Welcome to Spearsville, where the path to elected office just got a little clearer for local banker Ron Thigpen.
Thigpen started the rounds a few months ago to line up support for a run at the District 1 Commission seat currently held by Steve Brown. Brown has said he won't run again.
Interest in the District 1 seat picked up when it became known that it would be an open seat in next year's race. Republican Thigpen was one of the early potential candidates. Democrat Scott Nichols also said he'd run, and Greg Kernaghan, who lost in the 2004 District 3 race to Diane Ford, had moved to District 1 and was thinking about competing.
The early favorite, however, was Frank Spears. Spears was the incumbent in 2002 when Brown defeated him, and appeared ready to give it another try.
Spears had lined up early support from state Sen. Jim Whitehead, who was prepared to repay Spears for working in Whitehead's 2004 election. Spears had also helped in the winning campaign of Sheriff Clay Whittle, and the losing School Board race by Lou Ann Grove. All that time in the trenches had given him plenty of cards to play.
Spears instead folded. With a letter last weekend in The News-Times Spears announced he won't run. "I have decided that there are other avenues of public service that I want to pursue for now," Spears wrote.
Spears' departure frees up significant support that likely will flow to Thigpen, who in addition to the banking business is well-known as chairman of the county's Development Authority.
The decision also comes as the discussion over county incorporation and consolidation heat up. Spears, who entered public service 10 years ago as a member of the committee that put together the county's first Growth Management Plan, was among the first to propose the idea of incorporating Columbia County as a city.
The discussion was serious enough that it spooked Augusta and Richmond County into making a hasty "deal with the devil" - in this case, then-state Sen. Charles Walker - to accept a flawed agreement merging the two governments.
Under laws in effect at that time, if Columbia County had incorporated first, Augusta would have been unable to establish city government within three miles of the county line. Because that would have left much of West Augusta in limbo, our neighbor stampeded into a consolidation bill with provisions that all but cripple the city's operation.
Augusta's consolidation meant Columbia County was then stuck with the three-mile buffer, so the idea out here fizzled.
During this debate The Augusta Chronicle's editorial page ridiculed Spears as wanting to establish "Spearsville." The name popped up again when the paper endorsed Spears' opponent, Bill Bohling, when Spears made his first run for office in 1998. (The News-Times endorsed Spears.)
Spears won. But because Augusta was by then consolidated and the buffer was in effect, Columbia County consolidation didn't come up again.
What's changed? State lawmakers removed the three-mile buffer this past spring to allow the incorporation of Sandy Springs in northern Gwinnett County.
Because the removal of the buffer applies statewide, Columbia County is able to revisit the idea of incorporation. It's somewhat ironic that it was Augusta's consolidation that prevented Columbia County from pursuing the idea 10 years ago; now, it's Augusta's mishandling of consolidation that seems to scare most people away from the idea.
If Spears had run, and won, he would have been a likely champion of the consolidation idea. Without him in the race, however, there's no joy in Spearsville next year.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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