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The first forum
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In a packed house on Thursday night, local Trousdale County candidates were given an opportunity to address constituents at a candidate forum that was held at Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville.

Along with others, the candidates from the mayoral race shared their visions with voters.

Incumbent mayor Stephen Chambers conveyed his plans for the future of Trousdale County as part of his re-election campaign.

“I am currently a lawyer here in the state of Tennessee,” said Chambers. “I have been practicing mainly criminal law, so that has given me some insight into working with the sheriff’s department. While I’ve been in office, I’ve been working on putting plans in place to develop as we go forward, particularly to deal with our growth. We (have fallen) a little behind in some of our infrastructure, like many other places in the United States. I am doing things toward infrastructure growth ... (we’re) working on a 20-year master plan for the water department right now. We have to address our sewer system.”

Chambers also spoke of downtown revitalization.

“We are working on reviving the downtown area,” Chambers said. “In working with the industrial development board, we hired a consulting firm that helped us put together a plan to revitalize downtown. We are working on doing retail recruitment, using that same consulting firm called Retail Strategies. If you get more restaurants and more shopping, it gives people a place to go. It also creates jobs for locals.

“I have an open-door policy. I you want to come see me. My door is open anytime.”

Chambers is being opposed in the mayoral race by county commissioner Bill Fergusson and professional speaker and writer Jack McCall.

“I grew up in Smith County,” said McCall. “I got to see a very conservative part of the world. I’m a middle child, which means I’m a negotiator. (While growing up), we lived a very conservative lifestyle. I consider myself a fiscal conservative. I am committed to understanding the importance of spending of other people’s money.”

Additionally, McCall emphasized the importance of clear communication with constituents.

“Communication is the key,” said McCall. “When I worked for the (Tennessee) Department of Agriculture, Tennessee was the most conservative department of agriculture in America. My boss — whenever there was a change handed down from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) — would start across the state of Tennessee talking to all the people that would be impacted by the change. Finally, when the USDA would enforce the change, at that time he would have already communicated to everyone what was going on. Everyone knew what to expect, and we rolled out the plan. There were no problems. Communication is the key.”

Instead of seeking re-election as a county commissioner in district eight, Fergusson — a realtor and small business owner — is also vying for the office of mayor.

“I hope my past experiences, my views, and my vision for Trousdale County will resonate with some of you,” said Fergusson. “I’m hoping to be the person to fill that spot as your mayor. I know the choice will not be an easy one for some people.”

Fergusson is a graduate of Austin Peay State University. He has experience in education and business.

“Upon graduation, in 1987, from Austin Peay State University, I packed up my bags and went to Savannah, (Georgia),” said Fergusson. “It was probably the best thing I ever did. I grew up. (In Savannah), I was a school teacher.

“I (was) in the sporting-goods industry for over 20 years as a multi-sales state representative. I also worked as a regional manager for the Southeast. I’m currently a realtor, and I own a small medical business.”

As a county commissioner, Fergusson has served on 12 separate committees and has chaired or vice-chaired several of those committees.

“I have been a commissioner for the last 16 years,” said Fergusson. “I have been elected four times out of district eight. I think (my) credentials will serve me well as your next mayor.”

On Tuesday, local candidates had another opportunity to speak to voters at a second candidate forum, sponsored by the Hartsville Chamber of Commerce and held at the Trousdale County Courthouse.

Commanding the court

When Hartsville resident Mike Bennett is out and about around town, he is not difficult to recognize.

Bennett is a husband, father, retired military veteran, and a junior vice commander at Hartsville’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post.

He is 6-foot-10 and can usually be found on the city tennis courts faithfully practicing his game in his wheelchair five days a week.

Bennett and his wife, Raquel, moved to Hartsville two years ago.

“What brought me here (to Hartsville) was when I joined the Army I was stationed at Fort Campbell,” said Bennett. “When I got injured in 2012, I was receiving treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. We lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, and were traveling back and forth to Jacksonville, Florida, for my treatments usually two or three times a month. It just got overwhelming to where we moved to Jacksonville for five years. Once the treatments were done, we felt like Tennessee was our home, since we had (previously) lived here for 11 years.

