Jim Bartley will never apologize for who he is. To him, that would be like apologizing for breathing.
“I’m not afraid of anybody,” Bartley said, sitting in living room of his four-bedroom home that he built himself in Highgrove. “I have been taking on this government for a long time. I will take on these same people again and I will run for chairman of the Columbia County Commission. Why? The truth is, I did not go asking to run. People came to me and said I had to run.”
His friends and supporters insist that no one would be better suited to serve as chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners than Bartley, a local builder and longtime, outspoken political activist.
“I can’t be bought. I can’t be controlled,” Bartley said, while sitting on his sectional leather couch with his laptop in front of him on the coffee table.
Every 10 or 15 minutes he would pause and quickly check to see how the stock market was fairing.
“I have about $100,000 that I’m watching this morning,” Bartley said, explaining that he wakes up every morning and heads upstairs to a his small gym where he starts his regular exercise routine at 7:15 a.m. He then walks downstairs for a morning filled with monitoring his stocks and deciding whether it’s time to buy or sell before the closing bell at 4 p.m.
“I realize if I run for office, my critics are going to come at me with everything they’ve got,” Bartley said smiling. “But this is a little county commission. There ain’t nobody who has got enough money in this county to buy me. I have way too much money for that. Somebody can’t buy me to look the other way. No way.”
This Augusta native and graduate of Aquinas High School moved to Columbia County in 1978. By 1984, he had started his own business, Bartley Homes.
“I didn’t have a clue,” Bartley said, laughing. “Back then, I was really naive. I thought you could trust the government and I thought you could trust banks. I never thought when things went wrong with the economy, like what they did in 1987, they wouldn’t be there to work with you since they all helped you get where you were. But I found out very quickly that your banker is never your friend and the government is never your friend. That’s when I became an activist.”
Known throughout Columbia County’s government as the man with an open records request always in his hand, Bartley is proud of the fact that he searches for the truth in a county that seems more comfortable operating behind closed doors rather than in front of its citizens.
“The nontransparency of this government has made me aware that there are some very, very deep dark underlying problems in Columbia County,” Bartley said, explaining that the county’s soil and erosion issues alone are completely out of control. “It is going to be a very big, daunting task to fix those problems. But I will guarantee you, if you elect me, at the end of those four years, the soil and erosion problems we have in Columbia County will be gone. We will not have the EPD knocking on our door. It will not happen on my watch.”
Every time Bartley drives to the Jones Creek Golf Club and subdivision, he is infuriated by the county’s lack of action.
In 2011, the Savannah Riverkeepers and the owners of Jones Creek Golf Club filed a federal lawsuit against Columbia County and other entities, including CSX Transportation, claiming the club’s waterways, especially Willow Lake, have been harmed by excessive sedimentation.
Many homeowners insist that Columbia County did not properly enforce the rules for erosion control.
“It is very simple,” Bartley said. “If I’m building on a job site and if my water leaves my property and runs onto the county’s property or your property and if it does damage, I’m liable. I’m liable to clean it up. That’s not up for debate.”
But, instead of taking responsibility, Bartley said the county appears to be hiding behind its lawyers.
“What’s going on at Jones Creek is deplorable and should have been stopped immediately,” Bartley said, shaking his head. “That water belongs to Columbia County. It is their responsibility not to allow it to go into your property and do damage. It’s doing a lot of damage. And it’s wrong. It is just plain wrong.”
The more Bartley began discussing the issue, the louder his voice got and his face began to flush.
“I’m sorry, but it is depressing when you realize the deeper you get into this, the more problems exist up there,” Bartley said, adding the current Columbia County commissioners should be ashamed of themselves. “They want to say, ‘There isn’t any problems. There is nothing. Look, we have a good park. Everything is good and fine.’
But, no. This is not Alice in Wonderland. You have to face facts.”
That is exactly what his campaign is all about: Shedding light on the serious issues facing Columbia County, Bartley said.
