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During a Watkinsville candidate forum last Thursday, challenger Bob Smith took a long pause before insinuating that a particular question was biased against him. 

Both candidates were asked, “How do you handle when a person disagrees with you?”

Video from the Watkinsville Election Forum, organized by Sarah Bell, Penny Mills and Lee Becker is available at https://vimeo.com/365258079. An annotation of that video is available at https://tinyurl.com/y3knrf85.

Early voting, which will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Board of Elections and Registration office next to the Courthouse, began on Oct. 14 and runs for three weeks. There will be no Saturday early voting.

The Annex and City Hall precincts have been combined, and all voting on Nov. 5 will be at Watkinsville City Hall. Only residents of the city of Watkinsville are eligible to vote.

“I assume what we are talking about is when we come to a Watkinsville Town Council meeting with a proposal and there’s disagreement in the public forum,” said Smith, referring to his impassioned pleas for demolition and building permits on family property at 60 South Main Street. 

“I’ve been known to work things out,” he said, adding that he couldn’t have been elected to the Georgia General Assembly or worked in real estate for 40 years if he disagreed all the time. 

Smith has repeatedly accused the Watkinsville City Council of treating him and two of his adult children unfairly. At times, he has hurled allegations of malfeasance or conflicts of interest against individual council members. 

At last Thursday’s forum, both candidates were cordial and ended the evening with a handshake. 

Shearon said that even in volatile conversations, it’s important to listen to the other person. 

“I very seldom have had to say, ‘You’ve reached a point that is inappropriate,’” said Shearon, speaking not about Smith but his many interactions with citizens. “Conflict resolution is just a matter of dignity and respect for the other person.”

During the March 20 City Council Meeting, Shearon publicly scolded Smith for five minutes after Smith urged city officials to respond to his numerous Open Records Act requests. 

“I still don’t understand the purpose for your incessant desire, because I don’t know what information you are looking for,” Shearon stated at the time. “All I know is that it is a tremendous disproportionate drain on administrative time that takes away administrative abilities for any citizen in here that would like better service.”

Following Shearon’s comments at the March 20 meeting, Jimmy Williamson, a candidate for the office of county sheriff, came to Smith’s defense, stating that citizens don’t need to give a specific reason to access public documents. 

Last week, while responding to a question about increasing citizen involvement, Shearon noted that the city has added a number of community events, such as Art in the Park and EnviroFest. He hinted at future activities, such as a Fourth of July parade, and highlighted the benefits of pedestrian pathways. 

“The whole idea of connectivity—the whole transportation study we put together—was about connecting not just place-to-place but face-to-face,” he said. 

Shearon brought attention to a new city government website where agendas, minutes, budget information, ordinances, building permit applications and the recently completed transportation study are available. He noted that a weekly newsletter is published on the city’s Facebook page and that the city plans to live stream council meetings.

Smith countered that agendas and minutes are not always posted in a timely manner and that some residents either don’t have access to the Internet or choose not to engage in online social networking. He proposed informing citizens about city news via snail mail. 

On the question of citizen input, Smith spent much of his time advocating for local businesses.

“People don’t know some of the businesses that exist in this town,” he said. “Business is the lifeblood, backbone of this town.”

Smith suggested putting stickers in the windows of businesses that say Watkinsville First (his campaign slogan) and incorporate customer discounts. 

During his opening remarks, Smith stated, “We want business owners to know that Watkinsville cares about all of them,” 

On the question of supporting public schools, Shearon stated that the city is working toward reducing the speed limit in front of  Colham Ferry Elementary School in the near future and paving sidewalks to the school as another goal. He stated that students have come to City Hall for various projects and that he and police officers have made guest appearances at local schools. 

Smith responded to the question stating that the city should support not just public schools but private schools and homeschool students as well. He said that his mother, sister and wife have made a career in teaching and that “Our youth are our future.” 

When asked about their commitments to local nonprofits, Smith focused heavily on his work with Georgia’s hearing impaired before mentioning the 4-H Club, for which his family members have volunteered. 

Over a decade ago, Smith, who said he is 80 percent deaf, brought the Helen Keller exhibit to area libraries. As a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for 12 years, Smith sponsored legislation that drew funds from the Georgia Public Service Commission to provide hearing aid assistance to low-income residents, The Oconee Enterprise previously reported. He worked with the Georgia Lighthouse Foundation to distribute hearing aids at a fraction of their retail costs. 

Shearon stated that his family believes not just in civic service “but giving back in anyway we possibly can.” He and his husband raised a combined $50,000 for Project Safe, a nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence, though the organization’s signature fundraiser, Dancing with the Athens Stars. 

Ashford Manor Bed & Breakfast, which they operated for more than 20 years, hosted numerous fundraisers. 

“We donated our facilities to the [Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation’s] Wine Fest for 12 years,” said Shearon, who also talked about his support of Extra Special People, a nonprofit that provides activities for children with disabilities.

When asked about the role of technology in city government, Smith said that he hopes to make signalized intersections in Watkinsville perform better, which has been previously discussed at public meetings on the recently completed transportation study. Smith said police cars should be equipped with the latest technology. 

Shearon stated that under his leadership, technological upgrades have been a major priority and that the city has in fact equipped police cars with modern technology. 

Watkinsville has “updated a tremendous amount of administrative systems,” Shearon said, noting that when he first came into office, a typewriter was being used for time cards. Most everything now is done digitally, he said, including a thumbprint time-card system. 

For more on this story, see the Oct. 10 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website. 

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