The thing that none of the seven candidates in Columbia County’s two remaining political races are saying is that if former tax commissioner Kay Allen hadn’t found herself in hot water over her dealings with Grovetown and Harlem, all of them would have spent this election on the sidelines. But the double whammy of the double Allen resignation (husband Charles Allen resigned from the Commission the same day as his wife) opened up two offices, and as District 3 candidate Trip Derryberry points out, unless you do really do something wrong, nobody’s going to run against a sitting commissioner – or a tax commissioner, for that matter. When a county is as well off as Columbia County, the power of incumbency is everything.
Derryberry, an 18-year veteran of Columbia County and the owner of Reliable Equipment Rental, has saturated the airwaves with the endorsement of Sheriff Clay Whittle, but has also raised some eyebrows by running as if he were an incumbent himself, saying Columbia County is a great county with great leadership and that it should stay the course.
And while it’s been difficult to find an example of Derryberry being critical of anything in the county – on the traffic problems that plague much of the county, he said, “We can’t be ahead of the game all the time,” and “The roads – it’s just growth and it’ll all shake out” – he is the one candidate that has generated some criticism from other candidates, who have been chipping away at him behind the scenes with accusations of disclosure irregularities that have never really percolated to the surface of the campaign.
Mostly, he’s running on his ability to build relationships – among commissioners, department heads and members of the community.
At the other extreme is retired businessman Brett McGuire, who seems to stand for so much – or against so much – that you’d think he was running for a seat far larger than a commission district.
He makes it quite clear to anyone he talks to, or anyone who remembers past elections, that he’s not a fan of the status quo, particularly the fact that commission decisions seem to happen without a lot of interaction from the community. He points out the inclusion of the $9 million cultural arts center on the current SPLOST list, which he says was a bureaucratic decision that came about without input from the public, and the county’s purchase of the Rhodes Murphy building off of Ronald Reagan Drive – he claims 50 percent of the people he talks to don’t know about it and those that do read about it in the paper after the purchase was complete.
“That’s not the time to find that out,” he says. “People need to know that ahead of time and let their voices be heard.”
He feels that by forming the SPLOST list at a time when District 3 was unrepresented on the commission goes against the idea of a representative government, and he’s particularly pointed in his criticism against the idea of a county hospital, claiming he hasn’t found the support for it in the public that his opponent, Mack Taylor, says he has.
Taylor, an attorney, is a big supporter of the hospital and he builds a case for it by talking about the support he’s hearing for it from voters as he walks the district.
Through commercials and at the various forums and public events, Taylor has made his personal involvement with the voters of District 3 a cornerstone of his campaign. It’s a kind of grassroots campaign and a “listening tour” wrapped up in one, and with it he’s hammering home the message that he’s hearing the concerns of the voters and will act on them accordingly, because it’s all about their views, not his. It’s similar in spirit to McGuire’s plan, only without the implication that he’ll powwow with the voters of the district on each individual issue to come before him.
While supporting the SPLOST list, Taylor has also been critical of the lack of infrastructure projects on it, especially given the degree of growth the county is experiencing. He’s particularly looking for traffic relief along William Few Parkway.
The spoiler in the race is Democrat Floyd Everett, who has failed to articulate a real message other than the fact that he’s coming from a position that expects government to do more than his Republican challengers. His main role will be taking votes away from the others, and with four candidates and no incumbent, most expect a runoff, though each candidate will tell you that they really have no idea what to be expect on Tuesday night.
One thing seems to be clear, however – the midterm election has generated a lot of voter interest, and even if that interest is driven by the Governor’s race, the senate race and the very competitive District 12 congressional race, the candidates for the two local offices are enjoying the chance to be before voters in such a meaningful way.
For tax commissioner, anyone who has seen his signs can tell you Wayne Bridges is a CPA. It’s right there on his sign. Whether that is an important qualification for the job is debatable, but putting it out there so overtly implies that Bridges, the only CPA in the race, believes it is important, or at least that voters will think it’s important.
Like the others, Bridges is vowing to bring integrity and trust to the office, and though that vow has been crippled a bit by the release of a 2003 Columbia County News-Times editorial where Barry Paschal slams Bridges for doing consulting work for a company that won a large contract from the school board while Bridges was its chairman, he doesn’t seem to have suffered to much from it.
Customer service seems to be the agreed upon need for the office, though each candidate has a different way of looking at it. Though the interim tax commissioner closed the Appling office, effectively consolidating operations in Evans, all candidates talk about the need to expand. Thomas Schneider, former CEO of Gold Cross who has experience on the board of tax assessors, feels that convenience is important.
“The commissioners control the budget, but any way we can make it convenient for all the citizens of this county is something we’re all looking to do,” he says.
Schneider’s relationship with the commission, both from his time on the board of tax assessors and with Gold Cross, should be considered a plus, he says, especially given the testy relationship Allen had with the commission.
Les Walden, the youngest candidate, is kind of a hybrid of the other two – an administrator with a background in finance. Currently the finance director at Augusta Christian, the former business owner believes in expanding the office through technology and has consistently made the point that increasing opportunities for the public to conduct business will help rebuild the public’s trust in an office that has been damaged by Allen’s behavior.
And as an administrator at Augusta Christian, Walden says he’s had to develop the same qualities needed to run the tax commissioner’s office: an ability to lead people and an ability work with the outside community.
Whoever is elected tax commissioner, they all acknowledge that the office will get be getting a lot of extra attention, and all say they’re up to the challenge.