“If people don’t want to know what is going on in this government, you ain’t got to vote for me,” he said. “But if you want to know what is going on, vote for me and you are going to find out.”
Bartley promises he won’t just tell you what is going on in the government. He will show you with the proper documentation to back up what he says.
“I tell this to people all the time: If you believe what I’m saying, you are a fool,” Bartley said, laughing. “If I don’t show you in writing, in black and white, where it comes from, you are an idiot because I could be lying to you. If Jim Bartley says something, you can bet 99 times out of 100 it is gospel because I will have the documents to back it up.”
And as Bartley has proven through the years, he knows how to uncover a paper trail to the truth.
“People won’t get in my way,” Bartley said. “I am going to do what I know to be right, backed up with facts and figures. You are not going to control me.”
As far as the other commissioners are concerned, Bartley said he is not afraid to stand alone if necessary.
“I am not the kind of person who is going to sit there and raise their hand like a little second grader and wait to be recognized,” he said. “After I have raised my hand to get recognized and I see the person is purposely not trying to recognize me because they don’t want to hear me, they are going to realize you are not going to shut me down.”
Will such an attitude make Bartley the loose cannon on the Columbia County Commission if elected? He insists that it won’t.
“Some people may say that I’m rude. Yeah. Okay. Well, in that case, I guess I am because I say what I mean,” Bartley said. “After all, I am not worried about being fired. I don’t have a corporate job. I’m not worried about somebody calling me in the office tomorrow to tell me to tone it down. The only person who could fire me is me.”
While some people claim Bartley is impolite, others go further to say he has an out-of-control temper. Bartley insists he is simply passionate about what he stands for and being insistent is just his nature.
“I have red hair and I am 100 percent Irish Catholic,” Bartley said. “We are known for standing our ground. We are not going to back up if we know we are right.
“The truth is, you are going to have to kill me to make me shut my mouth. Is that wrong? I don’t think so because I have to live with myself.”
So, if he is elected, Bartley said the other Columbia County commissioners may discover that their big leather high-back chairs might not be as comfortable with him on the board.
“I am going to shake things up,” Bartley said. “We aren’t going to have a meeting in the back room to set the agenda and come out and say, ‘We are going to approve everything on the consent agenda.’ Something stinks there.”
Those kinds of actions keep the public completely in the dark, Bartley said.
“When you can complete county commission meetings in 30 minutes, something is wrong,” Bartley said. “Especially if you have nothing but unanimous votes and the consent agenda is approved somewhere else. That’s a problem.”
While Columbia County commissioners often ridicule the Augusta Commission, Bartley says they could learn a thing or two from officials in Richmond County.
“You might not like what is going on in Richmond County, but it’s open,” Bartley said. “You know what is going on down there. You know where everything is hiding and that’s the way it should be. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Knowledge helps solve the problems, Bartley said, adding that he is a problem solver.
One of the first major solutions that Bartley says he was involved in was “cleaning up” the inspection department in 1999.
“At the time, we had no certified inspectors,” Bartley said. “They came from the maintenance shop, they came from anywhere they wanted to put somebody. It was terrible. It was the Wild West back then. So I took on the county government single- handedly. And I took on the home builder’s association with all its muscle, might and money and I won.”
Bartley demanded that job sites have dumpsters, which had to be containers approved by the federal government, so that trash wouldn’t be spread all around a neighborhood.
“Then, the county didn’t require port-o-lets,” Bartley said. “So, all the workers, wherever they could find a tree, they did their business. So I forced the county to require port-o-lets on job sites. I did that. Nobody wanted that. I was threatened to be put out of business because of it.”
The developers and many home builders didn’t want those requirements and the government didn’t want to enforce the rules because “they were in the pockets of the developers and they still are,” Bartley said.
“Nobody liked it because it was adding cost to the jobs, but it was the law under environmental regulations,” Bartley said. “They were supposed to do these things and I made them do it. So I have been disliked by all the powerful people in this county, but I’m still here.”
Another major improvement to the county that Bartley says he was involved in was getting the county to hire Richard Harmon, Columbia County’s longtime director of its Development Services Division.
