It’s a complicated and intriguing series of events that could put Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen into the state senate; so complicated, in fact, that no one is really sure what’s going to happen, or even when it might happen.
“I’ve not heard a thing,” Allen says. “People that I would normally ask are asking me, and I have no idea, so apparently nobody is talking about it.”
While people might not be talking about it in an official capacity, plenty are talking about it in political circles, which in itself is a victory for the Martinez Republican, who many were ready to write off after a string of high-profile and extremely controversial decisions came his way.
For a stretch of time, every controversy in the county seemed attached in some way to him, from the lights at Augusta Prep, which set residents of his own Spring Lakes neighborhood against the school’s desire to install stadium lights for its football field, to a major storm water project that many of his neighbors opposed to the divisive Magnolia Trace housing development, which he voted to approve while being on the board of directors of the Department of Community Affairs, which provided funding for it.
His opponents pointed to each as a harbinger of his demise, yet Allen soundly trounced one of his staunchest critics, Lee Benedict, with 68 percent of the vote in the 2012 Republican primary to win his second term on the commission.
Now, Allen finds himself in the mix for the District 23 state senate seat currently held by Republican Jesse Stone.
Stone ran unopposed in May’s Republican primary, yet he is one of two tapped by the Judicial Nomination Commission to fill the state court judgeship that opened up with the death last January of Judge Jerry Daniel.
Should Governor Nathan Deal pick Burke County solicitor Jackson Cox, a Democrat who appears to be favored by the locals, Stone keeps his seat and Allen remains where he is. But should Deal pick Stone, a Waynesboro attorney who also served as mayor, then the state senate seat is open and Allen, who was Deal’s Columbia County campaign chair in 2010 and, in spite of Karen Handle’s impressive showing in Columbia County that year, is chairing Deal’s campaign again this time around, might be chosen to fill the position, though the details of how that would occur are foggy to just about everyone.
“Originally, I was told four different things,” Allen says. “I got different answers at the time from people in the state party.”
While it seems like a foregone conclusion that Deal would reward a fellow Republican like Stone by appointing him to a coveted state court judgeship (and therefore set in motion the process that would possibly move Allen to the senate), the decision is by no means cut and dried.
Perhaps the biggest hang up is the fact that Stone pushed the controversial private probation bill that Deal vetoed in the last hours of the term.
A supporter of private probation, Stone’s senate campaign received $2,600 from the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen. Stone also received a letter of recommendation for the judgeship by Mike Popplewell, owner of CSRA Probation Services, the private probation firm the court uses to supervise misdemeanor probation.
To some, that support comes close to the ethical line, and many feel that Deal, who came into office with a strong perception of being ethically challenged, might want to steer clear of the ethical questions that could follow politically rewarding Stone.
However, Allen has a relationship with the governor beyond that of being a county commissioner, and there are those in the party who feel Allen would make a better senator for the district.
“I think I could be a good representative for the area, and I think we need a representative from Columbia County,” he says.
The potential to move up the political ladder is attractive to Allen, who says he enjoys holding office.
“I enjoy working for the community,” he says. “I want to make a difference, but I also enjoy it. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I enjoy serving. I enjoy being in office.”
However, should things fall into place for him, you can expect that those same opponents who pushed for his ouster at the county level will resurrect their favorite issue: the lawsuit his landlord filed against him over unpaid rent for his Learning Express toy store.
It’s one of those stories that has remained mostly in the comments section of the Columbia County News-Times and the local political blogs, but it’s been hammered hard, especially by Benedict, who is a frequent commenter and a vocal critic of Allen and most of the commission.
Obviously, a county commissioner who is sued for failing to pay rent is juicy stuff, but Allen contends the facts show that it was more complicated — and less incriminating — than it sounds on the surface.
“It was a landlord/tenant dispute over the wording of the lease,” he says. “It was just business.”
In a nutshell, Allen says that his contract with Meybohm stated that the store, located next to Academy Sports, would be ready to move into at a certain time and that if it wasn’t, Allen would get a day’s free rent for every day they were late. If they were a month late in providing the space, Allen would get a week for every late day.
It was close to four months after the assigned date before Allen could move in, and that amounted to close to three years worth of free rent.
“After about a year, they said it was time for us to work something out on this rent thing, and I said ‘Okay, I’m willing to talk to you, but the way I look at it and the way my lawyer looks at it, you owe me free rent,’” Allen says.
By that time, however, Allen was having other issues with the location, and before he could sue to get out of his lease, Meybohm filed a suit against him.
“That’s standard business,” Allen says. “That’s the way it works.”
The issue was mediated, and Allen says he paid “well over what they thought I owed them,” but also got out of his existing lease, which would have gone on for several more years.
“All of that is far too complicated to try to explain in the comment section of the Chronicle or in a debate,” Allen says.
With so much up in the air regarding the senate seat, Allen says he’s happy to just let the events take care of themselves.
“I’m just kind of letting things present themselves,” he says. “I’ve always believed that things work out the way they’re supposed to.”