Some people see the ever-present smile on his face and believe newly elected Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom is too good to be true.
No one is that happy. He can’t possibly be genuine.
“I think people sometimes believe that I have this agenda and I’m fake because I’m just so positive,” Frantom said, chuckling. “But when I put my mind to something, I make a difference. I’m just very goal oriented and it kills me to see the negative in this community. It kills me the fact that we have so much to be thankful for and we have so many assets here, but we kind of trip over ourselves to show them.”
Just last month, this 36-year-old commissioner shocked the Garden City by winning his District 7 seat on the Augusta Commission after receiving 62 percent of the votes over 65-year-old incumbent Commissioner Louis “Hap” Harris, who garnered only 37 percent.
The win literally brought tears to his eyes.
But Frantom insists that this election was not about him or the age of the candidates or anyone’s political experience.
Instead, he says it was about a “team effort” put forth by people of all ages looking for a new voice in the Garden City.
“The older generation stepped up to help me and that is what people didn’t think would happen,” said Frantom, probably the only commissioner who can pull off wearing a sports jacket with sneakers. “They were like, ‘We want new representation that doesn’t have someone who is going to tell them how to vote.’ So, it was a team effort. Now, did I work hard? Yes. I worked my butt off. I’m kind of a non-stop, energy person. People are like, ‘How do you have all this energy?’ Because when you want to do something, you work for it.”
Frantom, who is the founding member of the Young Professionals of Augusta (YPA), is currently the director of development at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Augusta.
In early January, the nonprofit moved from its former location on Greene Street to a new 23-bedroom building off Harper Street on the campus of Children’s Hospital of Georgia. The community raised nearly $6 million to construct the new building for the families of patients at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia and the Joseph M. Still Burn Center.
Along with the major task of relocating the Ronald McDonald House into its new location and campaigning for his District 7 seat, Frantom has also been busy helping to plan his May 16 wedding to Jennifer Kresslein, the development director at SafeHomes of Augusta.
“We are going away on our honeymoon on May 17,” Frantom said, adding his only regret is that he will have to miss one scheduled commission meeting. “I haven’t been on a week’s vacation since I graduated from high school in 1997. And to be honest with you, I am 36 and getting married. I finally met the love of my life, Jennifer, and a lot of it was because, from 2008 to when I met her, I was totally focused on the community through YPA, through the Chamber of Commerce and I wanted to make a difference.”
Now that he has found his true love, Frantom said he is even more committed to the future of Augusta.
“I want to have my children grow up here in this community and I knew running for this seat was a huge challenge,” Frantom said. “I understand this and I know that I’m going to get knocked down a lot, but somebody had to do it. Somebody had to dig their heels in and try to be a supporter of the future.”
But Frantom admits juggling everything on his plate right now hasn’t been easy.
“I did this at a time when I’m getting married in a few weeks, we just moved into a new Ronald McDonald House and I’m coming off five years as the Young Professionals of Augusta’s president,” Frantom said, laughing. “So, the timing wasn’t perfect for me, but, at the same time, I saw an opportunity. I did this because of my love for the community. It was never about me.”
When asked what some of Frantom’s goals for District 7 are, he explained he’s purely focused on the wishes of his constituents.
“I just want the people to know that I’m working for them,” he said. “The reason I ran is that I want to be engaged in the future and I think that the image of the government has not always been in a positive light and I think that someone like me who stays positive, who focuses on positive, who is really engaged in the community, can educate the community on decisions that we make and things that are coming and be a more positive influence on our government here locally.”
Clearly, Frantom wants to remain “positive.”
But, as of right now, Frantom says he doesn’t have any specific plans for District 7.
“It is not like I have some huge agenda to accomplish,” he said. “It’s more, let’s see what the people want and then try to push through what they want. Also, making decisions that are transparent and not just off-the-cuff.”
Since being sworn in about two weeks ago, Frantom said he has already received a lot of phone calls from his constituents.
“Oh yeah. I’ve heard from people,” Frantom said, chuckling. “I average about one or two calls a day. And, it’s one of those things, too, a lot of people don’t understand, if there is an issue they have, the first thing they need to do is call is the city’s 311 line.”
When residents call him, Frantom says he will advise them to call the city’s 311 information and services hotline in order to get some help with their concerns.
“Then, if they are not getting answers through 311, I tell them to come back to me,” Frantom said, adding that it will take a little time before he knows exactly how to address constituents’ specific questions. “It is not easy because, being new, other than 311, you don’t know exactly who to direct them to or where to direct them. So you try to just keep in contact with them. That’s the main thing. People just want to be heard.”
But Frantom says some of the requests he’s already received from constituents have been somewhat surprising.
“There has also been a call, ‘Hey, I want such and such to be hired in this department,’” Frantom said. “And I told them, ‘Well, I don’t handle that.’ But I gave them the city administrator’s contact information. I definitely want to stay out of the weeds on anything like that.”