“We always knew that we wanted to live in the Tennessee hills. We wanted to have some property. So, when the opportunity came here in Hartsville to have a little bit of land and have a nice house, we jumped on it. It’s been the best decision we’ve ever made. We love Hartsville and Trousdale County. It’s just perfect for us.”

Bennett served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army for a total 21 years.

“I was in the Marines stationed out of Camp Pendleton in California,” said Bennett. “I was in the Marine Corps for 10 years. I also served with the Army for 11 years, stationed at Fort Campbell just up the road here. When I was in the Marine Corps, I did two six-month deployments overseas to multiple countries. With the Army, I went to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice.”

While serving in Afghanistan, Bennett contracted a blood-born disease that resulted in paralysis.

“What I have is called Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) paralysis,” said Bennett. “What happened was while I was in Afghanistan, I contracted some type of blood-born disease. It started in my toes and then started making my feet and ankles go numb. I was in the country for about nine months when this started happening. At about month 11, I had no more feeling in my feet all the way up to my ankles. They just couldn’t explain what was going on.

“I did stay in country about 13 months, in Afghanistan. After that I was just not able to do my job anymore. I could barely stand. They were going to send me to Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center), but I opted not to go. I was coming up on 19 years of service, and I really didn’t want to get medically processed out of the military. I wanted to retire. So, I got sent back to my unit at Fort Campbell.”

As the paralysis progressed up to his waist, Bennett was confined to a wheelchair.

“At Fort Campbell, I started talking with the higher-ups in my unit and tried to find a job within an infantry unit that I could do out of a wheelchair,” said Bennett. “It turns out that I was able to become the school’s non-commissioned officer (NCO), where I was sending people to ranger school, air assault school, and pathfinder school. This was a desk job, but it was in an infantry unit. I did that for another 2 1/2 years until I could get my full retirement.”

In 2015, Bennett retired from the Army as a sergeant. Since his retirement, Bennett has discovered a pastime that keeps him very busy.

“After separation from the military, I met another gentleman in a wheelchair, another veteran,” said Bennett. “He said, ‘Have you ever played wheelchair softball?’ I said, ‘I’ve never even heard of that. I don’t play sports at all. I’ve never played any sports. I’ve never played basketball, even though I’m 6-10 and 300 pounds, or anything utilizing my size.’

“There’s an organization that’s based out of Guthrie, Kentucky, called the National Wheelcats. They recruited me. It’s a national team that recruits for different types of sports. They recruited me to be the centerfielder on a softball team. I joined it and found out that I was pretty good at it. Using my size, we did really good and won the Wheelchair World Series two years in a row. Although I really enjoyed it, I was on another team. When I think back to the Marines and the Army, those were teams ... a group of guys out trying to complete the mission to win the trophy per se.”

After being part of a team for so many years, the pursuit of an individual sport began to sound good to Bennett.

“While I was playing wheelchair softball, a guy by the name of Rick Slaughter came up to me,” said Bennett. “He had been playing wheelchair tennis for 54 years. He (Slaughter) said, ‘Hey, have you ever considered playing wheelchair tennis?’ I said, ‘Tennis? I’ve got a big ole beard. I’m covered in tattoos, and I’m 6-10. Do you really want to see this on a tennis court?’

“I went out the first night and played some tennis in my chair, and I fell in love with it. The reason I fell in love is because it was just based off of my performance. It was 100% an individualized sport where if you put in 100%, you get 100% out. I also found out I was pretty darn good at it.”

In a short time, Bennett has made quite a name for himself in wheelchair tennis.

“I joined the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and started competing on a professional level,” said Bennett. “At first, I was getting beat non-stop. That humbled me. I wasn’t getting beat by people who had been playing for 50 years. I was getting beat by people who had been playing the same amount of time as me. I was seeing the difference in what they were doing and what I was doing. I was practicing a couple of days a week, where they were practicing five days a week, and they had better equipment. Once I started really investing and putting my mind and my body toward the game, things started changing really fast. I’ve really, really progressed in the past eight months.”

Bennett has been competing in tournaments all over the country, which has placed him as the top seed in the state of Tennessee in wheelchair tennis.

“Earlier this year, I played in Baton Rouge, Louisiana ... it was called the Cajun Classic,” said Bennett. “It was an international tournament where there were players from all over the world, 162 players. I went in ranked 270 and came out No. 1. I am currently ranked No. 1 in Tennessee. I’m No. 2 in the South, and I’m No. 3 in the entire nation. This year has really been an amazing year for me as far as wheelchair tennis.”

