Two of Chester County’s most prominent political figures and candidates for county supervisor met face to face Sunday afternoon during a political forum at Chester’s Bethel Baptist Church.
Carlisle Roddey, the longtime incumbent who first won the seat in 1974 and who has held it ever since except from 1998 to 2006, touted his experience and consistency as his top selling points for the job. He promised to continue improvements in job creation and development.
“Chester’s growth is on the way now,” said Roddey. “I see things brewing and coming back.” But, he added, “it’s been hard to keep the ship running.” He cited several recessions throughout his tenure.
Meanwhile, Chester mayor and challenger Wanda Stringfellow promised more “inclusiveness” if elected, emphasizing perceived inequities between the city and county.
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“City residents are county residents, too,” said Stringfellow, who has served three nonconsecutive terms and works as a teacher at Chester Middle School. Government, Stringfellow said, needs to be “inclusive, rather than exclusive.”
A third candidate, Randy Marsh, a 25-year-old deputy and political newcomer, declined to attend. All three will square off in the June Democratic primary. No Republicans are running.
The forum was moderated by Mike Fanning of the Olde English Consortium, a nonprofit agency promoting better education that serves the north central area of the state, and was organized by Levester Bryant, a deacon of Bethel Baptist Church.
Chester County has consistently battled high unemployment since the collapse of the textile industry in the 1990s and has had some of the highest jobless rates in the state. Unemployment finally dipped into the single digits in November for the first time since 2005.
The region also has suffered from increased emigration, dropping its population in the last decade while neighboring counties such as York experienced expansive growth.
Fanning’s questions for the candidates focused primarily on topics about the local economy, but also the county’s reputation as a “backwards” or “back in time” county.
Roddey has emerged as a key figure in helping to recruit a mystery automotive venture, first publicly mentioned in May but as yet unidentified, that could bring 1,500 jobs to the county.
His years as county supervisor haven’t been without friction. He was criticized by some for his support of a controversial multimillion-dollar Chester County Gateway tourism and conference center in Richburg during a tough economic recovery. The county also is involved in a legal battle with Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood over control of the 911 system, which has turned into a high-profile squabble.
In addition to the 911 dispute, a physical brawl broke out between Chester County volunteer firefighters and sheriff’s deputies in February, prompting another state investigation.
Candidates were asked what specific steps they would take to “end the bickering among various leaders and groups within our county?”
Stringfellow said she would rely on her managerial skills to increase cooperation among elected officials and department heads. But Roddey was skeptical of that approach, saying that elected officials will “do as they please” and are beyond his control.
“I can get along with the very devil,” said Roddey. “Sometimes the devil don’t want to get along with you.”
Stringfellow also has had her share of controversy while in office. She was investigated by the State Ethics Commission in June 2013 for receiving almost $20,000 in improper compensation for her role as city administrator over the course of nine months. According to documents, Stringfellow admitted to violating state law prohibiting public officials from using their office for financial gain.
The commission also fined Stringfellow $11,400 for failing to file 2005 public financial disclosure forms as required by the state. A 2008 audit of Stringfellow’s mayoral finances also drew controversy for some exorbitant expenses, including a $1,190 airfare to Ohio.
Throughout the forum, Stringfellow emphasized transparency and accountability. She pledged to take a closer look at streamlining county government if elected and work closely with state elected officials to increase public money coming to the county.
Stringfellow also wants the county to be cautious regarding tax incentives that are offered to prospective developers.
Roddey promised to continue promoting economic development, citing the effort to bring jobs to the county as his top priority.
“We’ve been the bridesmaid so many times, I’m getting tired of throwing the flowers away,” said Roddey of prospects that have failed to pan out. But, he added, “You have to give something to get something.”
Pat Kennedy, a Chester County native and retired banker, believes a change in leadership is needed to draw the county out of its doldrums. The city resident is a volunteer with the American Red Cross but spent her career predominantly in Rock Hill, citing a lack of local job prospects in Chester County.
“Chester died with the mills. It’s going to have to change, evolve,” she said.
Chester News & Reporter columnist Makeda Baker, 59, agreed with Stringfellow’s take on inequities. She said she wished all three candidates had participated in the forum and that more residents had attended.
“This place should have been packed out,” she said. “Being in Chester is like being in 1865. Everybody has their place and everybody stays in their place.”