The two candidates facing off in the District 3 race in Columbia County could not be more different.
On one side there is Gary Richardson, owner of the Sparkle Express Car Wash, who has lived in Columbia County for more than 20 years and knows just about everyone in town.
Then, there is retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Greg Grzybowski, who’s had two different tours of duty at Fort Gordon and says he has “lived off and on” in the county for about 10 years. He, along with his wife and four daughters, purchased their home in District 3 back in 2009.
While Grzybowski admits to being completely new to local government, Richardson has served more than six years on the Columbia County Planning Commission and was appointed as a member of the county’s growth management plan “Vision 2035” steering committee. He and his wife, a retired Columbia County school teacher, have also been extremely active in the school system serving on parent advisory boards and booster clubs through the years.
The two candidates clearly reflect the changing face of Columbia County.
Grzybowski represents the new blood moving into the region every day from all over the country, while Richardson reflects more traditional Columbia County.
But both pledge to listen to the needs and wishes of all residents in District 3 if elected to the Columbia County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 1.
“Well, my birthday is actually Dec. 1, so it’s either going to be a very good birthday present or a not-so-good one, “ Richardson said, chuckling. “It will be what it will be. But, with the six-and-a-half years of service on the planning commission and the last year-and-a-half as vice chair, when the District 3 seat became available I felt like I was ready to step up and fill that seat. To me, it’s very important to give back to the community that has given so much to us.”
Throughout the District 3 race, the rumor has been that Richardson is Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross’ “pick” for the seat.
That gossip began not long after Richardson selected Cross’ former campaign manager, Jean Garniewicz, to help him with his District 3 campaign.
“I don’t know that Ron has publicly endorsed me,” Richardson said, sitting in his campaign office off Columbia Road. “But I think, with my six-and-a-half years of service, all of the commissioners — not just Chairman Cross — they know who I am and they know my thoughts. There are no surprises with Gary Richardson.”
“The main reason I’m running is to provide voters here and residents like myself a choice for someone new,” Grzybowski said, adding that he is committed to meeting with the neighborhoods and hearing the concerns of the residents. “I want folks to believe that somebody can get elected who is going to listen to them. And I mean, honestly listen to them and tell them how they are going to vote before they go to the commission meeting and include them in that decision. I would love to have someone elected like that. If somebody was doing that, I probably wouldn’t run for office. But we just don’t have that right now.”
Every time that he or one of his neighbors have attended a Columbia County Commission meeting in the past, Grzybowski said they found that there was very little information offered to the public.
“The meetings seem to be very routine and preplanned,” Grzybowski said. “The decisions have already been made. I understand a lot of discussion has to go on before the meetings because there is no way in a couple of hours you can cover all the material if that is the first time you are seeing it, so I don’t fault them. I think it is good for the commissioners to review the material beforehand. You have to. But I don’t believe from an outsider’s perspective sitting at a commission meeting you get anything out of it because you don’t know what has gone on beforehand.”
There needs to be more public discussion about a topic so residents can understand what is happening at the meetings, he said.
“Let’s say, the commission is about to vote on rezoning a piece of property and we’ve been discussing this topic with everybody for weeks and weeks and we are ready to vote. I, as a commissioner, would still have a statement at the meeting,” Grzybowski said. “I would say, ‘I just want to let everybody know from District 3, these are the conversations we’ve had, these are the issues we’ve discussed and this is my position.’ That way, you not only have that explanation recorded on the record, but the folks who were gracious enough to come to the meeting, they’ll know what is going on.”
However, Richardson says the commission meetings are the last step in the process and he believes most citizens understand that many of the discussions are held at planning commission meetings or committee meetings.
“A lot of people feel like they are not informed, but you can go to any of the meetings. They are all open to the public,” Richardson said. “There is nothing in secret. It is there listed on the website. The truth is, I don’t think people want to go and sit in commission meetings like in Richmond County for hours and hours on end. Who has time to do that?”
“I think the people of Columbia County are overall very satisfied with the way Columbia County is going and moving forward,” he said. “I’m a citizen talking now. Personally, I think the commissioners in the past have done a good job. They don’t waste a lot of money. Now, we are building a lot of things that some people may not believe we need and there maybe some debt that needs to be paid off before we go to the next project, but, overall, I think all of the things we are building are really things that the citizens of Columbia County want. I don’t think they are wasting tax dollars.”
