Commissioner Candidates Share Views At Forum

Commissioner Candidates Share Views At Forum
A standing-room-only crowd is pictured at a candidate forum, held this week at the Marlin Club in West Ocean City. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

WEST OCEAN CITY – An array of local candidates shared their views on issues facing the county at a forum hosted by the Republican Women of Worcester County.

With many races set to be decided in July’s primary election, a standing-room-only crowd attended the forum hosted by the Republican Women of Worcester County at the Marlin Club Tuesday.

“One of the things that stands out to me is the fact that we have so many people running, that care,” said Mike Bradley, the WGMD radio host who emceed the event. “Doing this job is not easy. Whether you’re already in office or running for office it’s a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.”

Tuesday’s event featured comments from Sheriff Matt Crisafulli, whose opponent did not attend, and provided county commissioner candidates in District 3, District 4, District 5 and District 6 with the opportunity to share their views.

District 3 candidates, who are each hoping to get the seat currently held by retiring Commissioner Bud Church, kicked off the commentary. Candidate Tim VanVonno told those in attendance he’d moved to the area in 2007 and worked in construction and real estate. With his son taking over much of the business, he decided to seek the District 3 seat.

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“I decided to run because I had the time and I think I have the experience,” he said. “I want to keep it the same, what we moved here for, I want to keep it the same way.”

VanVonno said his children had found success in Worcester County’s school system and that supporting the county’s educational system was important to him. He also spoke about making things easier for small business, evaluating the impact of development and the importance of public safety and supporting law enforcement needs.

“Safety is a big thing,” he said. “That is one of the great things about where we live, the safety.”

The next District 3 candidate to speak was Eric Fiori, who told the crowd about his young children and success as a local business owner.

“I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life,” he said. “I love Worcester County.”

Fiori said he wanted to bring the management skills that had helped him with his business to county government. He said the county was losing employees and needed to make changes to attract good help. Like VanVonno, he said he wanted Worcester to remain as amazing as it had been when he settled in the county in 2001.

“I’d really like to give back to the community,” he said. “This community’s been amazing.”

Candidate Shawn Kotwica, a Pittsburgh native, said he worked in real estate and had lived in the county for 18 years.

“I’m here to listen to the people,” he said. “What you want. Not what I want.”

He said he believed in smart growth.

“You all came here for the shore, the beautiful waterways,” he said. “We need to preserve that but we also need to have strategic growth.”

Kotwica said he’d heard concerns about the county’s educational facilities and also felt there were issues with fire and EMS funding as well as zoning.

“I believe by listening to the public, by listening to all of you and all of the people in Worcester County, I can work together to make this place a better place for all of us,” he said.

District 3 candidate Thomas Gulyas said he’d owned a local business for decades and had served on the Berlin Town Council for six years. He said that experience had prepared him to serve as a commissioner. He referenced the importance of education as well as addressing the county’s fire and EMS needs. He also stressed the importance of paying close attention the county’s budget.

“We need commissioners down there that are willing to make decisions both in hard times and good times,” he said. “The budget is going to be one of the primary things I want to tackle.”

Gulyas said the county should be more efficient and provide citizens with access to more online. He also expressed concern regarding traffic on Route 611 and elected officials’ willingness to overturn existing zoning classifications. He noted that Route 611 was the gateway to Assateague.

“We just can’t junk it up with poor zoning and letting folks build what they want to build,” he said. “It needs to be protected … The buildable areas need to be where there is sewer.”

District 4 candidate Nancy Bradford said she was a lifelong Worcester County resident and had decades of banking experience. She said she worked in residential and small commercial lending and had a strong background in finance.

“I think those skills are very much needed to run government,” she said.

Bradford said government should be managed like a good business with a balanced budget. She said maintaining education, public safety, and a qualified staff were critical.

“Unless we have the appropriate finance for it that will not happen,” she said.

Snow Hill resident Virgil Shockley, a farmer, told the audience he’d served as District 4 commissioner from 1998 to 2014. He said that economic development was important and bringing high speed internet to Worcester County was critical.

“I’m 68,” he said. “If I win it’s one term for me. This is it. I came back for one term. If we had high speed internet I would be not here tonight. It’s been my passion.”

He said there was a plan to bring internet to Worcester in 2014.

