By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Republican Gene Buckner and Democrat Terry Hughes are vying Nov. 6 for a single seat on the Mercer County Commission.
Hughes won the Democratic nomination last May after defeating incumbent Democrat Jay Mills. Buckner won the Republican nomination. Both men were interviewed last week by members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board on a number of issues, including job creation, litter control, the need for a county administrator, and a host of other concerns.
Hughes, a former teacher and coach, has worked for 28 years as an administrator with the Mercer County Board of Education. He has served on the board of directors of the Mercer County Economic Opportunity Corp., the board of trustees of the Princeton Elks Lodge, the board of trustees of Princeton Rescue Squad, the board of directors of Princeton Community Hospital, and the board of directors of the Southern Regional Juvenile Detention Center. He has been married to his wife Denise for 32 years, and the couple has two children.
Buckner, who has worked as the owner and operator of the NAPA Auto Parts stores in Bluefield and Princeton for the past 35 years, has been married to Diane Buckner for 40 years. They have two children. Buckner won a commission seat two years ago only to have his victory vacated because he had moved from the district he was elected to represent. Mike Vinciguerra, who lost to Buckner by 1,700 votes, was later appointed to the commission seat.
Both candidates were asked to define what they thought the job duties of an elected commissioner should be.
“I’m not satisfied with what is happening in the courthouse,” Buckner said. “The role of a county commissioner is not only to conduct (county business), but to distribute all of the money that comes in this county. I’m also in favor of a county administrator. I campaigned for a county administrator in the election I had taken away from me. I’m not going to get into the courthouse clique, but there is a lot of things that need to be changed, and a lot of things going on people don’t know about. I would like to see the courthouse more open than it is.”
“I think one thing I would like to see the county do is separate needs and wants,” Hughes said. “The big thing with me and with anything in our county is transparency. It just seems like so many things are top secret and you can’t find out about it. They (the citizens) need to know about everything going on in this county. They need to know about every dollar spent. My door will always be open everyday. I’m also in favor of a county administrator because they will keep everything organized and going in line.”
Both candidates were then asked if elected commissioners should play an active role in recruiting, attracting and retaining new jobs.
“I think that is a definite,” Buckner said. “That’s why I want to put a county administrator in place. Someone who can search for grants. State grants and federal grants. Someone who can take care of the county’s business. And someone who is knowledgeable about going to businesses and talking about tax structures. We haven’t had that for years and years. A county administrator can pay for himself if he attracts business and brings in tax money. If he gets grants and state grants, he can more than pay for himself. If he doesn’t pay for himself, he is gone. That is the way it will work with the county administrator.”
“Jobs are what I’m all about,” Hughes said. “No matter what we talk about today it is all going to come back to jobs. It takes money to fix problems. It can’t be Chili’s and it can’t be Sheetz. I love Chili’s and Sheetz. But it can’t be places like that. We have to have manufacturing and industrial jobs. So I’m all about jobs. I would love to have a county administrator. I think it’s very, very important.”
The candidates also addressed recent media reports about county websites, including that of the Mercer County Development Authority, not being updated, and weighed in on whether a county administrator should share job creation duties with Development Authority Director Janet Bailey.
“I think we are stagnant in a lot of areas as far as economic development goes,” Hughes said. “We are not continually updating what properties we have. We are not updating which businesses we try to recruit into our county. I think that’s a hands-on part of it. I think we need to do our homework first. That is where Janet comes in. What properties are available? What businesses sit on those properties. What incentives can we give them? But we’ve got to have our act together before we can even entertain that.”
“That’s the reason I started running for office,” Buckner said. “I’ve got two businesses in this county. I’ve been here for 37 years and I’ve got several vehicles, and every time I would go to the courthouse to get a sticker for my car it would take me an hour and a half to get a sticker or tag. Therefore you stand in line at their mercy. There is a drastic need to be updated.”
