In a county growing as fast as Columbia County, every year is a year of change.
To mark the biggest events of the past 12 months, The News-Times is highlighting the Top 6 of 2006: Six stories that made significant impact. After those stories, which appear in no particular order, is a month-by-month look at this year.
Sex offender law
The Columbia County Board of Education made statewide news in July by becoming the first school board to officially designate bus stops as a means to ward off sex offenders.
In response to a controversial state law banning registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled in July that bus stops must be officially designated by local school boards for the law to apply.
About four hours after his ruling, Columbia County board members, at the urging of District Attorney Danny Craig, unanimously passed a resolution designating the county's 5,000 school bus stops.
In response to the board's resolution, attorneys for the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union persuaded Cooper to grant a temporary restraining order blocking police from enforcing the bus stop law.
The matter has yet to be settled in court.
The county school system experienced significant changes in 2006.
After eight years in the post, Superintendent Tommy Price announced his retirement plans in June. Price will step down at the end of this school term.
In December, a search committee named Columbia County Associate Superinten-dent Charles Nagle and Liberty County Superintendent Steve Wilmoth as the top two candidates for the job.
The school board will conduct a second interview with the two men in January before making a final decision.
Price will stay on next school year as a part-time adviser to the next superintendent.
The mourning associated with the closure of the old Evans Middle School in May was followed with jubilation at the opening of a new Evans Middle in August.
The $11 million school was built on Hereford Farm Road, next to a new school system administration building, which was dedicated in July.
In May 2004, the school board sold the old Evans Middle site to a group of developers for $4.8 million. A shopping center is planned for the site.
School officials and community leaders spearheaded a yearlong effort to move the old Evans Middle School's stone pillars and arch, the last remnants of the original school built on the site in 1927. A fire destroyed that school in 1955. The pillars and arch are now on the grounds of the new Columbia County Library in Evans.
While Evans Middle students got a new school, Greenbrier Elementary pupils got a new principal.
Former Greenbrier Elemen-tary Principal Jon Pike was demoted in a June termination hearing by the school board.
School officials accused Pike of acting in a nonprofessional manner, trying to coerce teachers and creating division in his staff in his attempts to discover who wrote a letter to Associate Superintendent Lauren Williams blaming Pike for poor teacher morale.
Former Martinez Elemen-tary Principal Michelle Sherman was transferred to Greenbrier Elementary in July to replace Pike.
Construction continues on a new elementary school in Grovetown that will ultimately shift hundreds of pupils to different schools by August. A zoning hearing for the new school will be held Thursday. Finally, details emerged near the year's end about the planned fifth public high school on Chamblin Road outside Grovetown.
After a December runoff election, Columbia County voters chose Regina Buccafusco as their first at-large elected school board chairman.
Also in the general election, Republican Ron Thigpen defeated Democrat Scott Nichols to become Columbia County's District 1 commissioner, and a more than $43 million bond proposal was approved by voters.
In July, county commission Chairman Ron Cross easily won re-election in the Republican Primary, and faced no opposition in the general election.
After nearly a year of planning and debate, the controversial issue of a county consolidation was rejected by voters in straw polls attached to the July 18 primary ballots.
A proposal to incorporate a city in the Evans-Martinez area and consolidate it with the county government fizzled out by April when the county's state legislative delegation refused to put the issue on the ballot. Columbia County's state legislators said they needed more time to consider the issue before putting it before voters.
County officials have said that as a consolidated government, Columbia County could collect about $5 million a year in franchise fees from utility providers.
Cross also said that consolidating the government would give Columbia County greater name recognition and prevent other cities from forming within the boundaries of the unincorporated areas. City officials in Harlem and Grovetown opposed the proposal, saying it would limit their cities' ability to grow. Residents who participated in three public meetings on consolidation were largely against the measure.
Cross has not ruled out a renewed debate on consolidation in the future.
The new library
After nearly 10 years of planning, the county opened a $13 million library and performing arts center in Evans March 27.
The building, with its amphitheater, memorial gardens and 300-seat Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center, replaced Warren C. Gibbs Memorial Library.
