Originally created 03/11/01

Presentment sparks election talk

The special grand jury's interim presentment on the state of local government appeared to be ammunition for any candidate who decides to challenge the incumbent for a local commission seat in November.

Grand jurors, after studying the roles and responsibilities of Augusta Commissioners, directed voters to "look carefully at those whom they elect," and encouraged candidates to offer themselves as leaders.

The interim presentment, despite its criticism of Augusta commissioners, hasn't dissuaded any of the men whose seats are up for re-election this year from running.

Odd-numbered commission districts - Districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 - will go before voters Nov. 6, and Commissioners Lee Beard, Steve Shepard, Henry Brigham, Jerry Brigham and Willie Mays have all said they plan on running.

There is a sentiment in the political community, however, that the grand jury's report might hurt commissioners' chances to keep their seats.

"There's a lot of talk going on, and the main reason is everyone is disgruntled about the commission," said Dave Barbee, chairman of the Richmond County Republican Party. "Whether it's coming from Atlanta, or Washington, D.C., or the grand jury, there's nothing positive."

The commission race is nonpartisan, but both political parties are expected to weigh in and endorse their favorite candidates.

"There is an obvious need to change things on the commission," said Dr. Lowell Greenbaum, chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party. "We certainly plan to take a very hard look at the commission elections in November (because) the grand jury findings indicate that there needs to be change."

The Rev. Bobby Hankerson is one of two men who have stepped forward to announce plans to challenge a seated commissioner.

The Rev. Hankerson - who will face District 5 representative Henry Brigham - said voters, not grand jurors, will be the ones to create changes in local government.

"We are stagnated," he said. "We are spending too much time talking about racism, talking about (Washington) D.C., talking about the grand jury, bickering on the board of commissioners ... We need to be better people and focus on the bigger picture."

Mr. Brigham said being re-elected is about seeing projects through, not proving critics wrong.

"We've got some things on the table we've got to complete," Mr. Brigham said, including restoring funding to the sheriff's department and building a new judicial center.

Several candidates in other districts, although they have not filed any paperwork with the city, are considering the pros and cons of running.

Wayne Hawkins, a construction business owner, announced this week his candidacy to challenge Jerry Brigham for District 7. He said the grand jury's findings confirmed what he has said for two years.

"I wrote a letter to editor that said we need 10 new commissioners (before the report came out)," Mr. Hawkins said. "I think we need new blood in that commission. We need some fresh ideas and some new ideas."

Former District 2 Commissioner Freddie Handy has hinted that he will run for the Super District 9 seat.

Will voters be more likely to show up at the polls in light of the grand jury's charge?

Voter turnout during commission races has been historically low. During the Nov. 2, 1999, commission election, Richmond County recorded a 16.5 percent turnout, or 14,500 of nearly 89,000 registered local voters.

Only three of the five commission seats up for election that year were challenged. Ulmer Bridges and Bill Kuhlke ran unopposed.

In the three contested races, one incumbent was ousted, one was re-elected and the third bowed out, allowing two newcomers to compete for the seat.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.


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