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Mayoral candidates engage in debate

Incumbent Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn and challenger Brien Lassiter greet each other during Tuesday’s debate at the Ahoskie Inn. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

AHOSKIE – One is currently serving as Ahoskie’s Mayor and wishes to continue in that capacity; the other is a newcomer launching an effort to secure a political office for the very first time.

In front of a standing room only crowd Tuesday night in the meeting room of the Ahoskie Inn, Mayor Linda Blackburn joined with challenger Brien Lassiter in a 65-minute public debate. David Robertson, another newcomer seeking the mayor’s seat, chose not to accept his invitation to join the debate.

With Jack Owens, a Gatesville businessman and a Gates County Commissioner, serving as moderator, each of the two candidates present for the debate provided an opening statement, answered numerous questions and concluded with closing remarks.

“The reason I want to be your mayor is because I have a vested interest in this town,” said Lassiter as he opened the debate with a statement. “I was born and raised here. I’ve worked for the town (he is a former police officer, now employed by the 6B District Attorney’s Office) and have seen some things from behind the scenes….things that work, things that don’t work.

“I’m someone with a vision for Ahoskie, someone who can take new ideas and work with the town council so the town can progress,” Lassiter continued. “I feel that the town, for some time now, has just been treading water and has not progressed. We’ve got to do something to draw businesses to our town. We’ve got to do something to keep our citizens here, too many are moving away.”

Lassiter added, “I have a passion, a plan for this town so we can progress, keep this town growing and make it a place that our citizens are proud of, provide things that our kids, our middle age and our senior citizens can do.”

Blackburn, in her opening remarks, said she hasn’t taken lightly her role as mayor for the past eight years.

“There were three reasons I sought this office for the first time eight years ago and they haven’t changed,” Blackburn noted. “First, I love Ahoskie; I chose this place as my home in 1993. I also ran for mayor eight years ago because I felt there was nothing much going on here. Ahoskie’s potential was not being met and I wanted to be part of changing that.”

Blackburn said the third reason was she felt she had something to bring to the table.

“With my past experience in nursing and social work, I’m a trained community organizer, program planner, budget manager and grant writer,” she stated. “I have leadership skills and know how to work as a team.”

“Eight years later I’m still here; my vision hasn’t changed and I’m asking for your vote to allow me to continue to take Ahoskie forward. I think over the last eight years you’ve seen slow, but gradual growth here. Ahoskie is growing. I hope you give me a chance to continue the job we started,” Blackburn concluded.

Questions, submitted prior to the debate and at the event, were then posed to each candidate. A brief synopsis of each follows:

What are the top three duties as a mayor?

Blackburn – To work with all citizens; be fair to all citizens; and teamwork….be an effective team leader.”

Lassiter – “A mayor is the liaison between the citizens and town officials/departments; someone who is a team leader; and always have lines of communication open.”

What plans do you have to lower water and sewer rates?

Blackburn – “By bringing in more businesses and homeowners. I lobbied to have the town’s building fees lowered to open the door for potential new homeowners.”

Lassiter – “There was a need to increase the water/sewer capacity years ago, but it was just recently performed, meaning the money to make those improvements are falling on today’s citizens and business owners. There is a need to bring in more businesses and homeowners to help lower costs.”

What plans do you have to create more jobs for Ahoskie citizens?

Lassiter – “Help recruit new businesses that will create more job opportunities.”

Blackburn – “Working with a team allows you to get a lot done. Building and maintaining partnerships with Hertford County Economic Development, the Mid-East Commission and the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce helps with job recruitment. There is also a need to offer incentives that can attract new business.”

How will you be an effective team leader?

Blackburn – “By listening to others, hearing their ideas and assimilating those ideas as well as interjecting your own thoughts. You need to be a talker and a thinker.”

Lassiter – “The mayor works with the manager and the council, but can also work with other organizations to form committees specific to the needs and wants. When you pull in the right people, you get the right ideas and right opinions. You sit down with them at the drawing board and make things work in a positive way that will help the majority of our citizens.”

What is the attitude of Ahoskie citizens towards offering business incentives?

Blackburn – “It’s favorable. There may not be a wide understanding of incentives, but people want to know what you’re offering because they want the town to be successful.”

Lassiter – “Who doesn’t like incentives? Using a coupon is an incentive by a business owner to get you to their store. Everyone understands the reasons why we must give incentives to bring businesses to Ahoskie.”

What is your feeling about the town’s fund balance, is it stable and in good shape?

Lassiter – “I must admit that I don’t know and unable to answer that question.”

Blackburn – “The town is in excellent shape and the fund balance is in good shape. We constantly worry about these issues every time we make decisions about purchases to continue the services provided by the town. We must maintain a solid fund balance because that’s our savings account, that’s what we must fall back on if revenues fall below what we expect.”

What are your ideas to approve the appearance of the town?

Blackburn – “I constantly look for grants that can be used to keep our town pretty and attractive; our appearance speaks to who we are. We have a façade grant in town that businesses can use to improve the appearance of their buildings.”

Lassiter – “The town has made some improvements over the years in dressing itself up and making it look good, inside and out. We have a new recreational park; we’ve built an amphitheater for outdoor events. They look nice. We do need to improve our streets; we’ve patched over patches. We need to get our citizens involved in cleaning up their area.”

What do you propose to do with the numerous buildings in town that are fast becoming eyesores?

Blackburn – “One of the focuses I had were the many uninhabited residences and other buildings that need to come down. We’ve made some headway in that effort, but we have 20 or so more that need to be addressed, as well as a few businesses. One is on Academy Street where a minimal amount of work has been done to suffice what the law requires and then leave it. Then they do a little more work to satisfy the law, and leave it again. We’ve addressed this in town council and have instructed the town attorney to look for ways we can handle that particular situation.”

Lassiter – “We have that one business that despite some work, still looks as bad as it did years ago. The town has ordinances that need to be followed. The homeowner/business owner has to be contacted, but we find that some of them live out of town, but they must be held to the same standard that’s in the ordinance and not allowed to play the system.”

What is the next new public facility the town needs to build?

Lassiter – “The next hot topic after building a new fire station is a new town library. The one we have is too small and is landlocked, meaning it cannot expand.”

Blackburn – “We are underway in building a new fire station. We would not be good stewards of taxpayer money by having to purchase fire trucks that must be specially modified to fit into our existing small fire station. After that, I agree with Brien, we need a new library. We still have people here that want to be involved with a library. There are plans underway, through a library committee, for a new library.”

Both candidates said they are opposed to DOT’s plan to build a US 13 bypass of Ahoskie.

In their closing remarks, both candidates said they were appreciative of the turnout at the debate and encouraged citizens to get out and vote for the mayor and council races, taking an active role in town government.

The debate was co-sponsored by the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce and the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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