In fact, when asked about a cover story that Metro Spirit did earlier this year about the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, the county’s department heads and many of their spouses spending $3,571 on one dinner tab at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Savannah, Richardson said he felt it was a justified expense.
Even though that one dinner at more than $3,500 was charged to Columbia County taxpayers using County Administrator Scott Johnson’s county-issued credit card, Richardson said he really didn’t have a problem with it.
“I think some of that was just the name of the restaurant, Ruth’s Chris,” Richardson said. “I think a lot of people it bothered them because it was Ruth’s Chris. If it was John’s Steak House, it might not have been a big deal.”
Richardson said the public also has to consider the circumstances surrounding the dinner and the entire trip.
“Was Ruth’s Chris in the hotel that they stayed? I don’t know,” he said. “If they would have had to put everybody in cabs and hauled them somewhere else, would it have cost $4,000? Unless we know all of the details, it’s hard to say.”
When specifically asked if Richardson felt it was all right for the county to also pick up the tab for the spouses on the trip, he said that he considered it a reasonable expense.
“I will say this, our department heads in Columbia County are as fine as anywhere around. And for them to have a meal with their spouses, I don’t begrudge that. I really don’t,” he said. “They are away from home. They have commission meetings at night. They stay late. I know the department head that I dealt with for planning, he is working on the growth management plan and we were there at 8:30 the other night. So, somebody getting a nice meal, I just don’t know that I have a problem with that.”
Again, Grzybowski felt the exact opposite about the $3,500 meal.
“You can go to Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but if your per diem is $30 for dinner and the price is $60, guess what? You are paying $30 out of your pocket,” Grzybowski said. “And that should be understood. I’ve done that in the military, where, let’s say, it is $40 per diem and we are in San Diego and it is a special night. So, everyone decides they want to go somewhere nice. That’s fine. But if the dinner is $70 for your plate, you cover the other $30.”
And, as far as any spouses are concerned, it should be understood that the government isn’t paying for their meal, he said.
“You pay out of your own pocket for your spouse. Absolutely. Spouses can’t be paid for. That’s ridiculous,” Grzybowski said, laughing. “I don’t understand that. Not only is it politically stupid to do that, if you are going to be a politician, it’s just wrong. You have to protect taxpayers’ money. I am all about keeping money in citizens’ pockets. They are the ones who earned it.”
Another serious issue concerning Grzybowski is the devastating fire that destroyed the Marshall Square retirement community and tragically killed 91-year-old resident Dorothy Carpenter in June.
“From everything I’ve heard and what I’ve personally seen regarding our sheriff’s department and our emergency services, they are pretty top notch in the county. So I think for the purposes of their reaction, I think we should all commend them,” Grzybowski siad. “How the building was constructed and whether it met ordinances or not, I don’t know because I haven’t see the inspection report. But my concern is that it obviously didn’t or if it met the county code, we probably should re-look at the code because how can a fire spread that quickly? And the fact that we still don’t have a report by someone objectively saying, ‘This is what happened. Let’s never let it happen again,’ that really concerns me.”
If elected, Grzybowski said he will make sure the county and its citizens get concrete answers as to what went wrong in Marshall Square.
“If someone is going to get hurt politically over this or financially or if they did something wrong, I don’t care. This is people’s lives,” Grzybowski said. “My wife works for Madison Heights here in Evans and they work with folks suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. While I know these residents at Marshall Square were just retirees and they didn’t have special circumstances that they had to be treated under, some certainly weren’t that ambulatory. We need to make sure, especially when dealing with facilities for children and our elderly, that they are safe.”
Grzybowski feels citizens are having to wait too long to get answers about the circumstances surrounding Marshall Square.
“If something was done incorrectly with the construction of that building, it should be identified and the commission should be all over that,” he said. “We should know already and I don’t understand why we don’t. Why is it taking so long?”
“I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable,” Richardson said. “One person lost their life, which is tragic. Truly, it is tragic. But I think the first responders, the fire department, the police and EMS did a fantastic job because it could have been really, really bad. I’m not making light of the lady who lost her life. Not at all. But everybody did a fantastic job. That could have been a lot worse than what it was.”
As far as the county’s building codes and standards, Richardson was quick to point out that the planning commission has absolutely no role in developing those codes.
“The codes and how it was built, that has nothing to do with us,” Richardson said, referring to the planning commission. “Now, we approved a facility that was for able, active senior living. Now, whether they chose to put somebody who may have been on a walker or something on the third floor, I don’t know. The county had nothing to do with that. That’s a decision made by the owner of the building, at that point.”
