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Candidates for Guilford sheriff and county commission spar during forum

by Jordan Green

Harlon Costner (right), a Democratic candidate for Guilford County Sheriff, presented the most striking contrast to incumbent Republican BJ Barnes. (photos by Jordan Green).

‘Harlon Costner, a Democratic candidate for Guilford County Sheriff, waited until his closing statement to make what appeared to be a calculated jab at Republican incumbent BJ Barnes during a Monday night candidate forum hosted by the Piedmont Triad League of Women Voters on the campus of Greensboro College “One of the things that’s big on my list, one of the things I want to do will begin as soon as I take office,” the candidate said, “and that is to implement a crisis intervention training program for all the first responders – that is, the deputies who are out in the field answering calls for service. I don’t propose for that to be a catch-all or a save-all in the process, but I think that crisis intervention is something that is a critically important training tool that each officer needs to know and be aware of when he or she is dealing with individuals in the community who may be dealing with a crisis for whatever reason, whether it’s post-traumatic stress or it’s bipolar disorder.”

Guilford County sheriff’s deputies have used deadly force against civilians at least twice in as many years, including in the shooting of 17-year-old Christian Rook, the son a Marine Corps captain, in February and Dylan Hartsfeld, a 25-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, in 2008.

Phil Wadsworth, a retired line patrol sergeant with the State Highway Patrol and the other Democratic candidate for sheriff present at the forum, found himself agreeing with Barnes much of the time. At least five times within the space of an hour, he specifically referenced his accord, often underscoring Barnes incumbency by referring to his opponent as “the sheriff.”

Costner and Wadsworth, along with CB Goins and James Zimmerman — who were not present at the forum — are competing for the Democratic nomination in the May 4 primary. Barnes’ Republican opponent, Scott Jones, also did not attend the forum. Jones faces misdemeanor charges for assaulting a government official and making a threatening phone call related to an altercation more than a year ago with a Guilford County sheriff’s deputy.

The three candidates for sheriff that attended the forum differed only on one significant issue.

Wadsworth said he would like to restore the drug education program, DARE, for middle schoolers.

“I want to put some drug education programs back in the middle schools to protect our children before they go down the dead-end street,” the candidate said. “I think the sheriff’s department owes it to the citizens to try to prevent criminals instead of just reacting to them.”

Costner expressed little enthusiasm for the DARE program. “At the time, I was active with that program, going to almost every graduation that there was, but in my studies since the DARE program has gone away, there is evidence that the DARE program was ineffective,” he said. “It was ineffective because several years after the kids went through it, they seem to either have forgotten the message or through peer pressure they weren’t able to continue it as they grew older.”

Barnes said the program was cut because its funding was eliminated, but insisted that it had been effective.

“Yes, there’s been studies that show that the program was ineffective, but I don’t buy those studies,” he said. “To be honest, I think that anything you can do to get that message out to these kids is an important thing…. I would like to see the program get back. In fact, the officers who were doing the DARE program, we’ve kept their certification up in the hopes that sometime in the future we’re going to be able to put that program back into the schools.”

On many other important issues, the candidates found themselves in agreement. All three candidates expressed support for the 287(g) task force program, in which inmates’ immigration status is checked against a federal database and those who are in the country illegally are deported. All expressed support for allowing deputies to continue to use Tasers in Guilford County Schools. Barnes and Costner both praised the Guilford County Commission for balancing the funding needs of the sheriff’s office with those of other programs that receive county monies, and said that hiring new teachers and mental health workers was equally important to funding more deputy positions.

Noting that the sheriff’s office implemented the 287(g) task force program two months ago, Barnes took a particularly tough line on immigration enforcement, implying that non-citizen offenders are often dangerous criminals.

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“Our goal is to make sure that if we do catch someone who is breaking into your home, who has raped, murdered, assaulted someone, who has dealt large quantities of drugs, and we identify them as being an illegal, then we want to add that charge to it also,” Barnes said In contrast, a report released in February by the Latino Migration Project at UNC-Chapel Hill concluded that “the focus on detaining and deporting immigrants for driving related incidences and misdemeanors suggests that the program is not prioritizing high-risk criminal aliens, as outlined in its stated goals.”

Monday night’s second forum featured candidates running for Guilford County Commission. Two of 11 seats on the commission are contested this year, and both are exclusively Republican affairs, with the primary contest determining the outcome barring successful write-in candidacies.

