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By Kristen Johnson, Staff Writer - LEXINGTON — Several candidates for Davidson County Board of Commissioners were put on the spot by a group of roughly 50 voters who took the gloves off at Friday night’s forum.

Voters who attended took full advantage of having been given their first chance to ask candidates direct questions.

At times, the forum became so heated that moderator and church elder David Fulton had to remind the crowd that the forum was not intended to be a voter-candidate debate.

George Sowers of Arcadia asked candidates their thoughts on a beer/wine referendum.

“I asked the question at the North Davidson High School forum, but it wasn’t answered the right way,” Sowers said.

Don Truell (R) said he wouldn’t support an alcohol referendum if it were asked of the commissioners, but said he’d “allow the people to vote and decide on their own.”

Incumbent Republican Cindy Akins agreed, as did Democrat Watson Gregg.

“Absolutely not,” said incumbent Republican Rick Lanier. “I wouldn’t support a referendum at any point. I think alcohol destroys lives.”

Democrat Loretta Martin said she’d support such a referendum.

“We’re the people’s representative,” she said. “As such, we need to know what the people want to have done. We need to know what they think.”

Darren Barr, of Lingle Farm Road, asked Akins and Lanier about the role of the board of commissioners in regard to economic development.

“We have been four months without a leader on the Economic Development Commission (EDC)” Barr noted.

“Well, that board took direction last week,” Akins replied. “We hired interim director Steve Googe full-time, and there have been more companies looking at Davidson County in the time he’s been with us than in the last four year’s I’ve been on the board.”

Akins said the county is “ready to move” with at least one company and was working on several others.

“I believe we’ll see major turnarounds in Davidson County in a short while,” Akins said.

Lanier replied that the EDC director position was a position that “needs new life, ideas, thoughts and vision every once in awhile.”

“Furniture and textiles are leaving,” Lanier said. “We’ve got to get more technological jobs here in the county.”

Lexington resident Fred Sink questioned candidates about the recent decision to increase the county’s sales tax one-half cent.

“We get taxed more and get the same services,” Sink said. “The people can’t bear more taxation. Would you vote to rescind that extra half-cent if you were elected?”

Lanier and Akins pointed to their records.

Lanier said he’d drafted the last budget that “got tweaked” but had no tax increase. Akins said she’d never voted for a tax increase — due to the death of her mother, Akins was not present when the board voted to approve that half-cent.

“All sales tax increases but this last one have been on the authority of the state,” Akins said. “This was the only one the county could decide upon.”

Akins added she was “scared” that Gov. Mike Easley would rescind his promise and keep county money generated from that half-cent tax.

“One of the first things I’d ask is that each department review their budgets,” Martin replied. “We need to make sure we need all the employees we’ve got.”

Gregg said he advocated bringing “efficiency experts to the county to see whether we’re getting what we pay for.”

“It’s supposed to be a temporary half-cent tax,” Republican Sam Watford said. “If it came to be that we no longer needed the money, I’d vote to rescind it.”

“We can find and cut fat in every department in this county,” Truell said. “If Gov. Easley hasn’t given us our money in the past, how do we know he’ll give it to us this time around?”

Wall Street resident Glenn Payne specifically targeted Truell with his question.

“You’ve been depicted as one of Sheriff Hege’s hand-picked candidates,” Payne began. “What did he ask you for? Financial obligations to further increase funding? More toys, vehicles, deputies and uniforms?

“When are you going to say no?”

“I’m one of the chosen few, as they say,” Truell replied. “When he asked me if I wanted his support I had already decided to run.”

Truell said the only thing Hege had asked him for was to “look close at any law enforcement issues that come up.”

Truell was the only candidate to raise his hand when asked by Arcadia resident Mark Scott if he “really believed” the DCSO under Hege’s administration had reduced crime by 61 percent.

As audience members laughed, Watford — another candidate formally endorsed by Hege — raised both hands.

Akins and Lanier both said the sheriff’s office was “not my department.”

Hege did not attend the forum.

Another forum is scheduled today at 7 p.m. at Ledford High School. That forum will feature candidates for commissioner and the county board of education.

Staff writer Kristen Johnson can be reached at 472-9500, ext. 232.

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