Candidates address drug issues at UNITE forum

Published 7:56 am Thursday, April 14, 2022

Operation UNITE Bell County hosted a forum Monday where the public came out to listen to what the candidates had to say about their plans to work towards the growing substance use issues. This is the first Operation UNITE forum and their goal is to inform the community about the candidates. At the beginning of the forum, audience members could place their questions to be asked during the event. Each question was answered with a two-minute response from each candidate. Moderator Brian O’Brien started off by asking each candidate to tell about themselves and why they should have your votes.

The event started with current Middlesboro Mayor Rick Nelson. Nelson started off by informing the audience that he is from Harlan County and is the son of a disabled coal miner. He was a school teacher for 30 years and was voted as state representative for 18 years. He has been mayor for four years. He says from January 2019 to now the city of Middlesboro was in a $700,000 debt and they are now in an $800,000 surplus.

Patsy Sullivan is currently on city council and is running for mayor. She says she is running because there are still improvements that need to be made and says she thinks she can do them honestly and effectively. She wants to change to the mayor and council to 10 people running the city not 1 plus 9. She says she loves the town and has great interest in Middlesboro. She wants to reach out to the kids in the school system and add a program where kids help kids with adult supervision like when she was in school. She believes in everyone being fair and stated that each candidate did not receive the list of questions for the forum.

Boone Bowling was born and raised in Middlesboro and after graduating from Middlesboro High, he attended Eastern Kentucky University. He has served on city council for the past 4 years. He says he has a big vision for the future and knows that substance abuse is a part of that to get the community where it needs to be.

Alby Brock is currently the judge executive and is running for re-election. He started off by thanking the audience for attending and was glad to see the amount of people. He says that he has been affected by drug abuse personally and looks forwards to sharing information about addressing the addiction problem.

Tony Nierengarten is running for judge executive. He has lived in Bell County all his life and says that everything in this county means something to him.

He says that he has seen drug addiction first hand and that it is stealing generations. He wants to see Operation UNITE more in the school system. He said that if you have never felt drug addiction then you should praise the Lord for that. He thinks education and programs targeted towards helping people get off drugs is what the community needs more of.

Lisa Fugate is currently the commonwealth attorney and was appointed in 2020. She was the assistant commonwealth attorney for six years and says she absolutely loves her job. She says she is not a politician, she is a girl from Arjay and is proud. She meets victims of crimes and is able to help them and will stand up for them. She says she is willing to help and her children have to grow up in this community and she wants it to be safe.

Mike Taylor is running for commonwealth attorney and has been practicing in Bell County for the past 33 years. His daughter has beat drug addiction and says that drug addiction is something we can’t take lightly. He says jail is not the only solution and should be the last.

Carl Frith is running for Bell County sheriff. He started his career in the Kentucky Department of Corrections then went on to be a park ranger at Pine Mountain State Park. He then went on to work for Bruce Bennett as a supervisor and K9 handler. He is currently working out of Knox County Sheriffs Department as a supervisor. He says that we have to help the people of Bell County with drug addiction and fight to keep people alive.

Mitch Williams is currently the Bell County sheriff and is running for re-election. He spent 15 years as a criminal investigator for Kentucky State Police. He says they realize the problems with substance abuse. He sat on the committee that formed the Appalachian Narcotics Investigations Unit that is active in Bell County.

Jeremiah Johnson is a sergeant for the Middlesboro Police Department. As a child, he and his sisters were adopted by his grandparents due to his parents’ drug addiction. After graduation from Bell High, he attended Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and University of Kentucky. In 2008 he joined the Kentucky National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2011. He was honorably discharged after six years of service. He is running for sheriff to help fix the drug addictions problem. He says he will fight passionately and advocate for everyone in Bell County.

Gary Ferguson is the current jailer and is seeking his third term in office. He has experience in all four levels. He says that marijuana was the big thing when he first started because now they are dealing with more. He says the opioid epidemic is beyond out of control and he sees it first hand everyday he goes to the jail. He says he is happy to have the forum so they can get ideas and get the epidemic under control. He ended with a question, saying, “Are we educating our young people early enough?”

O’Brien then recognized the candidates, veterans, and those that were in attendance that are running for other offices.

