JAMES CITY — Democratic candidates running to represent James City County in state and local government invited voters to ask them questions at an open forum Thursday night.

The campaign of Jessica Anderson, who is running against Republican incumbent Amanda Batten for the House of Delegates District 71 seat, hosted a town hall meeting at Bethel Restoration Center on Richmond Road near Lightfoot.

Seven candidates, all of whom are running in contested races, were in attendance: Anderson; Pamela Garner, running to represent Senate District 26; Williamsburg-James City County School Board candidates Damon Walker and Randy Riffle; John McGlennon, a current member of the James City County Board of Supervisors who is running for reelection; former WJCC School Board chair Lisa Ownby, who is running for her first term on the Board of Supervisors; and Richard Bradshaw, who hopes to be reelected as James City County commissioner of the revenue.

Monty Mason, who is seeking reelection to Senate District 24, and WJCC School Board candidate Max Blalock were unable to attend.

The questions posed to candidates — submitted by the roughly three dozen attendees — covered a wide range of topics, with the candidates responding at length to hot-button issues. On the topic of abortion, Anderson and Garner generally expressed support for current Virginia law.

Garner said that the decision on abortion was one that was best made between a doctor and patient. “I support health care,” she said. “Abortion is health care.”

Anderson said that Virginia, as the only southern state with more liberalized abortion regulations, is a sanctuary for women who live in adjacent states with more restrictions, and she would aim to preserve reproductive freedom.

On the issue of gun control, Anderson and Garner again espoused similar views — that Virginia should adopt commonsense firearms laws, such as safe storage requirements. Garner envisioned gun ownership similarly to driving, requiring training and licensure.

Affordable housing was another topic. Ownby framed the issue as a non-negotiable need for essential workers, such as teachers and first responders. McGlennon said that while progress is being made — such as the current construction on the 119-unit affordable apartment complex Blaine Landing in Norge — the issue has no easy or quick solution.

Several candidates identified growth as one of the biggest challenges facing James City County. Bradshaw said that when he grew up in the county, there were 14,000 residents; there are now over 80,000. He noted that the commissioner of the revenue’s office has stayed about the same size through the years. Making sure that county systems are up-to-date ensures that the government can accommodate those new residents, Bradshaw said.

Ownby stressed the need for adequate planning and for considering land uses such as solar farms instead of housing developments. “You can’t stop growth, but you can be smart about it,” she said.

Public schools also elicited strong opinions from the candidates. Ownby, Anderson and Walker, all of whom have experience as a parent of public school children, agreed that the decision on what books children should be allowed to read should best be made by individual parents for their children, not dictated by school boards.

Other forum participants agreed. “I will defend an opt-out policy,” Riffle said.

And on the topic of Williamsburg and James City County separating into two different school divisions, there was broad agreement that the communities would be stronger together.

McGlennon suggested that there was general misunderstanding about why James City County acted to terminate the contract uniting the two jurisdictions — a vote that was later walked back in favor of a more measured approach. “The county was acting on a decision that took us totally by surprise,” he said.

McGlennon said that once the city concludes a study on the split, he suspects that its leaders will discover that the city and county will have a stronger and more cost-effective school system as one.

All the candidates encouraged attendees to vote, with Walker stressing that no one should take the democratic process for granted. “Local elections matter,” he said.

Early voting began Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 4. A local election guide is available at www.dailypress.com/2023/09/21/2023-daily-press-election-guide.

Ben Swenson, ben.swenson05@gmail.com