Social Action Committee Interviews: Kent County Commission Candidates

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Tom Timberman, candidate for Kent County Commission, is interviewed by members of the Social Action Committee. From left: Tilera Wright; Timberman; Paul Tue; Arlene Lee; Airlee Johnson

The Kent County Social Action Committee conducted interviews of candidates for three local offices that are up for election this November. The interviews were conducted over three days early in October. The first two four-hour sessions were held at Sumner Hall, while the final group of candidates was interviewed on the second floor of Chestertown Town Hall. No audience was present for the sessions; only members of the Social Action Committee and representatives of the press were in the room. 

The interview questions were compiled based on issues raised at a joint meeting of the Social Action Committee and the Kent County branch of the NAACP. “Our questions posed to the candidates were based on the survey of many people at a joint meeting of the NAACP-Kent Branch and the Social Action Committee in May 2018. The members of both groups identified their primary concerns, needs, and passions regarding the quality of life and justice issues currently in Kent County. The Political Action Subcommittee of the SAC then took those responses and formulated the questions posed to the candidates, specific to each of the offices represented (i.e., the Board of Commissioners, the Board of Education, the State’s Attorney’s Office).

The final questions – between 9 and 11 per candidate, depending on the office – were drafted by the SAC’s political committee. As might be expected from the groups creating the questions, a number of them focused on racial issues affecting the local community. 

The candidates for County Commissioner include the three incumbents – Democrats William Pickrum and Ron Fithian and Republican Billy Short – along with Democrat Tom Timberman and Republicans Tom Mason and Bob Jacob. There are three seats to be filled, and the three candidates receiving the highest vote totals will be elected.

Each candidate was asked the same questions as others for the same office, in separate one-hour sessions. They did not see the questions until they arrived for the interview, at which point they were given a few minutes to look them over. Occasionally the interviewers would ask follow-up questions or request clarification, but in general, the candidates were allowed to take their answers in whatever direction they wanted. As a result, not all candidates gave equally long answers to all the questions.

Candidates for County Commissioner were asked nine questions, beginning with “Please describe how you see racism in Kent County,” and “What will you do to lead Kent County in the dismantling of the current barriers experienced by people of color in this County?”

Timberman, who was the first to be interviewed, said he was stunned to see physical segregation in Kent County. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in the United States,” he said. He said there is discrimination in employment and in the public schools and a lack of affordable housing in the towns. “The economy is the key to everything,” he said, citing a “Kent 2025 Strategic Plan” he has crafted as part of his campaign. The county will “collapse” unless it can bring in more businesses and residents to provide more tax revenue to county government. He said a “21st Century technical training center” could be a key step toward developing job skills for a modern economy.

Tom Mason (left), answers questions from Charles Taylor, Arlene Lee and Airlee Johnson of the Social Action Committee

Mason, who also interviewed on the first day, said there seems to be “a division between people,” and that they “don’t seem to want to mix.” “It’s always seemed to be that way,” he said, noting that he had attended a meeting of the county commissioners where State Highway Administration officials delivered their annual report and saw no African Americans there. He said that African American leaders “need to step up and involve people in programs.” He said he grew up in Cecil County, where he said segregation and racial divisions “weren’t an issue. I never experienced it.” “Some of my best friends are black,” he said. He said that the commissioners need to be open to community leaders and do whatever is needed to remove barriers. “But it has to be both ways – it’s hard to involve people if they don’t show up,” he said.

Kent County Commissioner William Pickrum (left) answers questions from SAC members Ned Southworth and Sherrie Tilghman

Pickrum, who was born in Kent County and graduated from then-segregated Garnet High School, said he was “very familiar with discrimination and racism.” He noted that when he moved back to the county some 25 years ago, after a career in the U.S. Coast Guard and in aviation, he attended a county economic development meeting where he was the only black person present and was asked: “Who are you and why are you here?” “Irritated” by that question, Pickrum said, he got involved in politics. He said there is a “lack of welcome” still prevalent today, more among natives of the county than in recent arrivals. “I don’t see anyone like me,” he said, when he visits stores and banks in Chestertown. He said that lack of welcome is the reason many black people don’t take part in community events. For his part, Pickrum said, during his time on the commission, the county hired its first black department heads and its first female department heads, plus its first two female county administrators. He said he had worked to find people of color for county boards and commissions. The fight against discrimination is an on-going process, he said.

County Commissioner Ron Fithian answers a question as SAC member Airlee Johnson listens

Fithian said that when he grew up in Rock Hall, there was plenty of work for everyone, with many people of color working as watermen. “We worked together and played together,” he said. “Some of my best friends are African-American.” He went on to describe his relationship with various individuals over the years. “Sure, racism exists,” he said. “But it doesn’t with me; I do what I can to deal with it,” treating others the way they treat him. Fithian noted that several important department heads at the county are people of color, including the warden of the county detention center, Herbert Dennis, and Myra Butler, director of Parks and Recreation, and other employees “throughout our system.” He added that he had fired one county employee for being disrespectful to African Americans. “Racism is around because people don’t understand one another,” he said.

