Live, On-Stage Debate Pits Candidates for Area Races
candidates for area posts when they took the stage at a political debate in Vidalia last week.
The event was sponsored by the Toombs- Roads, recreation, infrastructure and community unity were among the topics tackled by
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Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and held at Southeastern Technical College on Tuesday, October 1, at 6 p.m. Vidalia School System Communications Director John Koon moderated.
Candidates for Mayor of Vidalia, Toombs County Commission District 3 and Montgomery County Commission District 3, Post 1 fielded questions submitted in advance by their constituents in a debate format which allowed for candidate presentations and rebuttals, as well as opening and closing statements. Questions were drawn randomly from a bowl at the center of the stage and each candidate had an opportunity to answer the question or to respond to their opponent’s answer.
Candidates for Mayor of
Gregory Johnson and Doug Roper are seeking the post of Mayor of Vidalia, a seat left vacant by the death in April of long-time Mayor Ronnie Dixon. The City Charter provides that if a seat is to be left vacant for more than six months, a special election must be called. The City Council approved the nonpartisan, Special Election to be held in conjunction with the November 3 General Election. The term will be for one year, with a regular mayoral election to be held in 2021.
The mayoral candidates responded to six questions which dealt with facilitating cooperation between the City of Vidalia and Toombs County governments; improving the city’s infrastructure while keeping taxes low; upgrading and utilizing Ezra Taylor recreation park; strengthening community unity; developing public transportation, including bike paths and sidewalks; and developing public housing as a means of addressing the problem of blight within the city limits.
Johnson, who was elected on 2017 to represent the city’s second ward on the Vidalia City Council, praised Mayor Dixon, with whom he worked for three years. “Mayor Dixon was a great man and a strong leader and I would be honored to follow in his footsteps,” he said. Johnson was required to step down from his Council post in order to run for mayor. An election to fill his seat is scheduled for March 2021.
A native of Toombs County who graduated from Vidalia High School in 1981, Johnson earned a degree from Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California, and returned to his hometown in 1990 with new ideas for serving the community. Shortly after he came home, he set about establishing a Boys and Girls Club like the ones he saw in California because he realized there was a need for “somewhere for our young people to go.” Today, his dream has flourished and the Boys and Girls Club serves over 200 young people. Johnson, who honed his grant-writing skills “to keep those doors open” at the club for youngsters, said he owes a debt of gratitude to the community for helping to make his dream a reality.
After working in his father’s roofing company, Johnson and his wife founded a roofing company that landed federal government contracts across the country. In the last 20 years, the company had over 50 to 60 employees working all over the United States. “It was a great opportunity for me to be in board room negotiating contracts,” he said of the experience he gained.
In reference to the question on unity between the local governments in Toombs County, Johnson said the city and county are already working well together and the team effort to build a new courthouse is a prime example. “My vision is to focus on unity rather than division. We are stronger working together to take our community to the next level,” he said. “Mayor Dixon left a good roadmap, and we are on the right road but we need to move forward. Do we have work to do? Yes, but I want to hear from the citizens about what they want for their community. Everyone will have a voice in their government and I will be their voice on the Council. But we cannot continue to move forward if we are divided.”
Regarding improving the city’s infrastructure while keeping taxes low, Johnson emphasized that the city has already spent millions of dollars on infrastructure but has not raised taxes since 1990. He pointed out the recent focus on pumping stations. “We are ready to improve the water system in the community.” Regarding other city upgrades, he pointed out a major sidewalk improvement project near Sally Meadows Elementary School and airport upgrades, both of which were made possible through federal matching grants. “My goal is to have commercial flights at our airport. With the traffic generated by the golf course (Ohoopee Match Club), we are almost there.” He also advocated reactivating the Vidalia Development Authority “to help us bring entrepreneurs into the city.”
Commenting on the completion of Ezra Taylor recreational facility, Johnson said, “We have a fine recreation department right now. We want to make sure the facilities we are using are the best we can offer. There will be an opportunity to invest in Ezra Taylor and we will move funding there when the time is right.”
Concerning community unity, Johnson said, “We want to make sure everyone in Vidalia has a voice. If we are not careful, what is happening in many places—division, hatefulness, racism—will trickle down to us. We don’t need that in our community. What we need is for all of our citizens to be as one. That is my vision.” He advocated establishing advisory councils to garner public input on issues and needs within the community and offered, as mayor, to be the liaison for communicating this input to the City Council and holding city administration accountable for serving the public’s needs.
“We are doing what we need to be doing here in Vidalia. The issue is that we are not being transparent enough. We need to let our constituents know. That is why we need those advisory committees,” Johnson said.