Mayoral candidates had the first question. They were asked, much differently than the role of an attorney, sheriff, or jailer, who is more focused on punishment of crimes related to substance use disorder? A mayor is the mayor of all people in their city regardless of their walk of life. In light of this what is your role in improving the lives of people who suffer substance use disorder? Mayor Nelson started off by saying he doesn’t know if you can separate the office of mayor from the fire and police department. He gave the example of someone addicted to drugs breaking into a house, as mayor, he needs to focus on the community and keeping them safe so the other departments can do their jobs. He says the city works with Operation UNITE as well. Sullivan says she looks at this from a person to person view and try to help people any way she can. She says that just giving people information can save them from being in the street, people need to love people. Bowling says the mayor is not on the law enforcement side of things and his goal as mayor is to put your trust in your chiefs and let them do their jobs. He says the mayor has the opportunity to change people’s minds. He says the community doesn’t believe it’s the community it can be. He says you can instill that hope in a child and let them want to stay here because they can restore hope.

Commonwealth attorney candidates had the next question. They were asked, what alternative sentencing plans are you willing to implement for repeat offenders with substance use disorder to also promote positive change rather than continuing the pattern of recidivism? Fugate was first and said what they do currently. She says she doesn’t care who you are, she treats all defendants equally. Fugate says there is a huge difference on how they treat defendants on whether or not they have a drug addiction. She says if you have no priors, then you probably just didn’t make the right choice and doesn’t want you to have a felony. She says you can’t help addicts if they don’t want the help. Taylor said that drug court works and had a 9 percent failure rate. He said when he signed up to run for this position in November, he said that in the past two years, pretrial diversion had been offered seven times, since this past November it has been offered 17 times so hes glad people are listening. Taylor says they are not coming up with new ideas they are just finally getting talked about. He says it’s all about helping people and not about numbers or putting people in prison.

Judge executive candidates were asked what has been the role of county judge executive in regards to providing resources for the people of Bell County affected by substance use disorder. Brock started off by saying they support the Appalachian Narcotics Investigations Unit by providing them space, utilities, and internet services. He also mentioned the rehabilitation center that will start being built in June. It will be an all women’s facility with 112 beds.

They partnered with SKCTC and SECRA to make this happen. Nierengarten said that we could go farther than the rehab center but we could partner with churches to help them after rehab. He says that offering a transition house will help them until they are able to be back out in society.

The jailer candidate was asked what specific problems do you see within our jail related to substance use disorder and what is your solution to the problems. Ferguson says there are many problems within the jail and one problem is early detection. They don’t know if they are putting on to go to the hospital, short term because they just took something or long term and really addicted. He says it takes about three days to find out what is going on with the individual. He says that once they figure out what’s going on, they can work with Comp Care and try to get them into a facility to get treatment, but most are full so it goes back to the jail to take care of them. He says they are handling it but it’s a daunting task.

Sheriff candidates were asked what would you see as your role in influencing positive change with offenders and re offenders of crimes related to substance use disorder. Johnson started off by saying he thinks creating a good rapport and still doing the job by arresting those who commit crimes. He says he goes out and people thank him for arresting them because it made them see that they needed the change. He says getting into the schools and educating the youth, offenders, and re offenders and creating forums like this one can help those that want it. Frith says that at his current employment, they offer drug court and for those coming in the second time, they hold it over their heads and do court-ordered rehab and once completed, it goes away. He says they look at it case by case as well. Williams mentioned the current things they are doing like chaplain corp. He says the chaplains are building a rapport and have been a real asset. He also says there has been a lot of progress over the past eight years in getting people in rehab and finding beds. He would like to see a fine imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking since they are the ones that help people get addicted so they can be the ones to help them get off of it, but the bill has to be written first.

Next, all candidates were asked about harm reduction programs. The question asked was, do you believe this would be helpful for our community? Why or why not? Most candidates had similar answers, in which they do not agree with the needle exchange, but most said some things about the program were great. Nierengarten said that he does believe it would be helpful by keeping used needles out of the community. Brock said he supports one for one and would propose doing a probation for six months, and if it’s not helping then quit.

The last question for all candidates was, do you honestly believe recovery and change exists. All candidates agreed that recovery and change do exist.

A debate for Middlesboro mayor will be held on April 21 at the Middlesboro Community Center at 7 p.m.