Sparks flew Thursday night when York County Council chairman Britt Blackwell and Rock Hill businessman Gary Williams faced off for the first time in a public candidates’ forum.
The most popular question of the night – who are the true conservatives? – prompted a heated exchange between Blackwell and Williams, who spoke last in the forum hosted by the York County Republican Party at Thursdays, Too restaurant in Rock Hill.
When one audience member asked Blackwell whether he’s always supported the “true conservative,” Blackwell, a Rock Hill eye doctor, said, “I’ve always, always made sure that I’ve supported a Republican over a Democrat.”
Williams immediately pointed out that Blackwell supported Jim Rex, a Democrat who ran for governor in 2010, “when we were all trying to pull for Gresham Barrett or the governor (Nikki Haley),” Williams said.
Williams – who in 2010 donated the maximum $4,800 to former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt – drew a comparison between himself and Blackwell.
“We have both gone that way, so to say it’s absolute is wrong,” Williams said. “I put my money with Spratt because he saved hundreds of jobs in the county.”
The crowd booed.
Blackwell fired back, saying there was no Republican in the race when he supported Rex.
His donation to Rex of “$50 to $100” was given out of friendship to someone with whom he once he served on a board and whom he viewed as a good person.
“How anybody could compare that,” Blackwell said “to the tens of thousands of dollars my opponent gave to Spratt trying everything he could to make sure a liberal Democrat beat a conservative Republican.
“That’s a pretty big desperation move there.”
Williams’ membership on the board of the Culture and Heritage Foundation also came under fire – but not from Blackwell.
Dennis Getter, a member of the Culture and Heritage Commission, which oversees the county’s museum system, asked Williams how the foundation, which exists to support the commission, spent more on fundraising than it raised in the last two years – citing the foundation’s IRS form 990 tax filings.
“You spent $930,000 in fundraising expense and you’ve raised $100,000,” Getter said, referring to the last two tax years. Getter is one of seven new commissioners the council appointed last year.
“If that’s indicative of your management of public money or contributed money, I’m scared of what you’re going to do with the county.”
As a foundation board member, Williams served as an ex-officio member of the former museum commission, which the current County Council – under Blackwell’s leadership – dissolved and replaced with a new board.
“Dennis, you’re giving totally false information,” Williams said. “You’re misleading the crowd totally. If you look at it, $400,000 of it was written off because the pledges weren’t there.”
“Money was written off,” Williams said, and in “the last year it was set up, salaries continued to be paid although no fundraising going on.”
In 2009-10, the foundation spent $642,778 on “fundraising expenses,” according to its IRS filing; $168,573 of that was spent on salaries and wages, which Williams said went to reimburse commission employees for doing foundation work.
The foundation and commission had an agreement that museum employees would do fundraising work for the foundation, which has no employees, and the foundation would reimburse the museums. The new commission ended that arrangement last year.
Another $421,748 was spent on “bad debt expense.”
Williams said Thursday after the forum that he didn’t feel comfortable discussing the details without the tax forms in front of him and would be willing to discuss it later.
All Republicans on the York County Council face opposition in June’s GOP primary.
Seven other candidates came to the forum Thursday night, including Michael Johnson, a Tega Cay resident and attorney with a practice in Fort Mill. Johnson is vying for the seat now occupied by David Bowman, who couldn’t make the forum and hasn’t yet filed for office.
District 3 incumbent Eric Winstead and challenger Joe Cox, a former county councilman who Winstead beat in the 2010 mid-term elections, were also at the forum.
A man from the audience asked whether District 2 incumbent Bruce Henderson and challenger John Rinehart of the Lake Wylie area were registered members of the York County GOP.
Faced with a similar line of questioning, Patrick White, who is challenging incumbent Curwood Chappell in the race for District 5, said he found it “disappointing” to be questioned about his conservative values when he was “the most conservative” member on the Fort Mill school board, graduated from the Citadel and voted in every Republican primary and for “every Republican candidate I could.”
White has said he likely would vote like Chappell, but he would bring a different management style and leadership to the council and improve the “decorum” and the way meetings are run.
Chappell, who’s seeking his 11th term, recited a list of achievements under his watch, including paving roads, stopping pollution of Fishing Creek, transforming “nasty dumping boxes” into “your nice convenience centers” and fighting a toxic incinerator.
“You want to get my dander up, mess with my constituency,” he said. “You mistreat and care nothing about District 5, then you’re going to hear from me and it ain’t going to be pleasant.”