On the topic of developing public housing to serve seniors and low-income families, Johnson noted, “It’s one of the first things I would like to do as mayor. I would like to tap into grant writing and look for federal block grants to build single-family homes, not apartments, to lift up our citizens.” He noted that there is a shortage of housing in Vidalia for people in need. “Many kids don’t even have a decent home to go to or a decent bed to lie down in.”
A native of Toombs County, Doug Roper said that no matter where he has travelled, he has always been an ambassador for his hometown. As a college and professional baseball player, he noted that “my jersey changed from Clemson to the Toronto Blue Jays, but I always worked hard to be someone who would shine a light back on their community.” After graduating from Vidalia High School and Clemson University, Roper played ball professionally for a number of years but chose not to continue in the profession as a coach.
When he returned to Vidalia, Roper joined the staff at the Paul Anderson Youth Home, and served his community on the Vidalia Onion Festival Committee, on the Kiwanis Club’s Board of Directors, the Montgomery-Toombs County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and mentored young people through Toombs County Family Connection. He was a member of the Leadership Toombs program and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He also served as a member of the Vidalia City School Board and as president of the Georgia School Board Association. Commenting on the question regarding continuing unity between local governments, Roper said, “As branch manager for Georgia Federal Bank for the last 15 years, I heard about a lot about the rivalry between Lyons and Vidalia. I think we need to be opponents one night a year and that’s when we play each other on a football field.”
He added, “Certainly, we need to understand that we are stronger together.” He referenced the opportunity for partnership that SECCA (Southeastern Early College and Career Academy) represents. This institution is a cooperative effort between multiple area school systems which broadens the opportunity for providing better education for area students. “The school systems came together and worked together. We have the same opportunity with law enforcement, recreation, and economic development.”
On the issue of improving the city’s infrastructure while keeping taxes low, Roper said, “A lot of work has been done to lay the foundation for economic growth. I see a lot of tags from outside Toombs County,” he said of the retail hub Toombs County has become and its ability to generate sales tax. “We have the opportunity to leverage distance from I-16 and the port, and our existing industry has shown the ability to grow. Prospective industry needs to know we have the roads to move products and infrastructure underground to handle their needs.” He noted, “It’s about mapping, materials and maintenance. We need to maximize what we are putting in the ground and use SPLOST to build our infrastructure.” Regarding upgrades to Ezra Taylor recreational facility Roper commented, “I grew up using recreational facilities in Vidalia. The focus has been on Ed Smith (Recreation Center) for quite some time and it is in the best shape ever. We have let Ezra Taylor go. If anything in our recreation department can improve, it is Ezra Taylor. The funding is already there.” Considering where the emphasis should be placed next, he offered, “Do we need to go back and revisit Ed Smith and make tweaks to accommodate more sports like soccer, pickle ball, lacrosse, and field hockey? Do we need to step outside the box and let these new sports filter into our school systems?”
Roper said of community unity, “We live in perilous times. If you look at what we are going through with this virus and racial tension in society, now is the time for us to have strong leadership, and to treat each other with respect and dignity…. We need to bring people to the table from all walks of life. Reflecting on the matter of developing a public transportation system for the city which might include buses, bike paths, sidewalks, Roper said, “We have to take a look at the revenue streams, and it goes back to the issue of infrastructure. We do want people to be able to move around the city with ease and efficiently. For the younger generation, we want bike paths and sidewalks. We have to be able to leverage things to grow and attract young people to Vidalia.”
He observed, “One thing the virus has taught us is that we can offer the amenities of a small community to people who have a chance to work re- continued from page
motely with a company based somewhere else. We have a beautiful downtown which can prosper and continue to grow. We need to continue to work with the Downtown Development Authority and we need to bring in businesses that offer extracurricular activities.”
Concerning the issue of developing public housing for low-income families and seniors as a way to address the problem of dilapidated housing in the city, Roper said, “It is a double-edged sword. You want to give people the opportunity to stay in their homes, but we don’t want certain areas of the community to become blighted. On the city side, we need to make sure we are enforcing our codes and we need to be able to step in and do something with properties.”
He added, “But we also want to help the community to thrive and prosper. For me the long-term fix is what I have been passionate about for the last nine years (as a board of education member), education. If we could just get kids to understand that education is the equalizer of this community then we can break cyclical challenges in our community.”
He noted, “We need to pour everything we can into the next generation. We need to make sure that our young people value education. That is the long-term answer to low-income housing. People don’t want a hand out but a hand up. It costs you nothing to get a good education. We have the best schools and educators. It is truly about building a village with faith, the school systems, non-profits, civic clubs and more so our children can make better choices.”
Candidates for the Toombs County Commission, District 2 Incumbent District 2 Toombs County Commissioner Wendell Dixon, who has served in his post for eight years, is facing retired Vidalia internist Dr. Samuel Rayapati in the November 3 election.
