After serving almost 16 years as chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, Ron Cross has earned the nickname of “King of Columbia County.”
For the past four terms, Cross has led Columbia County through tremendous growth and prosperity, the likes of which few counties have ever experienced.
But now there are three new candidates who have announced their intentions to run for the seat currently held by Cross.
Former EMA Director Pam Tucker, District 1 Columbia County Commissioner Doug Duncan and business owner Mark Herbert have all thrown their hats into the ring.
While Cross has not officially made an announcement as to whether he will seek re-election, he has stated on numerous occasions that he will happily make way for the right candidate who comes along to have his seat.
“I have said repeatedly, I will be glad to step aside if there is someone who I felt would be able to have the vision to lead Columbia County like it should be led,” Cross said earlier this year. “If it happens this time, I will gladly step aside. If it doesn’t happen, I may be there on qualifying day.”
Cross made that statement this past spring when only one candidate, Tucker, had announced she planned to run for chair of Columbia County.
Clearly, Cross understands the importance of the chair seat in Columbia County.
Unlike in Augusta-Richmond County, where the mayor is the face of the city government, but has very little power or influence, the chairman in Columbia County is a powerhouse.
Not only does the chairman represent the county in all official functions, he also prepares and presents the commission agenda, conducts all of the board meetings and appoints his fellow commissioners to each of the county’s standing committees.
He also executes all contracts and agreements and is a voting member of each of the four standing committees.
Now, that’s a position that really matters.
At the start of the year, Tucker accused Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson of creating a “hostile work environment” after resigning from her longtime position as EMA director.
While an internal investigation by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence to support Tucker’s claims against Johnson, it attracted a great deal of unwanted, negative attention to Columbia County.
And Cross wasn’t shy about his feelings regarding Tucker’s accusations against Johnson.
“This appeared to be a deliberate attempt to discredit Mr. Johnson and embarrass Columbia County,” Cross said of Tucker during a press conference in May.
Cross insisted Tucker was not behaving like someone who truly cared about Columbia County.
However, Tucker quickly shot back that nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’m not looking for any revenge. I’m not running to just shake things up. I want to truly come in and effect positive change because I love this county and I want the best for it,” Tucker told the Metro Spirit.
“But I’m not naive. Let me tell you something, I fully understand and recognize that I am walking into the world that the good ol’ boys have controlled forever. I am fully aware of that. People say, ‘Don’t underestimate them.’ And I say, ‘Don’t underestimate me.’”
But just last month, the race for chair got a little more crowded with the addition of two more candidates: Doug Duncan and Mark Herbert.
Duncan, who was elected and sworn into the county’s District 1 seat in 2015, says he wants to become chairman of the commission to keep Columbia County moving forward.
“It has become obvious to me that the county is at a critical juncture with all of the massive growth going on,” Duncan said. “And I just perceive I have the right experience and the right knowledge to effectively lead the county.”
His top three goals as commission chair would be to ensure Columbia County gets ranked first in the state among counties in which to do business; improve the county’s infrastructure; and continue to enhance the quality of life for all of Columbia County residents.
“The voters have approved the general obligation bond and the SPLOST projects,” Duncan said. “We need to finish those projects on time and within budget because quality of life matters. A subset of quality life is, you have to throw the fire department in there and the sheriff’s office, as well, because I don’t care how great the schools are and how wonderful the roads are — if we have bad crime, none of that matters. So we have to have a very strong, well-funded sheriff’s department to protect our citizens.”
If he becomes the new chairman of Columbia County, Duncan says he will bring fresh ideas to the table.
“Ron (Cross) has been there a long time, and I just think it is time for new leadership,” Duncan said. “The current guys (commissioners), we work together really well. It is a results-oriented team.”
Duncan said he’s very proud of what the Columbia County Commission has accomplished during his more than two years on the board.
“There is no perfection. I’ve said this before in public, I’ve got no nail holes. Sorry,” Duncan said, pointing to the palms of his hands. “But it is time for new leadership. It’s time to have some laser focus on the issues that matter to the constituents that I’ve spent time with.”
Duncan, who is the vice president of professional and office services at MAU Workforce Solutions in downtown Augusta, said his connections throughout the state and nation will undoubtedly help him fully address the needs of Columbia County.
“I have relationships throughout state government, all the way up to the governor,” Duncan said. “I also have a lot of relationships at the federal level, too. Politics is like business and life. It’s about relationships. I can pick up the phone and call the right people at the right time and hopefully get the results that Columbia County needs.”
Throughout his professional career, Duncan said he also has proven his value to both the state of Georgia and South Carolina.
“In 2012, I had been involved in rewriting the unemployment laws of the state of South Carolina,” Duncan said, adding that after working with South Carolina, he realized that Georgia could also benefit from his experience. “I reached out to the governor’s staff and reviewed with them what we had done in South Carolina, and the governor asked me to help rewrite the laws in Georgia.”
