Editor’s note — This is the third of four stories detailing the four candidates running for Highland County commissioner seats in the Nov. 6 General Election. For a full term seat commencing Jan. 1, 2019, Republican incumbent Jeff Duncan will oppose Democrat John Dale Knauff; and for an unexpired term ending Jan. 1, 2021, Republican Gary Abernathy, who has filled the seat since Shane Wilkin resigned this summer to become a state representative, will oppose Democrat Randy Mustard.
After 15 years of working with government officials and another 15 years working for The Times-Gazette or Press Gazette, Gary Abernathy believes he is the right person to fill the county commissioner seat that opened this summer when former commissioner Shane Wilkin resigned to become a state representative.
“First, my opponent is a good guy, and from everything I have heard a good township trustee. What really convinced me to do this is the 15 years I spent working for this newspaper,” Abernathy told The Times-Gazette. “I covered every government meeting you can imagine … and really the people of Highland County in general, and I feel that gives me a wealth of institutional knowledge about the history of our county.
“I’ve seen what works and I’ve seen what doesn’t work, what kind of approaches work to solving problems and what doesn’t work. I think I’m a leader, but I have learned over the years that you have to build a consensus for ideas on what you want to do, and listen to others, then make a decision. I think I am a decisive person.”
Abernathy was appointed in July by the Highland County Republican Central Committee to fill Wilkin’s seat until the Nov. 6 general election. He said it has been an enjoyable experience.
The biggest issues the county needs to address, Abernathy said, are economic development, an increased law enforcement presence, and the county budget.
“I think there’s more we can do to encourage job providers to come here,” he said of the need for economic development. “I have always said that not everyone leaves Highland County, but a lot of people drive long distances for better paying jobs, and it’s not because they want to. There are good paying jobs here, but we need more.”
He also said more support is needed for law enforcement.
“And not just for the opioid issue, which is a big problem, but to protect life and property in general. I know there’s parts of the county where people don’t feel protected,” Abernathy said. “I’d like to look into giving the sheriff an increase in staff to better cover the county. I’d like to see, whether it’s through the grant we’re still working on, or our own budget, a deputy dedicated to the Rocky Fork Lake area, and I think the sheriff would, too. It’s just a matter of providing the manpower.”
While that could strain an already tight budget, Abernathy said he believes the commissioners need to weigh priorities.
He also said there are good things on the horizon, like Rural King coming to Hillsboro and solar plants possibly locating in the county.
He said another bright spot is Highland County Children Services telling the commissioners that will not require the $800,000 the county has given it the last several years to cover foster care expenses.
“That’s a big deal,” Abernathy said. “And they’re only asking for a renewal levy and not an increased levy… That’s a significant amount of money we can apply elsewhere eventually.”
There is also hope, he said, that more money could be coming to the county from the state.
“The last several years the state has balanced its budget on the back of local government, and hopefully the new administration will restore a lot of those local government funds that were taken away. That will be a big boost if that happens,” he said.
Abernathy said he feels his life experiences have given him a well-rounded perspective of Highland County’s needs. He said he grew up on a local farm, that Highland County is still an agricultural community, “and we need to do everything we can to support farmers… They’re still the lifeblood of Highland County.”
After graduating from Lynchburg-Clay High School, Abernathy eventually served as editor at three Ohio newspapers from 1983 to 1996. He worked in Republican Party politics in Ohio and West Virginia, as well as for an Ohio congressman and two U.S. senators. He returned to journalism in 2011, serving until July 2018 as publisher and editor of The Times-Gazette.
“I never thought I’d be a candidate for public office, but at age 62, and after talking it over with my wife, parents, children and friends, I just came to the decision that I have something to offer with the experience I have, not to mention the 15 years I spent working in government,” he said. “I think I can bring something to the table that might be able to help my home county.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.