Harmon was brought in to help with the county’s Insurance Services Office rating, Bartley said.
“At the time we brought him in, the county had a 10 rating with 10 being the worst and one being the best,” Bartley said. “Under Richard Harmon, we got to a four. We saved everybody money.”
Harmon completely turned around that department, but then county officials decided to “set him up for failure,” Bartley said.
“Richard Harmon was the most respected building official in two states,” Bartley said. “Every time he testified in court, he won. You couldn’t beat him. When he spoke it was gospel.”
But then the county decided to put Harmon in charge of the county’s soil and erosion division, Bartley said.
“Richard had no training for that,” Bartley said. “Then, they put Richard over planning and zoning. There was a whole person running that department, but now Richard is running three different departments that used to be run by three different people.”
The county kept piling more and more work on Harmon and it was simply impossible for one man to handle that workload, Bartley said.
“Then, Richard was put over engineering,” Bartley said. “The rules in the county didn’t say that somebody had to be an engineer to be over the engineering department, so Richard was put over engineering.”
It was a train wreck waiting to happen, Bartley said.
“Richard is the type of person that could never say no to anybody and they destroyed him,” Bartley said. “When things started to fall through the cracks, they were immediately pointing fingers and saying, ‘Richard did this. Richard did that.’ So Richard left. He said, ‘You are not blaming me for this.’”
Harmon abruptly resigned from his position in October after working for Columbia County since 1999.
“They set him up for failure. No one man can do all that. This is the second-largest growing county in the state of Georgia. It had to fail,” Bartley said. “Richard did a hell of a job, but boy they set him up.”
Columbia County has a way of attacking loyal employees before getting the full story, Bartley said.
A perfect example is the allegation against Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen that she improperly profited from contracts to collect taxes for Harlem and Grovetown, Bartley said.
“I don’t have an opinion on Kay Allen because I am also a defender of the process,” he said. “The woman has not been charged with anything. A rush to judgment is something that I fight all the time. So I do not formulate opinions without facts and all the facts are not known in this. That is why we have a legal process.”
Whether voters will support Bartley against current Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who last month announced he will seek a fourth term as chairman, is still the big question.
But Bartley says he is not fighting against Cross. Instead, Bartley believes that no one should serve four terms in the same position. There needs to be change, he said.
“That’s too long,” he said. “I can’t support that.”
However, some people have pointed out that, back in 2010, when Cross faced another challenger for the chairmanship in retired Appling businessman Brett McGuire, many believed that Bartley was fighting against Cross behind the scenes.
Bartley was involved in an informational campaign provided by the Columbia County Taxpayers’ Council, whose print ads regularly appeared in The Columbia County News-Times.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, the registered agent of the nonprofit corporation is Bartley.
Many thought the ads were critical of Cross, but Bartley insists those ads were created merely to inform the county about issues facing the government.
“As far as the documents put in the newspaper by the Taxpayers’ Council, I don’t classify those as ads,” Bartley said. “They were open record documents. They were court documents. Not one single thing that was put in The Columbia County News-Times under the Taxpayers’ Council ever said to vote for anybody. It had nothing to do with voting. It was just facts and documents and I stand for every one of those.”
Bartley said he used his own money to pay for those documents to be shared with the citizens of Columbia County.
“People needed to know there were serious problems out there,” Bartley said. “But I was not on Brett McGuire’s campaign. I was not on Ron’s campaign either. I did not write Brett McGuire a check, even. I was just putting stuff out there so people would know there was a problem.”
Bartley says he is simply running for chairman of the Columbia County Commission to correct some of the serious issues facing the county. He has also vowed to serve only one term.
“This is me running and I’m not going to say anything negative about Ron Cross because Ron doesn’t run this county. The commissioners do,” Bartley said. “The problems that lie in this county lie with all of them. Ron did not do anything on his own. It takes a vote from all of them.
“They are all responsible and I’m going to hold them responsible. You can believe that.”