Unlike new commissioners Dennis Williams and Sammie Sias, who were elected last May and had more than six months to prepare for their seats, Frantom won the election on April 14 and was sworn in a week later.
“I walked up there and I was immediately sworn in,” Frantom said, adding that the only real instructions he received dealt with how to properly cast his vote with the city’s electronic system. “The training didn’t happen. They were like, ‘Here you go. You are a commissioner.’”
In his first few weeks on the job, Frantom has already had to make some tough decisions.
During his very first commission meeting last month, Frantom had to consider a request by the sports event management company, Byrom plc, to develop a new gated community off Berckmans Road in his district.
The developer proposed building seven 3,500-square-foot homes described as “residential houses” and not “hospitality houses” like some neighbors in the area feared.
The company, Byrom plc, was established in 1991 as a “global sports event management and consultancy company” that specializes in the provision of ticketing, accommodation, hospitality, transportation and IT solutions for “major international sporting events,” according to its website.
The Augusta Commission approved the new development with a vote of 7-2. Only commissioners Marion Williams and Ben Hasan voted against the project.
Frantom, who voted in favor of the new gated community, said it wasn’t an easy decision.
“It was tough because I had only heard from two people before the meeting and then there were 11 there in opposition,” Frantom said. “I had to go based on Commissioner Grady Smith’s advice. He is the commissioner of that district as well. And I had to lean to him and say, ‘How much sentiment have you gotten from the public about this? Have you heard, “Do this?” or “Don’t do this?”
“And it wasn’t easy. None of the decisions are really easy because of the impact that you see that it makes.”
Also, Frantom said the public isn’t shy about telling elected officials how they feel about the commission’s vote on certain matters.
“Since then, I’ve had a few people reach out to me on the negative side, but, in the same respect, I’ve had a ton of people who said, ‘Sean, you did the right thing,’” Frantom said. “The main thing is, I think that we have to look at all sides and make decisions that the people want, not that the 10 of us as commissioners want.”
In the coming weeks, Frantom will be faced with another extremely controversial vote regarding the proposed stormwater utility fee.
It estimated that the fee will be $6.40 a month for a typical household in Augusta to help fund stormwater system maintenance and construction, but many citizens are calling foul.
Some who attended the recent public meetings about the proposed fee don’t believe that the money is actually going improve the drainage in their neighborhoods.
“People don’t trust the government,” Frantom admitted. “In this community, especially, they don’t trust us. We have got to build that trust by educating them, by engaging them and by making decisions that are well thought out, not just passing them to pass them.”
As far as his feelings about the stormwater utility fee, Frantom says he believes it is necessary.
“We have to have it. It’s a need,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
However, Frantom is hoping the commission can agreed to provide more money from the next phase of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to the city’s infrastructure in order to lower the estimated $6.40 monthly fee.
“I don’t support the $6.40 fee in its current state,” he said. “I would like to see $8 million to $10 million allocated under SPLOST and then see what’s left on the fee and maybe get the fee down to $3 or $4 for people a month. Show the people we are making good faith gestures on the commission’s side because there is a sentiment in this community that if we pass this stormwater fee, people are going to say no to SPLOST. Well, we have to have SPLOST. It’s a given. It’s vital to the future of this county.”
In a perfect world, Frantom said he would prefer to present a SPLOST package to the citizens prior to voting on the stormwater fee, but it appears that commissioners will consider approving the fee on May 19.
However, if the commission sticks to that schedule, Frantom will be on his honeymoon that week and will not be in town for the vote.
Whether Frantom is present for the stormwater fee vote or not, he realizes he will have deal with aftermath of whatever the commission decides.
“If stormwater just goes through in the next few weeks, I do fear what the public’s sentiment is going to be for SPLOST,” Frantom said. “It’s just a mindset.”
In order for SPLOST to have any chance of passing, Frantom says the commission must agree to cut out all the “pet projects” and don’t “push items down people’s throats.”
But time is ticking to come up with a community-supported SPLOST list prior to a proposed vote on the package in November.
“If we as commissioners do the right thing and put together a package that is focused on infrastructure, focused on public safety and focused on immediate needs, then I think people are going to respect that and approve it,” Frantom said.
When asked what items he would support in the next phase of SPLOST, Frantom paused a moment to think.
“Public safety cars, fire cars, obviously stormwater is a major part of it. I guess the Municipal Building and Hyde Park,” Frantom said. “To be honest with you, I need to educate myself more on what’s in the package.”
Frantom joked that he’s not one of those people who is going to pretend he has all the answers.
“I’m not going to sit here and be a know-it-all because I don’t know it all,” Frantom said. “One of the things about me being ‘the young guy’ is the historic aspect of everything. That’s been a challenge for the first two weeks — understanding the history of why decisions were made this way, things that are coming up all over the agendas that are historic that I have to go back and say, ‘Did this really happen? Show me some documentation so I can base how I vote on all those historic aspects.’”