Candidate Bob Jacob with SAC interviewers Mel Rapelyea and Arlene Lee

Jacob, another Rock Hall native, told of playing baseball and other sports on the same teams as African Americans. “Race didn’t matter,” he said. “We went to school together, we rode together to games. We never thought about race.” He said he had heard about job discrimination in the county, but not what specific jobs were affected by it. He said it should be “a priority” to end discrimination – “We should be past this. This is 2018. It blows my mind that people are still like that. It’s all about getting the job done,” he said.

Billy Short, who has been a commissioner for six years, described himself as “one of the naïve ones” about racial issues. He said he was born and raised in the Big Woods area, where many of his neighbors were African Americans. “I don’t stereotype people or judge them by their color,” he said. He said he does hear people “being nasty,” which he described as an unfortunate part of “the culture we live in now.” He said that many of the barriers black residents face are “in the private sector.” He said there are plenty of job openings in the county, with more people coming into the county to work than commuting outside the county for jobs. “I don’t know how to force people to work,” he said.

Commissioner Billy Short and SAC interviewer Arlene Lee

All the candidates were asked whether they would agree to complete racism-awareness training or attend an Undoing Racism workshop during their first year in office and whether they would ensure that their staff would take such training. All agreed that they would take such training and that they would request that their staff do so. Timberman said he was surprised that county staff had not already been asked to take such training, and added that sexual harassment training should also be required. He said such training would be one of his highest priorities. Mason said he would hope that county staff had already had training on racism – “If not, why not?” Short said the county’s personnel department had already conducted some workshops for staff. Pickrum said he had received such training while in the U.S. Coast Guard. He said such training is an ongoing process with county staff, though he added that it was “not as robust as I’d like.”

On a question about what initiatives they would take in their first 120 days in office to increase the number of jobs in the county, the incumbents naturally had a different perspective than their challengers. Pickrum pointed out that local government does not create jobs. It can “level the playing fields and facilitate the process,” he said. He noted that the county has built infrastructure, such as the fiber-optic cable it has financed, and made an effort to see that its students are trained for the “jobs of tomorrow.” He also pointed to the “Hot Desks” facility created partly by the county economic development office as a way to make opportunities for entrepreneurs within the county.

It’s tough to bring in jobs,” said Fithian. He said that students graduating from high school – including his own daughter – often find it necessary to leave the county to find suitable work. He said he hoped the fiber-optic installation would bring in some jobs. He said the county’s successful efforts to retain Dixon Valve would be rewarded by new employment opportunities, and suggested that the newly upgraded Route 301 corridor, which the county has designated as a growth area, would lure new employers, especially around Millington.

Jobs are here if people want to work,” said Short, pointing to Dixon Valve, which he said will bring in 400 to 700 jobs in its expanded facilities. The new Chesapeake 5 movie theater, to which the commissioners extended a $75,000 loan, will bring in 15 to 20 jobs. And the Route 310 corridor could be expected to bring in jobs with its improved access to the Middletown Delaware area. He ranked the fiber-optic installation as the best thing the current commissioners had done for the economy, with the retention of Dixon Valve second best.

Mason said he would direct the county’s economic development office to spread the message that “Kent County is open for business.” He said the developers of Dollar General stores told him that Kent County was one of the worst places to build, that they had to “fight, fight, fight” to get anything approved. He pointed to the Route 301 corridor as “a golden opportunity,” and that the county should do anything possible to start development there. He said Queen Anne’s County is already working to exploit the potential, with the attitude in Queen Anne that “Kent won’t do anything.” He also said current businesses should be encouraged to expand. He pointed out that every new chicken house built by a farmer would increase the county’s property tax base.

Timberman said the county should develop a strategic plan including the five incorporated towns, with local businesses’ input. He said the county also needs to focus on the needs of seniors, with residents over 60 years old constituting 38 percent of the population. Identifying what they need could be a key to areas of economic expansion, with areas such as health care, housing, and physical training as opportunities. He would also move funding from the tourism office to economic development – they’re not separate operations, he said. While he would start these efforts in the first 120 days, realistically speaking they would take years to complete, he said.

Jacob said he would talk about the school board budget earlier in the year and launch a study of why the county’s revenues and population are not increasing. He said the county needs to find out why the schools lost 61 students since last year. “We need people here to increase revenues,” he said. The county “can’t just live off Dixon Valve and Lamotte,” he said. “You need people to live here – you can’t tax commuters.” He said that many of the county’s vacant houses could be rental properties for vacationers.

Other questions for County Commission candidates focused on ways to bridge the achievement gap between students of color and white students in the county schools; ways to use public/private partnerships to provide public transportation and affordable housing in the county; and ways to encourage local employers to develop workforces comprised of local residents.

Interviewers included SAC members Paul Tue, Charles Taylor, Airlee Johnson, Sherrie Tilghman, Ned Southworth, Arlene Lee, and Mel Rappelyea.

The spy will report on interviews with the candidates for States Attorney and for the county Board of Education in upcoming articles. 

The Social Action Committee consists of about 100 community members of all ages, who came together in 2017 to address racism in the community. The SAC is comprised of a number of subcommittees, each with a specific focus to actively dismantle racism in the community in areas such as education, jobs/employment, politics, and community social events/observances. The committee meets at Sumner Hall at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. All community members are welcome. For more information, contact Rosemary Ramsey Granillo, Director of the Local Management Board:  Office:  410-810-2673; email:  rramseygranillo@kentgov.org.

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