But the fire at Marshall Square hasn’t been the only major concern facing Columbia County over the past few years.
When asked about the scandal involving former Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen improperly profiting from tax collection contracts to the tune of more than $160,000, Richardson said her resignation and the resignation of her husband, former Commissioner Charles Allen, was a huge blow to the county.
“I think that was a terrible thing,” Richardson said. “I think Kay and Charles both were longtime public servants of Columbia County and very well respected. I don’t know all the details, but I think it was very unfortunate that it came to them having to step down because they were longtime public servants and a great family name for Columbia County. Charles and Kay Allen are longtime friends of mine.”
When Grzybowski was asked about the major turnover of political leadership in the District 3 seat, first with the resignation of Charles Allen due to the scandal and then sudden resignation of former Commissioner Mack Taylor to run for the District 122 seat, he just shook his head.
“It’s ridiculous,” Grzybowski said, adding he was honored by the fact that more than 900 people voted for him at the polls on Nov. 3. “Most people didn’t think I was going to make it into second place, and I know it was close, but when you realize that 900 plus people put their trust and faith in you with a vote, it is pretty overwhelming especially for someone who is not a politician. It is a humbling experience and I deeply appreciated each and every vote.”
And while he has also heard the rumor about Richardson being Cross’ choice for the District 3 seat, Grzybowski said it doesn’t faze him.
“I don’t personally know Ron Cross and I’ve only just met Gary, but I’ve run into a couple of small cases where I’ve learned who has power around here,” Grzybowski said, chuckling. “For example, I tried to put signs up in certain places and I couldn’t put them there because a particular person owned the property and they weren’t supporting me. Which is perfectly fine. Then, I found out that some business interests owned a particular piece of land and they didn’t want my signs there. That to me is a bit frustrating. Even though I am a big property rights person, individual and business, if all of those groups gang up and support one group, then you kind of have a power block.”
Those kinds of “power blocks” can quickly stifle a campaign, Grzybowski said.
“I won’t say that there is just one power block in Columbia County, but there are definitely very powerful folks in businesses here who seems to want to support certain candidates over others,” he said. “Anybody new certainly doesn’t get the support.”
But Richardson said the reason he has received tremendous support in Columbia County is because he has long served the community, both with fundraisers for charities and his work with the schools and on the planning commission.
“I am all about giving back to the community,” Richardson said. “Just last week, we participated in Grace For Vets, which is a carwash program on Veteran’s Day. We donated 954 of our top washes to veterans last week. I think that is awesome and it shows Gary Richardson and Sparkle Express and the Richardson family are about giving back to the community. We are community. That is what we are.”
In addition, Richardson said the fact that he has only missed two planning commission meetings in his more than six years of service proves he is committed to Columbia County.
“One of the hardest things serving on the planning commission are rezoning issues,” Richardson said. “It is always very, very, very emotional because people have been living somewhere and they’ve known an area being one way and somebody wants to do something different. But I looked at every rezoning that came before us. I studied it. I visited every rezoning that came up in the six-and-a-half years that I was on the planning commission. I went and visited those sites and I didn’t make those decisions without viewing what was going on.”
Richardson said it was important for him to talk to the residents who were facing the rezoning and really see how it would impact them.
“I would walk around and talk to neighbors,” he said. “If I saw a neighbor, I would stop and ask, ‘What do you think about this? Are you good with this? How do you feel about it?’” Richardson said. “I took every one of those decisions very seriously because those are people’s homes.”
When faced with possible zoning changes, Grzybowski agreed that a face-to-face meeting with residents is the only way to determine the correct approach.
“When I look at the neighborhoods along the Washington Road corridor in District 3, like Camelot and Pheasant Run, I can’t help but think of that children’s book, ‘The Little House,’” Grzybowski said, referring to the story by Virginia Lee Burton about a little pink house that first stood in the country, but the city moved closer and closer until it was surrounded by skyscrapers. “Well, we don’t have the skyscrapers yet, but those neighborhoods are in a similar situation. I have real concerns about that.”
As tremendous growth continues throughout the county, the local government needs to be more mindful of the longtime residents and the value of their homes.
“Those homes are those families’ life savings,” Grzybowski said. “Just like my wife and I, all of our money is in our home here. If something happened where we lost that value, it would be devastating. You can’t take those decision lightly and, if elected, I won’t.”