A retired hospital administrator and a Georgia state trooper bring widely differing backgrounds to the District 7 Augusta Commission race to replace Jerry Brigham, who is term-limited.
The west Augusta district includes neighborhoods north and south of Washington Road, from Lake Olmstead in the east to the Columbia County line. Donnie Smith and Ken Echols are seeking the post.
Knocking on doors and shaking hands through parts of the district Wednesday, Smith said he's eager to see Olmstead dredged and returned to its former glory to help the lake area develop.
Smith, a Georgia State Patrol lieutenant born in Burke County, moved a lot as a child but established roots in Augusta when he got a job with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in 1987 and bought a home in Montclair subdivision a few years later.
The career law enforcement officer served on the sheriff's road patrol, in investigations and narcotics before joining the Georgia State Patrol.
For three years, he was assigned to a security detail for the former speaker pro tem of the Georgia House, Jack Connell.
The experience “piqued my interest in politics,” Smith said, and he later completed Leadership Georgia, a training program for business and community leaders.
While serving with the state patrol, Smith was injured by shrapnel in the 1996 bombing at Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympics.
SMITH, WHO IS backed by the Augusta Firefighters Association and Sheriff Ronnie Strength, said he considers himself a public servant and has committed to donating a third of his $12,000 commissioner salary to charity.
“You don’t get involved in public service because you want to make money," he said.
Smith said he is committed to downtown development, particularly in support of the merger of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities.
“If we get 10,000 new students that are coming downtown, renting apartments and staying in dorms, that's new money to our community,” he said.
Traffic issues and infrastructure needs are most important in congested District 7, he said, including a lack of streetlights and sidewalks on Skinner Mill Road.
Calling himself “a big-picture guy,” Smith said most Augustans probably live, work or attend schools in two or more commission districts.
“I'm about looking out for our entire community,” he said. “But by no means will I ever turn my attention away from what goes on in my own district.”
Smith said his background in public safety will be an asset to the commission.
On the issue of completing contract details that will govern the new Augusta Convention Center, Smith said the project needs to move forward.
“We can't cancel those (conventions),” he said. “To not do that gives our city a black eye and hurts our tourism.”
Though opponent Echols has said he'll never vote for a tax increase, Smith said, “The only new revenue source I would look toward is that we have more business in Augusta.”
ECHOLS, WHO HAS served three terms on the Richmond County Board of Education, said constituents make two main demands as he goes door to door: “They're tired of taxes, and they want a commissioner who will represent them.”
To that, the retired Medical College of Georgia administrator responds with the pledge of “no new taxes” and a commitment to hold regular Town Hall meetings, starting in November.
He said he never voted for a tax increase on the school board, though a majority did more than once to increase the millage during his tenure.
The board managed its sales-tax funded construction projects well, he said, in part because of the existence of a citizen advisory committee. Echols said Augusta could benefit from citizen oversight of sales tax spending.
Echols is the former president of the West Augusta Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood associations, and he served on the Richmond County Board of Health for a decade.
What sets him apart from Smith is time, Echols said.
“You either need to be retired or self-employed to be a commissioner,” Echols said. “I'm going to be a retired full-time commissioner.”
He said the convention center situation was a long time in the making.
“It’s just been a mess from the beginning” with details coming out now that should have been presented in simple terms months or years ago, he said. Still, the commission must allow scheduled conventions to move forward, Echols said.
“We don't want to lose business,” he said. “People have planned and made decisions.”
Echols said his experience managing large budgets and staffs at MCG will be an asset to the commission, especially as Augusta emerges as a medical hub.