Built to house more than 150,000 adult and children's books within its Neo-Classical facade, the 51,000-square-foot library quickly became the focal point of the community and envy of the area. It features dozens of computer terminals, classrooms and a cafe.
The building was so eagerly awaited, 400 guests attended a $100 invitation-only gala to be among the first to experience the new facility.
The library and performing arts center played host to numerous plays and concerts and became the official home of the Columbia County Ballet, the county's official resident company. The amphitheater and memorial gardens became a site of choice for performances and county celebrations such as Christmas in America.
Mack Smith trial
It took national recognition of his widow for justice to be served in the murder of Daniel McFarland "Mack" Smith. Corey Blaine Coggins, 23, of Martinez, was convicted March 22 in Columbia County Superior Court of malice and felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Smith was stabbed to death in 2001 during a brawl at Applecross Apartments in Martinez. He was the husband of Ashley Smith, who gained recognition for her role in the capture of Fulton County courthouse shooting suspect Brian Nichols in March 2005.
Coggins and a second man, Barry Keith Tabor Jr., 24, were arrested for murder in June 2005. Charges against Tabor were dropped midway through the trial for lack of evidence.
Prosecutors said Mack Smith went to confront a man who had called him a "snitch," and police admitted during trial testimony that Mack Smith was indeed a drug informant for the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
After the trial, Ashley Smith said she and the couple's 6-year-old daughter could get on with their lives.
"I feel like it's OK for me to move on. I think that's what Mack would want me to do," she said.
These were among the other major news stories in Columbia County in 2006.
- Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue assumed fire protection and emergency first response services for the unincorporated portions of the county.
- Former state Rep. Bill Jackson received the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Benfort Hendricks, 39, of Orlando, Fla., was charged with offenses including vehicular homicide, driving under influence, and hit and run after a three-car wreck Feb. 3 on Furys Ferry Road that killed his father-in-law, Cordell Harmon, 61, of Eustis, Fla.
- Warren C. Gibbs Library on North Belair Road closed Feb. 18 after nearly 24 years in operation.
- Hull-Storey Retail Group announced plans to build a Lowe's home improvement store on Washington Road in Evans.
- Marjorie Adams, 79, who served 14 years as a Grovetown City Council member, died Feb. 12 from complications from a December 2005 stroke.
- Beda Johnson was named the first executive director of the new Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
- Retired Chief Burl Keen, a founder of the Martinez Volunteer Fire Department, died March 1 at age 86.
- The Greenbrier girls basketball team lost in the state semifinals March 1 in Duluth to Marist after a school- and county-best 28-4 record.
- Augusta Christian's girls basketball team lost in the state semifinals on March 2 in Sumter, S.C., to Northwood.
- The Columbia County Library and performing arts center officially opened March 27.
- A wreck on County Line Road near Harlem involving a car and 10 motorcycles killed one man and sent nine people to the hospital April 1. Wayne Leroy Malick, 52, of Augusta, died at the scene.
- Workers installed a 105 mm demilitarized howitzer cannon in front of Grovetown City Hall on April 12 as the centerpiece of a veterans memorial park.
- The first performance was held at the new Columbia County Amphitheater.
- Grovetown celebrated its 125th anniversary April 29.
- The trial of former state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko, of Appling, ended May 10 after she pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and conspiracy to launder money. She admitted she stole more than $600,000 in federal education funds to help finance her 2002 gubernatorial bid and plastic surgery. Her plea deal called for eight years in federal prison.
She testified against her former campaign manager, Merle Temple, of Evans, who also received an eight-year sentence.
- Augusta Christian's baseball and girls track teams won SCISA Class AAA state titles. It was the school's second-straight baseball title, and the girls track team finished with a 53-0 record.
- Lakeside High School took the Class AAAA state title in boys golf.
- Billy Fray Cleveland, a former Columbia County substitute teacher charged in August 2005 with child molestation, pleaded guilty May 25 to misdemeanor simple battery as part of a negotiated plea agreement with the district attorney's office. Cleveland, of Augusta, was arrested in 2005 after being accused of inappropriately touching eight young girls while working as a substitute teacher.
- Reeves Construction opened all four lanes of the long-delayed Furys Ferry Road project at the end of May.