Tomorrow through Sunday, Bennett will compete in the Music City Classic at the Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville. It is one of several tournaments in which Bennett will be competing this year.

“I will also be playing in Hilton Head, South Carolina, this year,” said Bennett. “I will be playing down in Florida in a couple of tournaments. I’m trying to make it out to San Diego in December to play. There are quite a few more tournaments.”

As Bennett looks to the future, he has a goal.

“This is my goal ... I want to see myself making it to the Olympics,” Bennett said. “I would love that, to make it to the Paralympics. The next one that I could probably be able to make it to if I keep progressing would be Paris 2026. That’s four years from now. If I’ve only been playing 2 1/2 years. I think I’m doing pretty good. I have not qualified for the Olympics, but that’s a goal of mine. I would love to have that feeling again, to represent my country. I did it for 21 years in the military. Now, I’ll be a soldier of tennis and represent my country, my city, my county, my family, and my friends.”

CoreCivic seeks to silence Nashville attorney

Since the 2016 opening of Tennessee’s newest and largest prison — Hartsville’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center — the facility has had public image and staffing issues.

CoreCivic — the non-profit, private prison company that runs Trousdale Turner— is currently being sued over the death of former inmate Terry Childress. The suit alleges that understaffing at the prison was a key factor in Childress’ death.

Childress was killed in February of 2021, leaving his family to question how and why this happened.

Gussie Newby, mother of Childress, hired Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz to represent her in a $10-million lawsuit against CoreCivic.

Horwitz has publicly made statements on social-media platforms — such as Twitter and Facebook — regarding ongoing litigation with CoreCivic. Thus, CoreCivic is requesting that a gag order be issued to quiet the attorney, fearing that his comments may unjustly prejudice a future jury.

Though Public Affairs Manager for CoreCivic Matthew Davio did not respond verbally to the Vidette‘s request for an interview, he did respond by email saying, “It is important to us that matters of litigation are decided within the court system and not in the press or social media. Our filing speaks for itself, and we are hopeful the court will agree.”

Regardless of CoreCivic’s wish that he remain silent, Horwitz stands firmly on his belief that his comments are protected by the First Amendment as he refers to Trousdale Turner Correctional Center as a “hell hole” and CoreCivic as “cartoonishly evil.”

In a statement on Twitter, Horwitz said, “There is no reason to be scared of this cartoonishly evil prison corporation unless you are an inmate housed at one of its chronically understaffed facilities. If you or a loved one has been a victim of CoreCivic’s deliberate indifference to the health and safety of the inmates in its care, I encourage you to contact a lawyer, contact a regulator, contact a reporter, and contact your elected representative.”

On June 17, Horwitz posted on Twitter, “We just sued CoreCivic again this week.” The new suit involves a different CoreCivic facility over another inmate’s death.

Budget passes on first reading

Since early May, the Trousdale County Budget and Finance Committee has held budget hearings regarding the 2023 fiscal year budget as it visited and revisited multiple budgetary items.

In back-to-back meetings, the budget and finance committee and the Trousdale County Commission met on Monday night at the Trousdale County Courthouse, with the commission passing the budget on its first reading by the conclusion of the evening.

During the earlier meeting, the budget and finance committee tied up loose ends to the 2023 budget and sent it on to the Trousdale County Commission, which met immediately following the meeting.

Then, during the second meeting of the night, the Trousdale County Commission approved items sent over from the budget and finance meeting and executed the first reading of the 2022-23 fiscal year budget.

“Our reason for being here tonight is our first reading for fiscal year 2023,” said Trousdale County Commission Chairman Dwight Jewell. “This has been kicked around for several months and came out of budget and finance. This (budget) begins July 1, 2022, and is ending June 30, 2023.

“This will be our first reading. We will — at our meeting next Monday night — take up our second and third reading, if possible, so we can get our budget finished this time.”

The Trousdale County Commission is required to do three readings of the budget. With the first reading of the 2022-23 fiscal year budget completed and approved on Monday night, the commission will attempt to complete the second and third readings next Monday in order to meet the June 30 deadline.