COLUMBUS -- Sparks flew between some of the candidates at the second of a series of two candidate forums sponsored by the Cherokee County News-Advocate and local chambers of commerce.

The second forum, co-sponsored by the Columbus Chamber of commerce took place at the Columbus Community Building last Thursday.

There was some tension between Cherokee County Clerk Candidates Crystal Gatewood (D-Columbus), the incumbent, and challenger Rodney Edmondson (R-Baxter Springs.)

Questions had arisen after the August primary election about the way the electoral system in Cherokee County is run. Gatewood insisted there were no problems and the system works as designed.

Edmondson had questioned the practice of the county clerk, who is also the county election officer in Kansas, picking up absentee ballots from the post office -- particularly when that official is on the ballot.

Gatewood said that has not happened in this election.

"I don't go get the ballots," she said. "I haven't picked up the ballots this election. The advance ballots are dealt with by one person in my office and they are not opened until election day."

She noted the voting machines purchased during her term in office are electronic and count the ballots as they are cast.

"Those things are almost 100 percent accurate," Gatewood said.

Edmondson took issue with "almost 100 percent as well as having just one person dealing with advance ballots."

"Almost 100 percent is not good enough for me," Edmondson said. "If only one person is handling the advance ballots that's not the county clerk ... I don't agree with that, why put my employee or my staff in the position to face the question 'did something happen?'

"I'll be the first to admit we want to trust everyone 100 percent, but unfortunately we can't always do that."

Gatewood shot back that there is more than one set of eyes on the advance ballots.

"That one employee that does the advance ballots has my eyes overseeing them because I am the county election officer," she said. "Everything has double eyes. Someone in the office sees it as well as I do. My workers at the polling places, I have to account for what they do. If they make a mistake I have to catch it."

There was also some fire between county attorney candidates Melanie Bingham (D-Baxter Springs, and Nathan Coleman (R-Columbus.)

Both are vying for the seat recently vacated by County Attorney John Bullard, who was not running and resigned last week, effective Nov. 9.

Bingham said her No.1 priority would be to up the prosecution levels.

"We need to have a county attorney in there that's going to do the job to aggressively prosecute criminals," said Bingham, who was appointed as special assistant county attorney by Bullard two months ago, adding the office needs to "have a good teamwork effort with the sheriff's department, with children's advocacy center, with DCS and with our public schools, we have to have this teamwork with all of these people to get something done. It has been a really long time since we've had a good system in the county attorney's office and it is time for a change."

Coleman said his first priority was similar.

"(We need to) Restore integrity to the office," he said. "It's been too long. How do we do that? Hard Work and experience is how we get there."

Coleman noted he has been an attorney for 10 years and has been a special prosecutor for several, as well as a defense attorney.

It was that experience Bingham, who said she's been in prosecution for almost two years -- ever since getting her law degree, adding she became a lawyer specifically to be a prosecutor.

She said that local law enforcement does not trust Coleman because "he's been on the side of the criminals" as a defense attorney.

He responded by saying that being a defense attorney has given him experience on both sides of a case.

"The best offense is to know the defense, the best defense is to know the offense," he said.0" It's nothing but a benefit to the people of Cherokee County that I know criminal law."

Both said they would work to enforce truancy issues, something Bingham, who is a Baxter Springs School Board member, said was near and dear to her heart.

"Truancy is a very important issue. I want to commend everyone who was involved our commissioners and the school districts for putting some money in that account," she said.

State truancy funding was recently cut and all four school boards in the county as well as the county commission guaranteed funding for the local truancy program for at least the next year.

"We all need to step up and do our part," Bingham said. "If the parents are not getting their kids to school we do have to step up and prosecute this. We need to get these kids to school and help them be successful.

Coleman concurred.

"The county attorney's position has the opportunity of enforcement," he said. "We've got to make sure our youth are getting to school and if they're not we have to hold the parents accountable."

Because of prior commitments, incumbent District 2 Commissioner Jack Garner, (D-Columbus), was unable to attend the Oct. 12 forum in Baxter Springs, but was at the Columbus Forum.

He and challenger Charlie Napier, (R-Columbus), both said their top priorities are taxes and economic development

"My number one priority would be our tax base and personal property taxes," Napier, who has previously served on the commission said. " If elected I would work real hard is to lower the mill levy."

Garner, likewise said taxes are a major priority as well as the continued growth of the county tax base.

"What we're working on is getting growth for Cherokee County," he said. "We've got a lot of potential over in the southeastern part of the county now. Galena is doing a great job of building up over there. We're working on getting some water and sewer down in the southeast part of the county.

"If we can do that it'll generate great income and will be great growth for the future of Cherokee County."

Also in attendance were County Treasurer Candidates Juanita Hodgson (D-Columbus) and Charlene Hunley (R-Baxter Springs) and Register of Deeds Candidates Barbara Bilkie (R-Baxter Springs) and Tammie Speer (D-Columbus). County commission candidates Richard Hilderbrand (R-Baxter Springs), and Gary Allen, (D-Baxter Springs), did not participate because their district does not comprise Columbus.

Additionally, State Senate Candidate Jake LaTurner, (R-Baxter Springs) spoke briefly between the debate between State Rep. Candidates Mike Houser (R-Columbus) and Grant Randall (D-Galena) and the candidate forum.

Full audio is available at