- Two people and a fetus died June 4 when their car was struck on Washington Road by a driver fleeing the scene of a shoplifting, police said. Margaret Patricia Branton, 63, of Martinez, and her son, Lonnie D. Turner, 37 were killed instantly.
Turner's pregnant wife, Mary, was in the back seat of the Chrysler with a 4-year-old child; both were injured.
The fleeing driver, Tiara Maria Smith, 20, faces two counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, feticide and numerous traffic and shoplifting charges.
Her passenger, Denise Yvonne "Nebula" McNeely, 42, also faces shoplifting charges and was injured in the crash. A 7-year-old girl riding with Smith and McNeely also received minor injuries.
- Greenbrier's baseball team went 35-1 to win the school's fourth baseball state championship.
- Columbia County Commission approved the rezoning for a Medical College of Georgia/Physicians Practice Group diagnostic imaging and day surgery center campus on Knob Hill Farm Road in Evans.
- The Baker Place Road Landfill closed July 1.
- Crews moved the stone arch and pillars, the last pieces of the former Evans Consolidated School, to Columbia County Memorial Gardens.
- Nan King, of Appling, was found guilty of failure to care for and maintain animals July 18 after authorities confiscated 81 cats from her home in May.
- Augusta Prep dedicated its new 24,000-square-foot Boardman Athletic Center gymnasium Aug. 18.
- An Israeli diplomat was indicted Aug. 30 in Columbia County and later arrested and charged with 22 counts of computer pornography and child exploitation. Prosecutors say Yosef Sagiv Ofri, 37, a security operative stationed at the Atlanta Israeli Consulate, tried to entice what he thought was a child with pornographic images. Ofri pleaded not guilty Sept. 6 to the charges and is free on bond while awaiting trial.
- The new Belair Connector Road opened, providing motorists a straight shot between Furys Ferry and Washington roads.
- The Development Authority of Columbia County and a private partner broke ground Sept. 6 on the county's second speculative building in Horizon South Industrial Park in Grovetown.
- Columbia County sheriff's Staff Sgt. Tripp Penn shot and wounded 19-year-old Michael Garrett of Hephzibah on Sept. 15, after Garrett tried to run the deputy over, police said.
Garrett recovered from a wound to the neck and was arrested on felony aggravated assault and drug charges.
- Columbia County Sheriff's Office investigated former Augusta mayoral candidate Ronnie Few's homestead exemption after a complaint from a Martinez man. Few filed the exemption April 11 for a house off Mineral Court in Evans, but he claimed to live in Augusta when he filed to run for mayor of that city.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver was re-elected over Few and three other challengers, and the Few investigation ended with no charges filed.
- Grovetown Middle language arts teacher Penny Barclay was named the county's 2006 Teacher of the Year on Sept. 28.
- Augusta Prep opened its 350-seat Hull Fine Arts Center on Oct. 6.
- Harlem played host to more than 35,000 people who attended the annual Oliver Hardy Festival on Oct. 7.
- Columbia County Chief Magistrate Judge Wade Padgett conducted a series of lectures to inform parents and teens about the state's laws governing underage sexual activity, drinking and drug use.
- The Augusta Prep Lady Cavaliers volleyball team won the GISA Class AAA state championship and finished the season with a 19-3 record.
- County Coroner Thomas L. "Tommy" King Sr. died Nov. 1 of congestive heart failure and chronic pulmonary disease. He was 69.
- Harlem High School softball coach Melissa Chase, 28, of Augusta, was arrested Nov. 13 and charged with sexual assault against a student enrolled in school. Chase was accused of inappropriate conduct with a 16-year-old girl. She awaits trial.
- University Hospital and county officials broke ground Nov. 17 for a three-story medical office building at the Belair Road campus.
- Former state Rep. Martha Moore, R-Evans, died Nov. 17 after a battle with Parkinson's disease. She was 78.
- Ila Lee Yelton Bartles, of Phinizy, died Dec. 16 at age 105. She was possibly the oldest person in the county at the time of her death.
- On Dec. 8, local lawmakers and residents learned that Evans, Martinez, Phinizy and Leah joined 500 unincorporated communities that were left off the Georgia Department of Transportation's official state map.
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