Bill Bencini and Myrene Stanley are vying to replace Steve Arnold in District 2 Arnold, is not seeking reelection this year. District 2 includes north High Point. Incumbent Linda Shaw, who represents District 3 in northwest Guilford County, appeared with challenger Samuel Spagnola. Dwayne Crawford, a third candidate on the ballot, did not attend the forum.

Shaw defended her past support for economic incentives as a tool for attracting jobs.

“I don’t like incentives, and I haven’t voted for all of ’em,” she said. “But if it brings jobs in, just think of the 7,000 jobs that’s come in as a result of a few incentives. That’s 7,000 families that we’re putting food on their table and building homes as a result of incentives.”

Spagnola reiterated and sharpened an attack on his opponent on the issue during his closing statement.

“Obviously, there’s some areas where Ms. Shaw and I agree, but on the big issues I think we’re worlds apart,” he said. “I don’t favor the incentives; to me, that’s corporate welfare. It’s unfair to give those to certain industries. I think the way to grow businesses is to have a low tax rate for everyone. The bond issue – we’re in a billion dollars of debt now. That’s a bipartisan debt. It’s been done by Democrats and Republicans. And the reason we’re having problems with the budget now is because we have to service that debt.

“I think it’s time for a fundamental change at all levels of government, to have more responsive politicians doing the will of what the people really want and that means treating them fairly, and not doing one thing and not treating one class of people differently than any other class of people,” he added. “If you’re upset at government right now, then reelecting the same people is not going to change anything.”

Bencini and Stanley’s presentations differed more in style than substance, and the two made for a congenial pair on the rostrum.

Reflecting a decade-long tenure as a member of the nonpartisan High Point City Council, Bencini’s answers represented a sense of advocacy for the county’s second largest city.

Throughout the forum, the candidate expressed opposition to the idea of merging county and municipal services, and made a point to do so again during his closing statement.

“The primary concern for me in Guilford County is this idea that we need to consolidate services now being provided by the municipalities under one umbrella called the county,” Bencini said. “The fact is only 16 percent of the residents of Guilford County live in unincorporated, non-municipalized areas of the county. 84 percent of all residents of Guilford County live in cities, and are being very well served for those functions that the county would like to consolidate. They’re being very well served in their own communities. And I think that from an efficiency standpoint, that needs to continue.”

As much as Bencini’s performance reflected a sense of confidence as a seasoned elected official, Stanley’s presentation made a virtue of lack of government experience, projecting downto-earth conservatism and an emphasis on accountability to constituents.

“I’m a pretty straight-forward kind of gal,” she said. “What you see is what you get. I’m not fancy. I’m not a politician. As a soldier, I learned discipline. As a single parent, I learned the importance of living within my means. As a Christian, I’ve learned to serve others without expecting personal gain.”

The four candidates expressed agreement about maintaining the school resource officer program in public schools, supporting the county’s open space program and opposing any policy change to give the Guilford County School Board taxing authority.

The four candidates also discussed how best to avoid increasing taxes.

Shaw returned to the subject of corporate incentives, arguing they should be considered a tool for increasing revenue to county government.

“The only way to increase revenue is to increase taxes, and that’s not something I would support,” countered Bencini.

Spagnola submitted, “If we have a budget shortfall, it’s not a revenue problem; it’s a spending problem.”

Candidates appeared hard pressed to name an expenditure they would be willing to cut.

“I may have to defer to my colleague on the right here,” Spagnola said, gesturing towards Shaw, “who is certainly more familiar with the budget process than I am.”

Shaw contended, “We’re doing everything that we possibly can. Last year, we did not raise taxes. I really, sincerely don’t believe for one minute that we’re going to raise the property taxes again this year.”

Bencini said, “I think you look at what is statutorily required by state government that the county government must abide by. There are some basic things – the sheriff’s department, the health department and the schools – and you set those aside first…. The first thing we’re going to look at are these other things that the county’s doing or wanting to do. You say, ‘Does this make sense financially?’” Stanley did not identify any specific spending areas that she would cut.

Shaw expressed support for the county’s open space program, and noted that the county spends money to acquire new land through a bond program approved by voters.

Spagnola and Stanley said they would support the county purchasing land for open space if it had a specific purpose, such as for a park, but not just to hold the land in reserve.

“I’m not a fan of just bulldozing everything and letting everything run amuck,” Spagnola said, “but at the same time I don’t think government should be in the business of real estate investment by buying land just to keep it from getting in the hands of the private sector.”

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