Story and Photos by Connie Morrison
Candidates in contested Accomack County races fielded questions for almost two hours Tuesday night at a forum sponsored by Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES).
Three groups of candidates participated: those running for the treasurer’s seat (Brandy Custis Childress and James Lilliston); candidates in contested school board races (Connie Burford and Gary Reese, District 4, and T.J. Johnson and Janet Martin-Turner, both vying for the seat held by George Waldenmaier, who is not running for election); and candidates in competitive races for the Accomack Board of Supervisors (incumbent District 5 candidate Harrison Phillips, and candidates for District 7 Supervisor, a seat held by Laura Belle Gordy, who is not running for re-election: Jackie Phillips and Miriam ‘Tina’ Riggs). Harrison Phillips’ challenger, James Rich, did not attend due to a “schedule issue,” he told an Eastern Shore Post reporter.
“For over two decades, CBES has conducted Candidate Forums for all local (state and county) elections, to afford citizens on the Shore the opportunity to hear from all candidates for contested elections on key issues, in order to make well-informed decisions when they vote,” wrote Susan Mastyl, in response to a reporter’s question. Mastyl facilitated the forum and CBES members collected questions from the audience. “We feel this serves an important function in the community.”
Candidates for the treasurer’s seat were first up with opening statements, and then responding to questions, and wrapping up with a closing statement, a format that was followed in all three candidate groups.
Candidates for Treasurer
Both treasurer candidates touted their experience. Childress has 25 years of banking experience, 15 of those as a branch manager. Lilliston has 14 years of experience in the treasurer’s office.
Childress said people she heard from during the campaign are unhappy with the amount of time it takes for their tax checks to clear the bank. “I will commit to a daily deposit,” she said and work to improve the tax collection rate. A 2% improvement would have yielded an additional $600,000 “that we could have used for public safety, schools, and other county functions,” she said.
Lilliston said his career in the treasurer’s office has given him insight. “I know what’s working in that office; I know what needs to be improved. I can do those improvements on day one,” he said.
Both candidates agreed there should be some form of flexibility for taxpayers when there are mitigating circumstances.
Noting there is already a six-month payment plan option, Lilliston said, “Everyone should pay their taxes or make some attempt to. If I see that you are attempting to pay, I’ll be glad to help.”
“The level of flexibility would have to depend on the cooperation of the citizen,” said Childress, adding that every citizen should be treated fairly.
Candidates for School Board
Attention then shifted to school board candidates who addressed restorative justice, how to fully fund classrooms, and how to curtail absenteeism, among other topics.
Burford said she hopes to continue advocating for families of special-needs students. Her special-needs son was not given the support he needed to succeed and was expelled from kindergarten. “The system failed to provide the supports … and then when the issues arose, the child was blamed and not the system.” Her son graduated in June 2019 as the first student in the special-education program to go through the Badger program and he spent four years on the swim team.
Burford admitted she didn’t know much about restorative justice but thought it should be implemented “to plug that prison pipeline.”
She also thought teachers should be given control over their $250 classroom funds because timing of allocating the funds and the controls on those funds mean teachers can’t get the best deals. “Teachers are the best bargain shoppers that I know,” she said.
As for addressing absenteeism, “I believe we have a new employee who took Mr. (Chester) Hall’s place and should be taking care of that,” Burford said.
Reese, an Accomack County School District retiree, wants to continue the work he started when appointed in 2018 to fill Margaret Miles’ seat. “I have enjoyed my first year on the school board. It comes with much excitement and some challenges,” he said.
He “would be open to” the tenants of restorative justice “if we could bring in a person to show the board how this idea could help,” he said. “There may be more things that could be done to help these children,” like early childhood education and more classroom aides in the early years to keep students from falling behind.
Reese would like to see more funds for supplies, but also allocations for music, art, and physical education.
“Accomack County does a pretty good job with absenteeism,” said Reese, but there is room for improvement.
T.J. Johnson “would represent our district with knowledge and professionalism,” he said. The question, “What is best for our students?” would guide his decisions.
