About 70 people turned out to hear sitting Chairman Buzz Ahrens and challenger Jackie Archer give their best sales pitches during the forum conducted by the Cherokee County Republican Women. The crowd listened to Ahrens claim eight years of progress and strong words of opposition from Archer, a former Holly Springs City Councilwoman, condemning the two-term chairman’s leadership.
Ahrens said he was the “results-driven” candidate with “proven leadership, conservative values” that will continue to help Cherokee County with improvements similar to new fire and police training centers that have opened up during his tenure in office. He also noted the recent repaving of East Cherokee Drive and Towne Lake Parkway and expansions of the county senior center and the jail.
Archer, though, slammed the chairman for his leadership skills, mostly focusing on the controversy surrounding the county’s dealings with Ball Ground Recycling.
“I am deeply troubled by my opponent’s stewardship for Cherokee County. A good steward of your money would not have pledged taxpayer money and the county’s credit to back or bailout a private business,” Archer said, referring to the county’s deal to back $18.1 million in bond debt to move the operation. “I think we’ve had enough of cronyism and bailouts in this country.”
But Ahrens noted he took office after most of the negotiations for the deal had already happened and the initial agreements with the now-defunct operation had been signed by his predecessor. He also gave a yearslong timeline of the events before he took office that led to the deal.
Archer said Ahrens made a critical mistake by his involvement in the deal that ended up costing taxpayers in Cherokee the price of lease payments on the facility when it closed down.
“A good steward of your money would not commit the county to spend taxpayer dollars at the rate of $100,000 each and every month for the next 23 years to take over debt for a private business,” Archer said. “That is one of the things I would never do.”
Ahrens, who is seeking an unprecedented third term, also said during the event that, “I don’t put blame on — I take responsibility. I’m dealing with those responsibilities now.”
During the forum, the candidates were allowed to ask each other one question, as other questions came from the audience.
When his turn came to pose a question to his opponent, Ahrens said being the commission chairman is like having a full-time job as a CEO, and asked Archer what management skills and other expertise she would bring to the position, if elected.
“What I will bring to Cherokee County is fiscal integrity,” Archer said, a longtime real estate agent, who has worked with the Cherokee development authority in addition to her time on the Holly Springs council.
The challenger also touched on statements made by Ahrens about the many requirements and time constraints of the chairman’s position.
“I am not bothered in any way shape or form the amount of time that that would require,” said Archer. “This is my full-time job. I want to do this.”
When Archer’s time came to pose a question to Ahrens, she asked Ahrens about an email where she said he “congratulated the Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee,” about his secrecy in the Atlanta Braves stadium deal.
“Why is that OK?” Archer asked.
Ahrens responded, saying the simple explanation was “you don’t negotiate letters of intent publicly,” and said keeping a deal like the Braves stadium under wraps is not easy.
An audience question asked each candidate what their own credit standing was, since whoever was elected would be helping to manage county finances.
Archer said: “I think mine is fairly good,” but she hadn’t checked it lately.
Ahrens, a retired business executive, said his credit standing was “superior, very good.”
Archer said she had a proven track record in the public and private sectors and planned to create a long-term strategy to make Cherokee County a superior county.
Ahrens noted improvements to the county that have happened since he came in to office — including the Cherokee Aquatic Center, which Archer opposed — and said his time in business and government gave him the skills needed to keep the county on the right track.
The candidates were asked what their stance was on “illegal aliens” in the county.
Ahrens said Cherokee has an ordinance addressing illegal immigration, but stalls on the federal level make that law basically useless.
“I could not begin to explain to you what the will of this commission would be,” he said. “The situation needs to be addressed at the federal level. There’s very little we can do unilaterally to control that.”
Ahrens added, though, Cherokee County’s issues with illegal immigration have become “significantly less critical from the standpoint of burden, because so many have moved away.”
Archer agreed that the federal government must be involved.
“I do believe that, as you’re going to the ballot box in 82 days, I think this should absolutely be something you address with your potential federal elected officials, both Congressional and Senate, because we would need to work in tandem with those agencies,” she said.
Ahrens and Archer were asked if they would support a historic preservation ordinance, and what they thought such an ordinance should say.
Ahrens said there might be an opportunity to add a paragraph into already the existing ordinance to “draw attention” to the importance of historic locations, but said he won’t stop people from doing what they want with their own property. Ahrens has twice voted for a 90-day ban on tearing down some historic structures in the county, but has said he had concerns about a long-term ban.
Archer said she is a private property advocate, and needed to investigate into the issue more.
The candidates were asked if they had supported “TSPLOST,” which had been planned to impose a 1 percent sales tax for roads and other transportation projects in the metro Atlanta area but was shot down by the voters.
Ahrens said he had supported it and — in some form or fashion — would again.
“This metro area needs significant improvement in mobility. Find it however you wish,” he said. “You need to have alternatives, you need to have options. It’s going to keep companies from coming in and it’s going to force companies to leave.”
Ahrens said some communities have accomplished the goals of a TSPLOST with less comprehensive and more specific referendums geared at roads and other types of transportation, not both at once, as was the case with the failed measure. That sort of tact is something to consider, he said.
Archer said she didn’t support the TSPLOST and never would, though something needs to be done to improve transportation.
“TSPLOST failed because it was a bad deal for Cherokee County,” she said. “I understand that there are needs. I also understand that the projections of our growth have been here for decades. It’s no secret. I have a vision.”
Part of that vision, Archer said, is improving Highway 20 East, which both she and Ahrens live off and she called “the deadliest road in the state.”
She said something should have been done long ago, and added she was anxious to see the Georgia Department of Transportation’s plans to widen the road released to the public.
“When we look to our neighbors to the west, Bartow County … they have already four-laned that road,” she said. “They are open for business. We are still two-lane. What have we done? We have not prepared.”
Archer added she was opposed to bicycle lanes being added to the road.
Ahrens also touched on GDOT’s plans to improve the road.
“One of the real hurdles is the huge cost,” he said, adding that funding stalls in the federal government have pushed back such projects and the exhaustive pre-planning GDOT has done the same. “What’s staggering is the time it takes to get all that stuff done. It just takes years. It’s not just funding this process. What they also need to do for y’all is get 575 to Scott Road done as soon as possible.”