O'Neal challenger renews questioning of business dealings

July 26, 1996 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)

 | Page: B3 | Section: B3
545 Words

Hamilton County school board Chairman Ron O'Neal found himself on the defensive Thursday night in a forum for District 1 candidates. The 15-year school board veteran spent part of the evening fending off criticism from one of his challengers, who said it is a conflict of interest for O'Neal's company to provide goods and services to the county. O'Neal, owner of the Ben O'Neal Co. Inc., a heating and plumbing supply wholesaler, and his challengers, Mike Lusk and Lamar Selcer, spent much of the 90-minute forum at Red Bank City Hall telling people about their accomplishments and sounding the themes that have shaped their campaigns. Candidate Bill Eldridge was out of town and did not attend. The incumbent, who has been criticized in the past for his business dealings with county schools, portrayed himself as a school board member who adheres to the law and is an advocate for children and education. "He's just grasping for straws," O'Neal said of Lusk. "It's no different than Mr. Lusk working at the post office. He receives his compensation and the school system takes mail everyday." Selcer, a marketing associate for Robert Orr/Sysco, a national food service distributor, said he didn't have a problem with school board members doing business with county schools as long as the bids and speculations were not rigged to give a particular business a job. "If bids and specs have not been tailored, then I don't have a problem with that," he said. "But you get into a situation where you have to determe if they have been tailored." Over the past few months, the candidates have engaged in a number of forums, but this face-off was the last chance for voters to make a side-by-side comparison of the candidates before election day, Aug. 1. About 30 people turned out for the event, which was moderated by Steve Hunsicker, assignment manager at Channel 9 and vice president of the Chattanooga Press Association. At the forum, members of the audience put questions to the candidates, such as whether teacher salaries ought to be raised and whether the fully elected school board should have input in the superintendent search. The candidates tended to agree on a few issues. On the question about school consolidation, for example, each candidate favored a combined system. But the initial friendly tone of the forum darkened when a member of the audience questioned whether school board members should be involved in doing business with the county schools for which they serve. In 1981, shortly after O'Neal was appointed to the school board, school officials feared that doing business with O'Neal's company -- a representative of manufacturers of many of the boilers used in county schools -- would leave them open for conflict-of-interest charges. But then board attorney Ward Crutchfield ruled that O'Neal's dealings with the county did not break any laws. O'Neal has maintained that although his company gets a commission for goods it sells, there is no conflict of interest becasue his firm sells indirectly, and not directly to the county. But Lusk, a postman, has seized on the issue, calling for O'Neal to exclude himself and his company from doing business with the county schools. "The students of Hamilton County schools deserve something better than greed in a school board member," Lusk has said. District 1 encompasses Northwoods North, Bakewell, Dallas, Falling Water, Flattop Mountain, Red Bank, Sale Creek and Soddy-Daisy.

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