Incumbent Bernie Ash will face challengers Robert Pelt and Sue Vanatta in the Aug. 7 race for District 23 Wilson County commissioner.
Ash graduated from Lebanon High School in 1965 and joined the Air Force a year later. After a year stint in Vietnam, he completed his service in 1970 as a sergeant. He attended Cumberland College on the G.I. Bill and worked with his family for several years in the well drilling business. He worked five years in Houston as a drilling fluids engineer, 21 years with Creative Photography in Lebanon and the past two years as Wilson County’s veterans service officer.
He has three children, seven grandchildren with another on the way and two great-grandchildren.
Pelt is currently president of Airworthy Films Inc. in Lebanon. He previously worked as an aircraft mechanic, instructor, supervisor and manager of American Airlines for 43 years. He graduated from Newton High School in Newton, N.J. and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Pelt is married to Diane Pelt, and the couple has two children, Jennifer Pelt-Musich and Travis Pelt.
Vanatta has served as president and CEO of the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce for more than 22 years and will retire Dec. 31. She is a graduate of the Institute of Organization Management from the University of Georgia, as well as Leadership Wilson and Leadership Middle Tennessee.
She has served on several organizational boards and currently serves on the Wilson County Fair Board, Wilson County Community Help Center Board, Joint Economic and Community Development Board and Agricultural Management Board. Vanatta said she shops Wilson County and encourages others to do the same.
Vanatta has been a Wilson County resident for 40 years. She has four children, Donna, Hollie, Mitzi McCoin, Mike McCoin and Monica Alsup, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
What prompted you to seek office? Was it personal initiative or did others encourage you?
Ash: It was a little of both. Many of my friends and constituents encouraged me to continue the job I have been doing, and I have a strong desire to continue serving as a county commissioner.
Pelt: I decided to run for county commissioner in the 23rd district for two reasons. The first reason is that I did not want to see the incumbent commissioner in my district run unopposed. Wilson County needs new faces on the county commission, men and women with new ideas, commissioners that actually have email accounts and commissioners who want to do more than maintain the status quo. The second reason is I believe the county or cities within the county should not have county commissioners on their payrolls. Wilson County and city governments within the county employ nearly half of our current commissioners.
Vanatta: Seeking the office of county commissioner for District 23 was both personal and encouragement from Wilson County citizens. I am retiring from the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 31, and I realized I would like to stay involved in the future of our county. I was contacted by individuals and family and encouraged to seek this office because of my leadership with the chamber, my community involvement and my vision for our county.
What are the most important issues in your race, and how do you plan to address them?
Ash: Public safety, education and jobs are important to me. I will continue to seek committee assignments that allow me to work on these specific needs. As chairman of WEMA, I have worked with the mayor and the committee to add fire stations, equipment and firemen and working with Mt. Juliet to build and man their own fire station. One of the big issues that remain to be resolved is equitable pay for WEMA employees. We have built four new high schools and several elementary and middle schools since I have been in office. Education continues to grow and we must be proactive in planning for future growth. As debt rolls off we must be ready to build additional schools, with as little impact on the tax rate as possible. We are in competition with all the counties surrounding us, including Davidson. We must do all we can to make Wilson County as attractive to new business as we can. This includes, utilities, reasonable tax incentives, good schools and quality of life that would bring in new business.
Pelt: The budget should be reduced 2.5 percent a year each year for four years. A 10-percent reduction in the budget over the next four years would be a hard sell; still we eventually need to move toward smaller budgets. However, I am not suggesting the county totally stop spending on new projects and infrastructure. Wilson County should purchase the Lebanon Municipal Airport. Upgrading this facility is too expensive an undertaking for the city of Lebanon to do alone. This county needs to create a world-class airport that can become an asset for the entire county.
Vanatta: Wilson County is rapidly growing, and I believe a major issue is being proactive and focused on growth management. Growth brings many issues, so proper planning will be beneficial for excellent education, retail development, affordable housing, tourist promotion and development, emergency planning and management. If elected, I plan to stay in touch with the citizens in Wilson County to hear their concerns and seek their input to continue the best quality of life for all.
What would you say to voters opposed to your running for office to convince them you are the most qualified?
Ash: Being an incumbent is sometimes a handicap in this job. Politics is the only business where experience is not always appreciated. That being said, my experience puts me head and shoulders above my opponents. I have chaired the finance, budget, emergency management, judicial and rules committees. I served on education, planning and zoning and other committees and served on the Joint Economic and Community Development Board. It takes years of hard work to develop this kind of experience. My conservative viewpoint and common sense also helps as a commissioner.
Pelt: In the 23rd District, there will be three names on the ballot. Each of us is qualified to do the job. What the voter should be considering is which of the three candidate’s ideas and goals match his or her own. I am for holding the line on taxes, reducing the current budget by 10 percent over four years, and making some long-term investments into the county infrastructure, such as airport, rail and Google Fiber. I am totally against a county Expo Center unless it is privately funded.
Vanatta: Elect me and give me a chance to help make a difference. My leadership experience with the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce has moved the chamber forward to rank the fifth largest chamber in Middle Tennessee. I have experience with working in different areas of county and city governments, and my familiarity with county departments and fellow commissioners will assist me in planning for the future of Wilson County.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents do not?
Ash: I have 16 years of experience, a network of resources and a relationship with other county commissioners. I know how to get a resolution through the proper committee and how to build support with my fellow commissioners to pass a resolution on the floor of the commission.
Pelt: My background is in aviation, primarily the airlines. At age 19, I was hired as an aircraft mechanic, the youngest ever hired by American Airlines. Ten years later, I was promoted to management. I worked on or lead various management and development teams, including projects with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. At American, I was taught the concept of zero-based budgeting, that tough process will forever be with me. My “encore career” is president of Airworthy Films Inc., a video production company. I have an extensive technical background and in-depth experience in budgeting and team building.
Vanatta: I bring 17 years of co-owning a business, 22 years of leadership working with small and large businesses, nonprofit organizations, industries and volunteers. The board of commissioners not only sets the policy, but is also responsible for the implementation of the policies. I have been involved in setting policies and goals, and I have had the responsibility of putting together a team to implement goals and policies.
How is your experience – or lack of experience- a plus or minus for the position you are seeking?
Ash: My experience is absolutely a plus. I will hit the ground running. I have resources and relationships already in place. I won’t have to waste time building relationships and finding resources.
Pelt: I am a good listener, a careful note taker and question everything. My experience has always driven me to ask “why questions” when someone is proposing a new idea. Why do we need to do this? Why do we want to spend the time and money on this? Why is this important to our overall responsibility? I have no experience as an elected official; and if elected, I would not be interested in a second term. The job of county commissioner needs to have a greater turnover, fresh ideas and greater diversity.
Vanatta: My experience in a leadership role is definitely a plus for the position of county commissioner. My involvement in the communities, my knowledge of Wilson County and my experience with the chamber will benefit me serving as an elected official in Wilson County. I have served on the Ag Management Committee and the Joint Economic Development Board for several years and attend most of the county commission meetings. I have learned a lot about Wilson County, and I believe my experience will be beneficial in this position.