Duncan said his leadership and work with the governor’s staff helped to save Georgia billions of dollars in the future.
“We now have a $1.4 billion surplus,” Duncan said. “So that was removing some of the burden off of business. Therefore, having that seat at the table, we helped the state be solvent.”
Due to his influence across the state and his contacts within the national government, Duncan’s name has been bounced around and mentioned as a possible candidate in other races for the state Legislature.
But Duncan said he isn’t ready to consider any of those options.
“Not at this time,” he said. “I believe I can have a greater impact locally. At this time, this is my focus. I believe if we have a clear vision going forward that Columbia County’s future is so bright. It is exciting.”
When asked to describe Cross’ leadership style over the years, Duncan was highly complimentary of the current chairman’s service.
“Ron is very thorough and strong,” Duncan said. “He has been doing it like 16 years, so he knows the system. He has good relationships, too.”
However, Duncan thinks he is ready to take over the reins in Columbia County.
And, as far as any possible tension between his opponent, Pam Tucker, and her past disputes with Cross or County Administrator Scott Johnson, Duncan said he doesn’t intend to debate any of those matters.
“Everything that happened earlier this year, that’s drama from the past,” Duncan said, referring to Tucker’s accusations against Johnson. “It was extremely thoroughly vetted. So I have no intention of rehashing any of that. Not on my platform or not on my watch. Not at all.”
But Duncan said he is extremely excited about the idea of publicly debating both Tucker and Herbert in the near future regarding matters facing the county.
“Yes. I relish the opportunity,” Duncan said. “I’m focusing on the issues. I spent a significant amount of time over the last three months talking to residents, talking to voters, and I’m fairly confident that I know the issues that matter.”
While Herbert might be a new candidate in the race, he is a longtime builder and businessman in Columbia County.
“I have been a resident of Columbia County for the last 55 years and a Columbia County business owner since 1978,” Herbert stated on his campaign’s website.
“In 1991, I helped restructure the Columbia County Construction Advisory Board, serving as chairman or vice chairman on five occasions. I have also served the county on the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce as Secretary and Executive Committee member.”
In fact, Herbert was honored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce in 2015 when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the chamber’s 10th annual Banquet and Red Carpet Gala at the Columbia County Exhibition Center.
“Unbelievable, a lifetime achievement award. It seems my life is flashing before my eyes,” Herbert told the audience in 2015, according to The Columbia County News-Times.
During the gala, he recalled applying for his first construction loan at age 19 and attributed his success to the support of the community, the love of his family and his faith in God.
“Believe me, he forgives sinners,” Herbert reportedly said. “I just show up on time dressed and ready to play, and great things happen.”
Herbert says he is running for chair of Columbia County to “help make Columbia County the best it can be” for his grandchildren and future generations.
“Over the years, I have donated land, money and houses to various groups around the community including 54 acres to the city of Grovetown,” Herbert stated. “As a builder, I have helped several organizations, churches and public entities remodel and rebuild some of their existing facilities. I have helped fund a scholarship for Evans High School and have supported the Fort Gordon Soldier Morale Fund.”
Herbert says his dedication to Columbia County over the past 55 years makes him the best candidate for the job.
“Columbia County is a special place, and investing in the county is very important to me,” Herbert stated. “As a father of four and grandfather of six, I want to bring responsible leadership to this county through strong personal values, action-oriented planning and transparent operation.”
However, Tucker says her 39 years of public service in both Augusta-Richmond County and Columbia County gives her all the experience necessary to be the next commission chair.
In fact, following her 18 years of service with Columbia County, Tucker says she knows what it means to work hard for the taxpayers.
“I was a born leader. I was born to have a problem and to find a solution. I don’t have unsolved problems,” Tucker said.
“You have to take time, you have got to be dedicated, you have to be on the job, and that was me. I took it seriously. And, yes, I do take taxpayer money seriously.”
Tucker says there is no one in the county who will work harder than she will for its citizens and provide the entire county with positive leadership.
“If elected, I am going to share the power of the seat of the chair with the other four commissioners because, right now, it is not like that,” Tucker said, referring to Cross. “The other four commissioners don’t have a voice. That needs to change.”
All she needs is the grassroots support from Columbia County citizens, and Tucker said she will proudly and honorably serve as the next commission chair.
“This is the right time for me, and I want to do this. This is in my heart,” Tucker said, adding that she has lived in Columbia County for 37 years and wants to see the county prosper for her two grandchildren. “I think the citizens of this county deserve better, and I’m going to give them better. I will never let them down.”
But Duncan says that as a sitting commissioner, a private businessman and a community leader, he is the most well-rounded candidate for the job.
“I think it is experience. I have got a lot of private sector experience that is focused on getting people jobs. I also have years of being the chair of the development authority, so I have been involved in the process for a long time,” Duncan said. “But now I have elected official experience, too. So I have had a seat at all three tables, and I know how they operate. I will be 55 in December, and I know enough about developing relationships to get things done.”