Before adopting a restorative justice approach, schools should try “training staff in ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences),” said Johnson. Traumatic experiences children incur from birth to 18 years can influence the mental and physical health of children as they grow into adulthood, and positive influences can counteract some of the potential negative outcomes.
Johnson would like to increase teacher pay in Accomack County. “That is crucial to retaining our teachers,” he said. Teachers have always paid for classroom materials. “When they leave your house they become our kids. And we want to do for them just as we would want somebody to do for our kids.”
The school district must go beyond policies and “dive a little deeper into practices” of each school to reduce the rate of absenteeism, said Johnson, such including keeping parents informed of absences. He also suggested positive incentives for attending school.
Licensed clinical social worker Martin-Turner has many years of experience volunteering in the schools.
She said restorative justice is a more effective approach to correcting students but is most effective when used with traditional discipline techniques. “Other school divisions have found success in Virginia using restorative practices,” she said, but the method would require staff training.
“Teachers should not be expected to pay for their classroom supplies,” said Martin-Turner. When she was involved with PTA, that organization also gave teachers supply stipends, and she would advocate for an adequate stipend for classrooms.
“I believe absences should be addressed early-on and the parents should be notified right away,” she said. She would also rely on her problem-solving skills. Martin-Turner works in the medical field “If we see a trend, your job is to identify the trend and intervene.”
Candidates for Board of Supervisors
The board of supervisors candidates were the last to speak. Among the topics they addressed were holding town hall meetings, population changes, sea level rise, and climate change.
“Jobs in Accomack County is one of my top priorities,” said Harrison Phillips, who is on the county’s economic development authority. He boasted of getting a new traffic light at the county’s industrial park in Melfa and his role in attracting a new owner to the nursing home and rehab center in Parksley when Riverside pulled out in 2017.
“I hold town meetings every single day” in his role as manager of Jaxon’s Hardware, he quipped, hearing from people all over the county. He would not hesitate to hold a meeting in special circumstances.
He questioned the forecasts that anticipate a population decline. “If you exclude the 2000 census numbers,” which overcounted by about 6,000 people, including an extra 4,000 in Trails End, “our population has increased every single census since 1970.” Keeping taxes low helps everyone, including seniors, he said.
The county’s planning commission is already working on the issue of sea level rise. “There’s not much we can do to stop it,” he said, but the county would continue discouraging development in vulnerable areas. He looks to state and federal governments for support. “I can’t see them leaving localities to fend for themselves,” he said.
Jackie Phillips, a retired A&N employee, said public safety is his priority, along with keeping waterways, woodlands, and farmlands healthy for future generations.
He called keeping in touch with constituents “the most important task of a concerned supervisor.” He said would always be available “at any time” and would use multiple means to stay in touch with constituents.
“We need to keep the younger generation on the Shore by becoming more competitive” in jobs by building an entrepreneurship culture. Instead of bringing in businesses, “We need to build from the inside.” Operational efficiencies will help make the most of scarce county resources
“We … must be proactive in protecting our most vulnerable areas that are subject to frequent flooding,” he said, and work with other agencies “to do whatever can be done to reverse this process.”
“I’ve always been passionate about issues facing our county,” said Riggs. “Over the years I’ve been outspoken on a number of issues facing the county,” such as the rapid subdivision of land in agricultural zones, expansion of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act to the seaside, and protecting groundwater.
“There are times when I’ve gone to speak to the board of supervisors in public meetings and it seems my input is inconvenient,” so she would be willing to meet quarterly with constituents to be sure she is representing them well.
“People are skipping retirement,” she said, and it’s possible seniors will extend their working years and continue in the workforce. She would like to see “more mixed housing” in the areas of Onley and Onancock to have services closer to seniors and continue to invest in STAR Transit.
Regarding climate issues, “The county’s priority should be to listen to the scientific data that’s being produced and to act upon that data.” Some of that data is being “produced right here on the Shore” by the University of Virginia, VIMS, and The Nature Conservancy.