“I lost the election and the plan went away,” he said. “When we absolutely had to have it during COVID, when kids were staying home, we ended up paying for hotspots.”

Shockley said another issue facing the county was the comprehensive plan. He said that when the most recent edition had been done, drastic changes had been made and couldn’t be overturned in court like rezonings.

Candidate Jeff McMahon told the crowd he was a lifelong Worcester County resident and 42-year member of the Girdletree Volunteer Fire Company. He said he’d joined county staff as a communications clerk and had eventually become fire marshal. He retired in March after 35 years with the county and said he’d been able to work with various sheriffs, chief administrative officers and state’s attorneys. McMahon stressed the importance of public safety.

“I have a longstanding opinion about public safety,” he said. “You know where I stand on that.”

He said he’d been encouraged to run for commissioner by county residents.

“People came to me and said they’d like to see some change,” he said.

Incumbent Ted Elder, who has held the District 4 seat for nearly eight years, said some of the issues being cited by candidates were already being addressed by elected officials. He noted that the budgets for both education and public safety, two of the priorities mentioned by candidates, had both increased significantly in recent years. He pointed out a committee was tackling the fire and EMS funding needs.

“We’ve recognized that and are working real hard on it,” he said.

He added that high speed internet was also one of the commissioners’ priorities. The county has partnered with an internet service provider that has brought broadband to parts of Pocomoke and is now working in Bishopville.

Elder pointed out that the current group of commissioners had inherited issues with financing post retirement benefits and had gradually been addressing those.

“We’re not just loafing down there, we’re working,” he said. “You can’t just do it on your own, it takes teamwork.”

District 5 candidate Grant Helvey, originally from West Virginia, said he’d lived in Worcester County for 20 years. He described his telephone company work and management experience that came from his time on the corporate staff of Bell Atlantic. He also talked about volunteer projects he’d done with the Jaycees in other parts of Maryland.

“I’ve always been involved in civic matters,” he said. “I’ve decided that the last days of my life I want to serve as a county commissioner.”

He also cited his local political experience.

“I believe that all of our rights are a gift from God and the purpose of government is to secure those rights. As a county commissioner, I’m going to be fighting for people’s individual liberty.”

Incumbent Chip Bertino said he’d served as a commissioner for nearly eight years. He said that time had hardened his core belief in limited government to ensure the rights of citizens were upheld.

“I stand with law enforcement,” he said. “I believe property owner rights are fundamental. And I believe the county treasury is not an ATM. I have voted accordingly.”

He said the essence of government was personal and that community residents were able to reach out to their commissioners when they ran into them into the supermarket or at the park.

“This reality fulfills the basic promise of the founding fathers that government is of, by and for the people,” he said. “It inspires me to be accessible, responsive and accountable to my constituents.”

Bertino said issues on the horizon included completing broadband, ensuring the plans for a sports complex didn’t become a taxpayer burden, and ensuring funding for fire and EMS as well as education.

District 6 candidate Richard Addis told the crowd he’d grown up in Bishopville and returned to the area to start a farm with his family after spending several years in the U.S. Air Force. He said they’d since grown their farm from three acres to 150 acres. As a busy farmer, he says he’s often asked why he wants to be a politician.

“The truth is I don’t want to be a politician and I’m not going to be,” he said. “I’m going to be a citizen leader. There’s a big difference between the two. A politician’s working for the next election. I’m working for the next generation.”

He criticized burdensome regulations and the red tape created by government.

“Our liberties and freedoms are no longer being fought for,” he said. “If our elected officials would have fought for our basic constitutional principles, dozens of Worcester County businesses would not have shuttered their doors permanently from the mandates and illegal shutdowns.”

Distant 6 incumbent Jim Bunting said he was in his 12th year as a commissioner. He said his experience benefited the county.

“I believe I bring more experience to the county commissioners than probably anybody here,” he said.

Bunting said he was a lifelong resident of Worcester County. He joked that he was still wearing the same sport coat and slacks he’d initially campaigned in a dozen years ago.

“You’re not in this job for the money,” he said. “You’re in it for the love of Worcester County.”

He said prior to election he operated a surveying company and also served on the county’s board of zoning appeals as well as its planning commission. He said his understanding of zoning, planning and the related environmental and land use laws served him as a commissioner.

“I’ve brought something to the position that was not there,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.