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Political Forum Day 2: Let’s talk...

Kevin Boyer
Washington County News

CHIPLEY- Chipley’s Kiwanis Club was well prepared for the second day of political forums when candidates for Washington County’s School Board, County Commissioner, and Clerk of Court took to the hot seat for a series of hot topic questions from the community.

Kicking off the debate were political candidates Lora Bell and Stephanie Blankenship for the office of Clerk of Court.

Bell, who is the incumbent for the office, said it was an honor to serve in the role of Clerk of Court and hopes to continue to serve for another term.

“It has been one of the most amazing blessings in my life,” Bell said.

Bell said she had been with the clerk’s office for 17 years. Bell said COVID has made significant changes to the public and the way the courts operate but she said the clerk’s office was imperative to the community.

In regards to her office, Bell said she was pleased with how it was currently being operated, saying that she was available to anyone in the community at any time, going as far a working the customer service desk when it was short staffed. Bell said she is over several departments but always am available when needed. She said they made improvements to the clerk’s website and the services they provide to assist the community.

“Everyday there are changes,“ she said. ”We have a contract with our [partners] in Tallahasse and someone who is able to come over when needed to assist us with our IT needs. We actually function very smoothly.“

Bell said as Clerk of Court has over one thousand duties mandated by the government in that role in addition to the position of Comptroller, another role the Clerk of Court holds.

Blankenship, who is running against Bell for the office, said she was running for the position because she felt like it was time for new leadership in the county.

“It’s time for a change,” she said.

Blankenship said things that are challenging the clerk’s office and the community include high turn over rates and lack of services to the county. She said that several people she has spoken too have spoken of concern about not being able to reach the clerk of court and get the services they needed, something she said she wants to change.

Blakenship said the main job of the clerk was to be the record keeper and auditor for the county. She said additional technology and improved technology is essential for the community, especially during this time. Blankenship said the clerk of court should have a social media presentation in the community.

“I fully intend to have a clerk of court page,” Blankenship said, noting back to a Facebook page the courts once had. “I fully intend on bringing that back.”

Running for the available Washington County School Board seat incumbent Dr. Lou Cleveland and Jerry Harrell.

Cleveland, who has had a long career as an instructor in the county including serving as an instructor with Chipola college, said she felt the need to serve the community and said the past three years have shared in some unique experiences faced by the county.

“We have been through some uncharted waters,” Cleveland said. “It has challenged me to re-examine how I see public education.”

Cleveland said it was a challenge she thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to continue. She said right now the three main things the district is focusing on is getting the students back into schools as safely as possible and to work with mental health and welfare of the students. Cleveland said the school board member should also focus on the segment on students who don’t have a vision for the future and to help them.

In thinking on most important thing in her role, Cleveland said for her it was going to events and meetings within the community and seeing how the district works with them.

“I had no idea how closely to district worked with the [county],” she said. “We all need to coordinate together.”

Cleveland said the district was the biggest employer in the county. She said what the district does has a great impact on the community.

Harrell, who served the community for years as an instructor at Florida Panhandle Technical College, said that district is lacking heart and humility, which he said is key to the district’s success.

“You must have heart in the things you do,” Harrell said. “Our kid’s need the heart in the school’ one on this earth has all the answers it is ok to ask questions. Our Community wants to be part of our community...we need to bring everyone together.”

Harrell said he believes the drop out rate is something that is critical to be looked at. He said each year the district loses students to neighboring counties and well as high school drop outs and he feels it needs to be addressed. He said expanding the career technology aspect will assist in that regard as well as starting at an early age who are falling behind. He believed offering a diploma program FPTC would also help.

Harrell believes the board member should be in the community and the school’s learning about what is working and getting their insights on what can change.

“They just want someone to listen to them,” he said. “So let’s get together and let’s start solving the problems.”

Alan Bush, who rounded out the forum as the incumbent for County Commissioner, ended the forum without the presence of his rival, Travis Hall, who did not attend the event.

Bush, who has been serving for the past four years, said he was very pleased to serve along side his fellow commissioners and the county. Bush said he had to think very hard about whether or not he would seek another term but said he felt his job wasn’t done yet.

“I had just about decided I wasn’t going to do it,” Bush said. “But we are on the cusp of doing some really great things.”

Bush said Covid has taken it’s toll on the way the commissioners have to operate and they are continuously working on best practices. He said the county is still repairing from Michael and wants to see the right kinds of business come into the county and wants to work on internet services throughout the county.

“Whenever the students and employees couldn’t go to [their places] you really see how critical broadband service is to the county.”

Bush wants to work on building a regional evacuation center that would double as a form of a civic center. He said the center would be able to serve multiple counties.

To view the full forum, please visit the Chipley Kiwanis Club Facebook Page.