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Ross County Commission candidates discuss goals, issues

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ROSS COUNTY —  Voters will have the opportunity to determine the future of the Ross County Board of Commissioners on Election Day.

In one of two contested races, voters will choose between incumbent Dwight Garrett, a Republican, and Democrat Beth Neal (who is no relation to Steve Neal, who currently serves as a commissioner). 

In an interview with the Gazette, the candidates shed light on their concerns, objectives and goals for Ross County ahead of the November election.

Dwight Garrett

Garrett is a lifelong resident of Ross County. He has served 38 years in education as a teacher, coach, principal, superintendent and area coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education in the field of school finance.

Garrett has served as a county commissioner the last four years. During his tenure, he said his biggest accomplishments include: 

  • Working with the county engineer and the Ohio Department of Transportation on the completion of the Ohio 207 connector to Ohio 159. 
  • Extended the road in the Industrial Park off of Ohio 104 to the south to provide for additional frontage and growth of new industry.
  •  Along with Emergency Management Agency Director Paul Minney Director Paul Minney, establishing a countywide emergency notification system.
  • Service center expansion project, which increased the square footage for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, title department and drivers exam station.
  • Commissioners’ purchase of the LCNB building for additional space, with future plans for county offices to be located there.

Garrett said that the biggest challenge of his career as commissioner has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the country since March. 

Commissioners are assisting individuals that have been displaced from their jobs by issuing Cares Act money to assist paying utilities, rents and mortgages. They are also helping small businesses that have been affected by distributing Cares Act money.

“The impact of this virus will have a lingering effect upon us locally for an extended period of time. It is our intent to continue to provide assistance as long as funding is available,” Garrett said. 

Garrett, along with his fellow commissioners, is also a member of a working group of individuals with various backgrounds that was established by Mayor Luke Feeney. The group was created out of a need to help steer the city through a once-in-a-century pandemic, and it can also explore ways to assist the community, such as in matters of public safety. 

“Even though this assemblage grew out of the epidemic, they are forward thinkers with the future of Ross County and Chillicothe first and foremost,” Garrett said. 

If re-elected, Garrett seeks to continue working with the township trustees, EMS and the sheriff’s department on a solution to reducing response time for emergency runs. Looking for the most palatable decision and hoping for consensus by all will be the challenge, he said. 

“Being a varsity coach and in administration for more than half of my educational career has prepared me for this position,” Garrett said.  “Teamwork, leadership, collaboration, listening skills, negotiating contracts, building projects and budgeting of a school district all run parallel with educational administration and the commissioner’s position. With love for this county, it is with great pride that I hold this position.”

Garrett has also been endorsed by Congressman Brad Wenstrup of Ohio’s Second District. 

Wenstrup highlighted Garrett’s qualities as an “advocate for workers” with “strong family values.”

“Dwight Garrett has the common sense approach needed to make a difference in the future of Ross County,” said Wenstrup in a statement on Monday. “…His service has rendered him uniquely qualified to effectively serve on the board of commissioners. He is a fair leader, a relentless fighter, and will always put Ross County first.”

Beth Janes Neal

Beth Janes Neal is a former business manager and HR manager for the Janes Group, which runs 18 stores, including 15 Save A Lot stores, the Corner Market and two convenience stores, not to mention a commercial real estate business. She managed over 400 employees. While she retired about three years ago, she is still active in the real estate holding business co-owned by her and her brother. 

Neal is a former city council member, where she served for seven years before losing her seat last year. While on council, she was head of the Development Committee, where she says she helped guide the revitalization of downtown.

“You can see the growth today,” she said. “A lot of restaurants and little shops that are a result of some of the changes we made.”

While representing the first ward, Neal also says she oversaw new roads, new water and sewer lines, improved traffic flow and improved police protection. 

If elected to serve on the Board of Commissioners, Neal plans to focus on better response from public safety services.

Neal points out that many township fire departments in Ross County rely heavily on volunteers, who have to come to the station from home based on who is available at the time of the call. This elevates response times and need for mutual aid if the township in question cannot muster enough firefighters to adequately respond to the emergency, she said. 

Neal plans to help with this problem by building a more direct relationship between township trustees and county commissioners. One of her greatest strengths while on council, she said, was communication with constituents, such as through community office hours and a quarterly newsletter. 

“There really is an opportunity here for better communication between commissioners, trustee offices and residents. I think residents feel a bit disconnected from the commissioners office,” she said. 

While in office, her two biggest challenges would be balancing the county budget and fighting the spread of the coronavirus.

Neal said she aims to improve services offered by the county while keeping the budget down by pursuing grants. She will also investigate how better to go about purchasing through the various townships by working to combine big-ticket items such as insurance, road salt and paving to bid under one banner. 

On the virus front, Neal aims to urge residents to follow scientific guidelines and “wear a damn mask.” While county leaders cannot demand, only suggest and set an example, Neal said that she urges people to consider those at risk, such as her 93-year-old father. “I’m saying to people, it’s not about you. It’s about your family, and people with factors that make them vulnerable … just for once consider other people,” she said. 

With political and racial tensions rising nationwide, especially since the death of George Floyd, Neal also said she would do her best to make the political process locally “a big tent” and encourage respect of everyone and their values. “I hear so much talk about Republicans, Democrats, and I want to get back to talking about  Americans,” she said. 

After losing her re-election bid last year, Neal said she has been doing as much listening as possible. While her campaign cannot go door to door due to the pandemic, Neal has been visiting township trustees’ meetings to listen and ask them for their ideas. 

“I think voters would want a fresh set of eyes on what the commissioners office is doing, somebody that comes in with energy and has a proven record of working for the voters, and I did do that as a council person and will continue to do so,” she said. “Getting out and seeing people and hearing what they need, that’s what I’ll do.” 

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