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Candidates scrap their way through raucous 3-way judge executive debate

 

By JIM BROOKS
Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018 — The three-way debate between the candidates for Nelson County judge executive took on the flavor of a street brawl as the Republican and independent candidates — Jack Hurst and Don Thrasher, respectively — lobbed repeated verbal attacks on the record, ethics and policies of incubment Judge Executive Dean Watts.

The debate was held at the Nelson County Civic Center and televised by Standard Communications and PLG TV.

JACK HURST. During Jack Hurst’s opening remarks, he said electing him would make Nelson County safer by removing Dean Watts from office.

He promised to make more resources available to tackle the unsolved murders in the county, and to reduce taxes and regulation. If elected, Hurst said he would issue an executive order to lower the county occupational tax to zero.

DON THRASHER. Thrasher said he was born in Missouri, moved to California, and has lived in Nelson County for nine years.

He promised to give the voters a voice in local government, and that he would put his small business experience to work in county government, putting people first.

If elected, he said he would support giving everyone in Nelson County a “We The People” card, which would allow residents to vote on issues that are coming before Fiscal Court. The poll results would be shared with the magistrates.

He supports holding fiscal court meetings at different locations around the county, and to having some meetings on weekends and at night.

DEAN WATTS. Watts said that with five newly elected county officials taking office in January, his 25 years of experience in government would be useful to the new arrivals. While each officeholder is independent, he said he considers county officials as part of the same team.

If elected to another term, Watts said he would continue to expand economic development, push for additional road improvements and funding to replace substandard county bridges. He said he’s also dedicated to helping the displaced American Greetings workers find new employment.

The candidates for judge executive prepare for the televised debate Tuesday evening at the Nelson County Civic Center.

Q. WHY ELECT YOU?

Before he was elected to office, Watts said he spent 21 years working in retail and business management. The county has continued to grow under his leadership, he said.

“We have an honest and fair government despite what some folks may think,” he said.

Thrasher said as an entrepreneur, he understands how hard it is to run a small business. He supports putting the taxpayer first, and promoting public participation in local government.

Hurst said the opioid crisis continues to take a tremendous toll on the welfare of families. He also said that the lack of affordable housing has pushed rental prices to record levels in Bardstown.

“We have to get the housing industry moving again,” he said.

Q. WHAT ARE THE TOP 2 ISSUES FACING N.C.?

THRASHER. Thrasher cited the opioid crisis as one of the top issues facing the county in the next four years. That issue also ties into the jail overcrowding issue, he said. Eighty-five percent of jail inmates are there for drug-related offense, he said.

Thrasher said the county may want to look into greater use of home incarceration rather than putting people awaiting trial in jail. He pointed to a program in Madison County that promotes greater use of home incarceration.

Planning and zoning was Thrasher’s other big issue. He said he felt county residents were underrepresented, which could be solved by adding two or three additional commission members who represent the county.

HURST. Hurst said county residents are overtaxed and over-regulated. He was critical of the county’s code enforcement office.

WATTS. Watts agreed with Thrasher of the impact of the opioid crisis and its impact on the local jail. He added that Madison County approved a significant tax increase to pay for their new jail and rehab programs. The use of home incarceration is something that is ordered by the judges, and they may or may not wish to make more use of it, he said.

Watts defended planning and zoning as regulation that continues to evolve steadily as the county has grown.

Q. HAS WATTS BEEN IN OFFICE TOO LONG?

Candidate Jack Hurst reviews notes prior to the start of Tuesday night’s debate.

HURST. Hurst called Watts’ 25 years of service as being “the issue” in this election.

He called Watts an exemplary example of the need for term limits. “He’s not an elected official anymore, he’s the king and wears a crown. Yes, it’s been too long.”

THRASHER. Thrasher noted that the first 175 years of our country’s history, term limits were never necessary. Presidents prior to FDR served no more than two consecutive terms. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of not having career politicians, he said.

“I used to be on the fence about term limits,” Thrasher said. “But after entering this race, I’m off the fence.”

