve those who elected me for my first term. In addition, my narrow loss in the mayoral race of 2016 tells me there are many more citizens who support how I serve on the BMA. I serve the citizens of this town we all call home. The town of Unicoi is my home. It is my family’s home. Although we are considered “transplants,” our roots have grown deep into these mountains and my respect for the rugged and hardworking Appalachian culture couldn’t be stronger. I was raised by parents with a tremendous work ethic. Even when things get tough, you must work. I am not afraid of hard work. Being an alderman in the town of Unicoi is not always easy. It can be very difficult. But this is not about me. It is about me doing what I believe is the right thing to do even if it is difficult. I think that’s called integrity!
Roger Cooper: My reasons for wanting to be re-elected as a town of Unicoi alderman are simple. I want to be part of a government that represents all of the citizens of the town and which benefits all citizens of the town. I support enhanced law enforcement, comprehensive road maintenance and adequate fire protection, including a sub-station in the north end of the town. Most importantly, I support a full-time law enforcement officer (SRO) for Unicoi Elementary School. These are services that every town should provide for its citizens and, right now, these services are not the focus of some of the town’s elected officials. I have extensive experience in people management, project development, budgeting and financial oversight.
Wanda Radford: To make a difference and to bring leadership with a vision. I will bring forth my past work history with hands on experience while serving on the board as your alderman.
Charlene Thomas: I have always enjoyed politics and in my younger days I was quite involved. For a period of time, family, work, and continuing education kept me from being engaged. Over two years ago I started attending BMA meetings. As I looked to retirement and contemplated what I would do once I left Milligan, I realized I would have time to fully participate in local government. I am also very interested in helping people, so running for alderman seemed like a natural fit for me. My career as a college professor required that I be a life-long learner, so even though I do not know everything I need to know to be a successful alderman, I have the desire and the ability to learn. I am a listener and I like to solve problems, so I believe I can help the people of our town. I am also positive and encouraging and I am a team-player who will support what is best for our town and work with others to make that happen. When folks read the Erwin Record, I want them to read positive facts about our meetings, our events, our finances and our town’s true progress.
3. What do you consider to be the biggest issue(s) facing the town and as aldermen how would you like to address them.
Debbie Bennett: I believe more unity is needed to provide a more effective local government. I would like to see the town of Unicoi move in a more positive direction. I believe it is the responsibility of all elected officials to maintain a good working relationship with all stakeholders. I believe that funding, annual budgets, appropriation of funds and changes to current policy and regulations will continue to be the major challenges for the town of Unicoi. I would like for the town to resolve the issues regarding one of our more valuable assets, Buffalo Valley Golf Course, in a positive and timely manner that meets the needs of all the stakeholders. I would like to see an end to all the dissension this issue has caused among the residents and town officials.
Kathy Bullen: Early in my term as alderman in the town of Unicoi, I was told by the mayor that I asked too many questions. I couldn’t imagine that his statement was anywhere near appropriate. Why not ask questions? Why not gather information that is important in deciding how to vote on town matters? Is there something to hide? What was the point of having a BMA if they can’t get pertinent information prior to meetings requiring a vote? Setting aside all the projects related to trails, bikeways, an amphitheater, farmer’s market pavilion and the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, if town leadership cannot be transparent with all board members and citizens, we are going to have a big problem. And we do! The mayor has instructed employees to not speak to aldermen (Bullen and Cooper). The Mayor has instructed the aldermen (Bullen and Cooper) to not speak to town employees in a public BMA meeting! So, our biggest issue is failed leadership! If re-elected, I will continue to work hard to find the information I need to make the best decisions I can regarding town business. The obstacles will challenge me but the bullying I experience will not stop me.
Roger Cooper: Lack of transparency is probably the biggest issue in the town. I feel that the town should be totally transparent in all its functions. Aldermen represent the citizens of the town and should work for all the citizens, not just a few. One good example is the bill that the mayor had presented to the state legislature which would have restricted all financial and client records of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen from the public. All this was done without a single word of discussion in a Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. Luckily, with the assistance of Senator Rusty Crowe, Representative John Holsclaw Jr. and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, this bill was revised to remove such restrictions before it became state law. Another example of lack of transparency is the way some town resolutions are written in a manner that hides the real purpose for the resolution. Another big issue is wasteful spending of town money on non-essential projects that benefit few town citizens.
