For Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, it is easy for him to point to a 12-year track record of well managed growth and improvements in the quality of life for the citizens of Columbia County, as ample reasons to re-elect him to another term.
Cross can cite new parks, performing arts venues, the broadband utility project, road improvements, new commercial development and a host of other things as concrete ways the county changed for the better under his leadership.
“An we’ve still never raised property taxes, in fact we lowered them a couple of times,” Cross said, at the same time acknowledging that not everyone sees it the way he does.
“We’ve got a small group of people in the county that are just so anti-everything, and really it has been one of my main ambitions that I don’t become a bitter dissatisfied grumpy old man,” he said. “It is hard to fight that attitude.”
Indeed, the government seems to be running smoothly in many respects. County commission meetings are usually conducted without rancor or dissent and rarely last longer than 30 minutes. Most measures pass unanimously without much discussion.
To Cross’s opponent, builder and activist Jim Bartley, it all seems a little too peaceful.
“The problem I see is that this government isn’t being run by enforcing the rules that we have on the books,” he said. “I want the rules out here enforced on everybody equally.”
Where Cross sees a well-managed government, in which government and business work hand-in-hand to promote growth. Bartley sees special favors for those with access and behind the scenes deal making.
“If I’m elected nobody other that an everyday registered voter is going to meet with me in my office in that county building,” he said, explaining that he will not bother listening to people seeking special favors. “No business person can come and meet with me without the press having opportunity to come there too. I’ve seen the extremes of when they get private audiences all the time.”
Cross has little patience for Bartley’s criticism: “He’s crazy.”
He believes those sort of allegations and claims are the kind of thing that make it difficult to find people to serve in government.
“The campaign the last time was just evidence of how low people will go to get a position for no reason other than they want to be elected,” he said. “I see the same people who opposed me in the first election sitting out there with the same sour expression. They are still there, but there is not as many of them.”
He knows he has critics, like those who opposed the Magnolia Trace housing development.
“I’m not ashamed of Magnolia Trace,” he said, challenging anyone to visit the neighborhood to see how it turned out. “This is workforce housing; it is not Section 8. This is people who work for a living who need a little bit of help.”
Cross said he was hoping until late in 2013 that District 1 Commissioner Ron Thigpen would change his mind and run for the chairman’s seat. When Thigpen decided against it, Cross said he felt obligated to run again.
“I planned for years that Ron would be the next because he was so capable,” Cross said, adding that Thigpen’s expertise in financial matters would be a great loss to the commission. “He is going to be missed; he really is sharp in a lot of respects.”
Cross sees the next four years have the potential for growth like the county has never seen, with the surge of new jobs at Fort Gordon. That and the possibility of winning the state’s permission to build the county’s first hospital, make him want to continue what he has started.
Bartley, who has been a builder for almost 40 years, has raised concerns at various county meeting of the past year about where he sees the county has failed to enforce regulations fairly and uniformly on businesses and members of the construction trades. bartley said some builders and developers are held to different standards than others and some regulations that protect businesses from unfair competition and consumers from shoddy work aren’t being enforced as they should.
“I’m an advocate for the rules,” he said. “I have followed them all of my life.”
He said that he doesn’t dislike Cross, but disagrees with his management style and the amount of control he exerts.
“The chairman does not run this county,” Bartley said. “He ain’t the mayor.” .