Not having all the answers might make it easier for his critics to take pot shots at him, but Frantom said that’s all part of the gig.
“I’m honest and I have the community’s best interests at heart,” Frantom said, adding that he has a long history of helping the local charities and nonprofit organizations with events. “So, I mean, no, I don’t have as much experience as everyone else, but I have relevant experience to the community right now. But if people want to knock me, that’s fine. You keep hearing my name. It is not always a bad thing to have your name in a negative light. I don’t like it, but your name is out there.”
Frantom has proven he can convince some of the most politically astute citizens in town that he is sincere.
Earlier this year, the Augusta-Richmond County Committee for Good Government voted to endorse Frantom over his more mature opponents Sonny Pittman and Hap Harris.
Frantom also managed to receive the endorsement from The Augusta Chronicle’s editorial staff.
“He seeks to be a consensus-builder on the commission,” The Chronicle wrote in its endorsement. “He is committed to government transparency. He is pro-business. He wants to be part of a group of servant leaders who will focus on Augusta’s future. A vote for the 36-year-old Frantom isn’t just for a person. It’s for an idea. It’s for a change in direction.”
Some in the community have also noticed Frantom’s friendship with former Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, pointing to that as a sign of his leadership abilities.
Frantom says he finds it all very humorous.
“I’m friends with Deke. We have talked after the first commission meeting, but there was no advice. I didn’t talk to him the day that I won,” Frantom said, laughing. “As much as people like to think I’m a ‘Deke guy’ and I’m just like him, I’m way different from the standpoint of I think I’m a little bit more aggressive and stubborn. I think I’m a decision maker and I want to make a difference. I’m not just going to be a ‘yes’ person. Deke and I are friends, but as far as any advice, there wasn’t any advice. There wasn’t any (campaign) money.”
Frantom insists he is in nobody’s pocket.
“I’m not a Billy Morris boy. Just because I won the endorsement doesn’t mean Billy Morris owns me,” Frantom said, referring to William S. Morris III, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle. “I won the endorsement because I love this community and people are tired of the same old, same old. And I want to be engaged in the future.”
And just because Frantom has mentioned in the past that he may one day like to run for mayor of Augusta doesn’t mean that will actually happen, he said.
“I’m a goal-oriented person,” Frantom said. “I’m not going to shy away from it. But I’ve got to represent the people of District 7. That’s what I was elected to do. I’ve got so much to learn. One day? Maybe. But I love this community and I want to make a difference. If I think the next step towards making a difference is to become mayor, maybe I will. That is part of who I am. But it is not going to affect my decision making. I’m going to do the right thing.”
From the moment he took office, Frantom said he became committed to improving Augusta’s government and working with his fellow commissioners.
“They are good guys,” Frantom said of his colleagues on the Augusta Commission. “I think sometimes people, especially the media, they portray this image that is not true. These guys all have a relationship with one another. Does their opinions definitely differ? Yes. But at the end of the day, I think they all want what is the best for this city.”
But, without a doubt, Frantom said he does see the racial division on the commission and he hopes to improve that situation.
“Yeah, there is division. Nobody is perfect. Unfortunately, it is one of those things where we focus on the past so much,” he said. “I, myself, focus on what’s going on in the community. I don’t focus on the race card. And that’s part of being younger, maybe not exposed to the history, so that makes me fresh because I don’t know all the history. I kind of bring a new perspective because I didn’t grow up in that.”
That’s not a criticism of anyone, it’s simply the truth, he said.
“I just hope that we can move forward in that regard and be one, but I am going to be honest. I’m not going to sit here and say that everything is perfect from a race relations standpoint,” Frantom said. “I think everybody kind of feels that way in this community.”
Frantom said he understands where commissioners are coming from in terms of trying to improve their districts.
“Each commissioner is protecting his or her district because that is what they are elected to do and that’s the right thing to do, but I just hope we can all move forward from a standpoint of looking at the community as a whole and not say, tit for tat, ‘You want this and I’ll give you this in return for that,’” he said. “But, the thing is, they are good guys and I’ve enjoyed the first two weeks working with them.”
Some of the blame for the city government’s poor image must fall on the shoulders of the local media, Frantom said.
“I’ll say it, the media in this community doesn’t help us,” Frantom plainly stated. “They hurt us because of the market that we are. They focus on the negative and they are going to continue to focus on that. That is one of the stigmas that we’ve got to get past. Not to say that we don’t make mistakes because we do, but it seems like the good things are not brought up as much as the negative things.”
While Frantom might be constantly smiling and committed to remaining positive all the time, he said it is more important for him to be honest with the public.
“People think that I have an agenda. I don’t,” Frantom said. “I want to see this community grow and I want to see it prosper. In fact, I was given the county gas card last week and I said, ‘I don’t want it.’ I gave it right back.”
“I don’t even know what we get paid to be a commissioner to be honest with you and it doesn’t matter. That’s not why you do it,” he added. “You do it because you love the community.”