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Guilford commissioner candidates talk about mental health issues at forum.


If they had to do it, they would do it differently. That's what Guilford County commissioner hopefuls had to say at a forum Wednesday night.

Speaking of appointing members to the area mental health board, the candidates all agreed the current board has been doing it wrong.``The area mental health board is a part of the personal political agenda of the commissioners. If you are not politically anointed, you have no chance of being on it,' Democrat Joe Wood, a candidate in District 6, told about two dozen members of the Coalition 2001. ``That has created a board that is very uncaring. The area mental health board has become political football.'

Wood and 11 other commissioner candidates attended a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Coalition 2001. The group, more than 50 local and state organizations, advocates for people with mental illness, substance abuse problems or developmental disabilities.

Paul Arnold, the Republican candidate in District 6, said the politicking would be avoided if the county commissioners were not chosen along party lines. But that, he said, is another story. The mental health board should be non-partisan, he said.

The candidates said the current board is overlooking qualified individuals in appointing people to the Guilford County Area Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Board.

``I am struck by the rich people resources that we have in our community. ... People who study issues very carefully,' said Democrat Margaret Arbuckle, a candidate in District 7. ``I think that we as a Board of Commissioners need to look to this expertise.'

Said District 7 Republican Rob Angle: ``Once they appoint somebody, they should leave them alone for their term to do their jobs.'

Appointments used to be done differently, District 4 Democrat Bob Landreth said.

``Four years ago, the board kept a list of people interested on serving on boards and commissions,' he said. ``It was not done on the political party involved.'

District 4 Republican Jim Lumley did not attend the forum.

Wally Harrelson, a Democrat running for one of two at-large seats available, said it is time to go back to that system. Harrelson, a former chairman of the area board who was removed by the current commissioners, also accused the current commissioners of not appointing people who represent the various disabilities.

State law requires the board to have members from different groups, including recovering addicts and family members of people with mental health problems or developmental disabilities.

The make up of the board needs to be changed, said Republican Lois McManus, running for an at-large seat. It needs to include people from the non-profit, public and private sectors, she said.

Last year the county dragged their feet to get funds to the board, said Democrat John Parks, who is running for an at-large seat. There is not enough housing for the mentally ill, he said. ``It is time ladies and gentlemen that Guilford County, as far as local government, be creative,' Parks said.

Walter Cockerham, a GOP at-large candidate, did not attend.

District 3 Democrat Stephanie Cashwell told of 15 years ago when she moved to Greensboro because the county's programs fit the needs of her son, who has Down's syndrome. She said people like her, who benefit from the services, ought to be part of the mental health board.

``I cannot imagine a board existing that did not include individuals who were either consumers or professionals in this area,' she said.

Cashwell's opponent in District 3, Republican Joe Bostic, was not present at the forum.

The other problem with the relationship between the county commissioners and the area mental health board is that the commissioners interfere too much, the candidates said.

``The county commissioners need to stay out of running the area health board,' said District 5 Democrat Trudy Wade. ``They should be there for support.'

But cautioned Robert Moores, a District 5 Republican: ``They should never interfere with anything, but they have the responsibility to provide funds. So they have the oversight to make sure the system operates as it should.' Moores is a member of the board.

Democrat Melvin ``Skip' Alston, of District 8, is unopposed. He didn't attend.

A couple of candidates for the General Assembly also attended the forum. Bruce Byrd, Democratic candidate for House District 29, and Democrat Maggie Jeffus, of the 89th House District, assured the group they were supporters of mental health issues and would push for the necessary funding.


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