Thrasher said incumbents typically win re-election because they control resources and can give things and jobs to people.

“I get that but it doesn’t mean its right,” he said.

WATTS. Watts said he agreed with the idea of term limits. Quoting U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Watts said, “We hae term limits, and everyone one of us here have that right (during an election) to set term limits.”

Q. IF THERE’S CORRUPTION IN GOVERNMENT, PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE

HURST. Hurst accused Watts of using planning and zoning rule changes to avoid building curbs and gutters to benefit the Watts family’s real estate interests.

“Basically they exempted themselves to get a monetary advantage,” Hurst said. He suggested that the housing development behind Buzick Lumber was an example of how the elimination of requiring curbs and gutters gave the developers a market advantage others did not have.

Hurst also cited his complaints about the county code enforcement officer doing work in Bullitt County, and called it fraud that was covered up by Watts.

He also pointed to fiscal court’s revision of the county’s ethics policy to allow former county attorney John Kelley to hire his son as an assistant county attorney.

THRASHER. During his response, Thrasher recounted the alleged facts one of his campaign videos contained regarding Woodlawn Springs, Mark Mathis and an ethics complaint about Mathis. Thrasher noted that after the ethics complaint about Mathis was dismissed, Mathis made a $1,000 campaign donation to Watts.

Thrasher also implied that the donation may have influenced the hiring of Mathis’ son-in-law for a job with the Tourist Commission over qualified applicants from the New Haven area.

Watts denied that he had any influence in the Tourist Commission’s decision hire Mathis’ son-in-law.The commission used a Louisville firm to review those applications and narrow the field down to a handful of applications.

In addressing Hurst’s comments Watts said Nelson County has an agreement with Bullitt County for each county’s code enforcement officers to help out the other county if needed.

Q. DOES THE COUNTY NEED A NEW JAIL?

WATTS. Watts said the jail was built in 1989 and expanded in 1992, and is due for an update. Legislation could reduce the number of people incarcerated, and reduce the need to build a new jail. The existing jail will still need updates, he said.

HURST. A new jail will be necessary at some point, its a matter of making it a priority. Putting people in jail is not the answer. He supported legislation that would not require jail time for certain drug offenses.

THRASHER. An expanded home incarceration program would help reduce the number of inmates in the jail, and would require working with local judges. If the number of inmates can be reduced, there’s no immediate need to build a new jail.

Q. SHOULD COUNTY HELP PRESERVE THE CIVIL WAR MUSEUM?

WATTS. Watts reviewed the history of how local money has come together to help renovate the drama amphitheater.

The civil war museum is being discussed and Watts said he would support some local efforts to help preserve it.

HURST. Hurst noted that projects like the Stephen Foster Drama amphitheater seem to come up during an election year. “Should taxpayers fund it? No.”

The community loves the drama, but its a question of who pays for it, he said. He suggested that if the county gets rid of over-regulation and the occupational tax, the result would benefit the drama and other local businesses.

THRASHER. The original lease for the amphitheater says the state will handle the maintenance of the facility, Thrasher explained. If the state is supposed to maintain it, why hadn’t Watts told the state officials to pay for the needed repairs and improvements?

Watts said the state told him and others working to keep the drama open was they did not have funds to pay for the needed improvements and maintenance.

“We were at a stalemate,” Watts said. “The state had parks that needed millions of dollars of improvements. The state did not have the money to put into the parks.”

After state inspectors closed the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre, they closed the outdoor theater at Jenny Wiley State Park as well.

CLOSING STATEMENTS. In his closing statement Watts listed the ongoing projects in the community that involve county government that he would like to see completed.

Thrasher said it was the road name issue on his segment of the former Louisville Road that promoted his entry into the race for judge executive.

“Career politicians are not what’s right about this country; they are what’s wrong with this country.”

Thrasher promised “no backroom deals if I’m elected, and no resident of any subdivision will be sailed down the river on my watch.”

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