Wanda Radford: Economic growth, jobs and revenue. Fire department and police protection. Medical services. Road maintenance. Schools. Unity within our generation gap. I will address any issues by using the resources, tools and grants along with forming positive committees to find new avenues and ways to meet our town’s needs.
Charlene Thomas: I believe the biggest issue facing our town is the same one that faces our nation — we are divided into two opposing camps. Some individuals want the town to go in one way and others want it to go in the opposite direction. One side wants the town to focus on money making while the other sees the value of resources like the cabin and the future amphitheater and pavilion which will enhance our lives. How to address this division? The main way is through conversations and communication. As I have talked to folks, I have been reminded that people want to be heard. As an alderman, I will strive to listen to constituents. But we also need constituents to present their concerns to the town leaders. The mayor and aldermen cannot address concerns they do not know exist. I have also learned that many individuals have incorrect information, and once they know the truth, they understand situations better. I will work hard to get accurate information to the people of our Town. The town newsletter and website are great resources, and we need to continue to support them as well as any opportunity which allows citizens to communicate with us.
4. Over the past two years there has been a great deal of contention among the Unicoi BMA members. As an alderman, how would you go about restoring civility and an improved sense of teamwork to the board.
Debbie Bennett: To restore civility and an improved sense of teamwork to the board I feel the new board would need to begin their tenure by conducting a work session to identify the major areas of contention and to set committees or teams to research these areas in the hopes of resolving the issues. To be an effective alderman, it takes working together, respect for differing opinions, gathering of facts, listening to the constituents, conducting your own investigations and, finally, present findings to the board to collectively and responsibly search for solutions.
Kathy Bullen: Unfortunately, the town of Unicoi behaves a lot like Washington. The power and control enjoyed by the BMA has been upset by the election of two aldermen not in the “good ole boy network”. Prior to this, the mayor had run rampant over the citizens of this town spending their money however he wanted. Our questions have shed “unwanted” light on what had been happening. Most anyone can understand this. We’re all human. Asking questions is not the problem. How I (we) have been treated because I ask questions is the problem. The mayor feels threatened. He has drawn a line in the sand: “Either you stand with me or you are against me.” There is no middle ground. The day-to-day responsibilities in our strong mayor charter must be transferred to the city recorder/manager. It only takes a simple majority vote. It won’t happen. It will be like most votes: Bullen and Cooper (two) against Linville, Hopson, and the Mayor (three). Which is more important to you? The BMA holding hands and singing “Kum-ba-yah,” or the BMA functioning like a BMA, putting the citizens interest ahead of the mayor’s?
Roger Cooper: That is an easy question to answer. The town should start addressing items that will actually provide a benefit to all the citizens of the town instead of just a few. Examples are infrastructure, security for Unicoi Elementary School, recruitment of manufacturing and businesses and help for residents who live at Buffalo Valley Golf Course. Transparency in all town actions would probably resolve 90 percent of the contentions that have occurred over the past few years. That should be our goal!
Wanda Radford: There seems to be contention and I will work hard as your alderman to bring forth unity. As your alderman I will respect the position in a professional and mature manner at all times, including the aldermen during any board meetings. I am directly representing you the citizens. We as aldermen need to provide to the citizens of Unicoi a good working relation with each other so that we can increase the services. Doing so will help end contention so we will be able to move forward in a brighter positive future. I would consider it an honor and privilege when elected and to be a “voice for the citizens.”
Charlene Thomas: This very question makes me sad, and this contention is one of the reasons I started attending the BMA meetings. I would begin to restore civility by treating all my fellow leaders with respect and civility. I would listen to what they have to say. As I have told folks, I think all the aldermen have good ideas. But I haven’t agreed with each of them 100 percent. I am an officer in three other organizations and have attended more meetings at Milligan than I can count, and in each situation, I have had to work with folks to achieve our goals. Do I always agree with what happens? No. But compromise and consideration are part of working together. I think Aldermen need to focus on what is best for the town, not on personal agendas. Specifically, as an Alderman, I would also make sure my fellow leaders know in advance what I plan to bring to the meetings so that the board works as a unit. I would encourage everyone to meet formally in business sessions and informally in social settings during the annual retreats so we can learn more about each other outside the world of politics.
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.