The first of two debates involving Columbia County's two Republican candidates for commission chairman began Thursday with talk of consolidation, past accomplishments and future growth.
At the debate at Grovetown Middle School, which also included the three Grovetown candidates to fill the late Marjorie Adams' city council seat, incumbent Commission Chairman Ron Cross went head-to-head with his challenger, John Hayes.
Both candidates fielded questions from moderator Lee Muns, the county's Republican Party chairman, and some from the audience of about 40 people.
Cross began with an opening statement in which he listed some of the county commission's accomplishments in his past four-year term. That list included 24-7 fire service in the unincorporated part of the county, a AA bond rating for the county's finances, a National Day of Prayer observance and a no-smoking ordinance for most indoor locations.
In his opening statement, Hayes, an insurance claims representative, said he's running because of something his dad once told him: "Everybody should have a voice."
Then the questions began.
Cross answered a query about why he is qualified to run for commission chair. Cross said he isn't a politician but has had long-term business experience in the construction arena.
"I don't try to micromanage," he said.
Hayes said he's looking to bring solutions to problems in the county. He said he isn't a politician and would listen to all people's concerns.
"No side is greater than the other ... You facilitate a solution (as commission chairman) ... What I feel is you just do the right thing and you listen to the people," Hayes said.
Cross said that to be effective as commission chairman, though, the candidate should have a solid business background.
"I wish it were as simple as my opponent said," he said. "Experience is very important. This job is more than you can ever dream."
On the issue of a proposed consolidation of the county's unincorporated areas, Cross said he is in favor of it because it would, in part, help bring name recognition to the county. He also noted that franchise fees could be possible for the county with consolidation.
Hayes said he is against consolidation.
"It may look like it works on paper, but in reality it doesn't work," he said.
He noted that Evans was recently ranked a 32nd best place to live by Money Magazine without consolidation.
"And they called and asked who is the mayor of Evans," Cross quickly shot back.
The two candidates also were asked about growth issues, including the matter of high-density housing and the county's growth management plan.
Hayes said he is against high-density housing and supports the growth management plan.
"I don't think the public really wants any deviation from that," he said about the plan.
Cross responded by saying "I wish everything were so simple. There is no plan you can implement that there won't be exceptions to from time to time."
In his closing statement, Hayes said he is running for commission chair because he loves the county.
"I want to serve you and want to listen to you," he said.
Cross closed by saying that everything boils down to issues and that all commissioners are happy to listen to anyone about their concerns and needs.
Before the commission chairman candidates squared off, Grovetown candidates Barry Davis, Dick Manion and Sonny McDowell held their debate.
McDowell, who moved from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Grovetown, said he is "a public servant at heart" and said a key to keeping Grovetown great is in keeping young families who move to the city for a short term to become long-term residents by way of a good school system, hometown feel and good jobs.
Davis, the chairman of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he has been in Grovetown for 13 years.
"I have an investment in Grovetown," he said.
He said he's working to establish a Boys and Girls Club of America in Grovetown.
Manion, who is retired, said he thinks the city council and mayor are doing a good job and that he could support that mission because "I feel like I've got the time to do it."
Manion said he also thinks more retail and light industry are needed in the city.
The next debate for county commission chairman will be 7 p.m. June 22 at Lakeside High School.
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