Buckner said he has trouble trying to get information not only from the current commissioners, but also the development authority offices.
“You can’t get any information from the county,” Buckner said. “You can’t get any information from them. Janet Bailey is a great person. I know her. But I don’t know if her job is to go after new businesses. If it comes to her, I think she is capable of taking care of it. But I don’t know if she is at the point of going out and talking to General Motors. All of the counties around us are growing by leaps and bounds Just look at Summers, Tazewell and Raleigh counties.”
Both candidates also spoke about the need of getting Bluefield and Princeton to work together, and neither objected to the idea of Mercer and Tazewell counties working together on regional needs.
“Twenty years of my school career has been in Bluefield, and I live in Princeton,” Hughes said. “But this isn’t about Princeton and Bluefield. I think we’ve got to unite the people.”
“I would love to see Bluefield and Princeton be one,” Buckner said. “But I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime, but I think it will need to happen. To work together would be great. I’d like to be the one to come do that. To come together with both of them and say we can just do it this time and let’s see what happens. I think if you would ever come to the point and (have both cities) do one project together it would be the ice breaker. I have no problems with reaching across county lines.”
“Whatever it takes,” Hughes added. “When you come here, you have to check your ego at the door. We’ve got to put everybody together and work together so we can get this accomplished.”
Both candidates also addressed the lack of action as it relates to a leash law, or spay and neuter ordinance, and the controversy last year at the Mercer County Animal Shelter.
“That’s a travesty what they did there,” Buckner said of an incident last year where a large number of animals were put down without prior public notice or a public meeting. “There was no public input at all and there was no open public forum. What they should have done is step back and say this is terrible. We are going to have a meeting. I’ve been there some (at the animal shelter). The people are scared to death at the animal shelter. It’s terrible. I’ve met with a couple of the animal rights advocate group about what I think should be done there. There should be a board of directors at that animal shelter. It should be a veterinarian, maybe an administrator, and two outside people who love animals.”
“It has to be transparent,” Hughes said of the animal shelter operation. “I’ve had numerous calls at the house and at the office. They lost two animals a couple of weeks ago. They were told to keep quiet or they would lose their jobs. I love animals. I grew up on a farm. I too personally have been at the animal shelters. It needs a lot. I think you need an intake wing. If you have an intake wing you could keep them (new animals and existing animals) separated.”
The candidates were asked about the county’s regional jail problem.
“Three months ago the bill was $1.2 million,” Buckner said. “Three weeks later it was $570,000. And I asked them where they came up with the money to pay the bill. And they said they just had some money laying around. I’ve been in business a long time, and I don’t come up with much extra money. I know where my money is. It would be lovely if we could have a holding tank or holding cell, somewhere — Princeton or Bluefield or wherever it may be — but I don’t think it will happen unless the Legislature in Charleston addresses it.
“I’ve talked at length with (Sheriff) Don (Meadows) about reopening a holding cell on top, but he didn’t think it would be cost effective because he would still have to staff it 24 hours a day,” Hughes said.
The candidates were then asked about the county’s litter problem, and the possibility of establishing transfer stations, or dumpsters, in rural parts of the county.
“I think it is a trained thing,” Hughes said. “If you put them it in the communities, it will have to be emptied regularly. But I think you have to get trained to use them. Because we still have the ones who will just throw it (trash) over the hills. But I think when people are caught or fined they will be trained. So I’m all for them (transfer stations). I think if we have four or five of them in the county, it will cover all of the areas.”
“I think it is something that has to be addressed,” Buckner said. “The problem from what I understand with what Mike (Vinciguerra) says is if they arrest who is doing that — if they catch them — that it is a misdemeanor and there is no punishment for that. They passed an ordinance four years ago to try to curb that. They had the deputies to go out and arrest a few people and try to prosecute them. But Jim Dent — he’s a magistrate — Jim Dent says magistrate court can’t take the cases.”
— Contact Charles Owens at email@example.com