The candidates fielded questions about promoting tourism in the county; support of a study on discharging firearms in densely populated, unincorporated areas of the county; a long-term strategy for waste disposal and recycling; and guaranteeing that taxes won’t increase as construction on the new county courthouse goes forward.
A native and lifelong resident of Vidalia, Dixon has been a local banker for 32 years. His community service includes being a board member of the Toombs County Recreation Department and the Toombs County Development Authority. He has also served on the United Way Board of Directors, on the Sweet Onion Classic Board and as chairman of the Vidalia Onion Festival. He was named Citizen of the Year in 2001 and ABWA Business Associate of the Year in 2001.
In regard to promoting tourism in Toombs County, Dixon referenced the “hidden asset of the nearby Altamaha River,” and noted that while he served on the county Development Authority there were discussions about building a 1,000 acre to 2,000 acre lake “which would be great for tourism” by offering camping and fishing opportunities and a location for residential development.
Concerning the question of support for funding a study to look into common sense restrictions on the discharge of firearms in densely-populated, unincorporated areas of the county, Dixon said he would support such a study if it was determined to be necessary.
On the issue of support for a long-term strategy for decreasing what is being put in the county landfill by more aggressive recycling, collection and processing Dixon said, recycling had already been tried and “people just don’t seem to do it.” He noted that the county built seven new landfill cells four years ago at a cost of $3 to $4 million to contain the refuse generated by Toombs County, along with some refuse coming from Tattnall and Montgomery counties. “We have seven convenience centers. Residents can bring recycling item to all of those convenience centers.”
Commenting on not increasing taxes to build the new county courthouse, Dixon said, “I have been on the commission eight years. When I first started in 2013 the millage rate was 9.625. We lowered ad valorem taxes five times and I voted for that every time.” He said in defending the need for a new courthouse, “In the 1960s we had 16,000 people in Toombs County, and now the population is pushing 30,000.” Noting that the old courthouse has become obsolete in a number of ways, Dixon emphasized, “SPLOST money will pay for it. The City of Vidalia and the City of Santa Claus are also contributing funds. Sales tax will pay for it.”
In closing, Dixon remarked that he and his family are known for service to the community. “My family has been a part of this community for many years. My father, Hugh Dixon, was mayor of Vidalia in the 1960s and early 1970s, my brother, Ronnie, was mayor of Vidalia for over 25 years. I have enjoyed serving my community for the last continued from page
eight years and I hope to continue that tradition.”
Dr. Samuel Rayapati
After establishing an internal medical practice in Toombs County, Dr. Samuel Rayapati raised a family locally and has continued to live in Vidalia for 30 years. Rayapati received his medical degree from Guntur Medical College in Guntur, India, in 1969. He trained at Cleveland Clinic of Huron Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and has practiced medicine in Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio. He also served as a physician with the Veterans Administration and served as a missionary to India and Africa.
“It makes me proud to see young people who were my former pediatric patients here in the community.” He emphasized that the community’s young people need jobs. “We need more investment in our economic (growth),” he said. He is especially concerned about encouraging young people to choose careers in medicine and health care and emphasized the importance of building a sound foundation in education and job training. Another of his priorities is access to good, affordable health care for all.
Commenting on the question regarding promoting tourism locally, Rayapati referenced Vidalia’s international brand as the capital city for the Vidalia Onion. “We have the Vidalia Onion museum here and natural resources like the area rivers that have the potential (to host) recreational opportunities and attract tourists.”
On the issue of common sense restrictions on discharging firearms in denselypopulated, unincorporated areas of the county, Rayapati acknowledged, “I am a doctor and medicine and firearms are on opposite polls.” He added, “Yes, I would support a study with common sense restrictions applied.” Regarding the question of beefing up recycling to take the pressure off local landfills, Rayapati said, simply, “Yes, we are doing it.”
Regarding construction of the courthouse and its future impact on taxation, Rayapati noted that the funds have already been set aside and a spending cap guaranteed. “I will see that our taxes do not go up because of this.”
Montgomery County Commission District 3, Post 1 Candidates (Mount Vernon and Ailey Districts) Thadeus Holloway, a Democrat and a licensed professional counselor and Ginger Byrd Morris, a Republican and a career educator, are vying for the Montgomery County Commission District 3, Post 1 formerly occupied by Greg Palmer. Morris defeated Palmer in June in the General Primary. The candidates responded to questions about: economic development and job creation; how to strategically apply resources to priority issues; their stance on fixing roadways; and their experience with preparing and authorizing budgets.
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Noting, “My goal here is to be a good steward,” candidate Thadeus Holloway elaborated that this declaration means commitment to selfless service, belief in sustainability, practicing inclusiveness to make sure that all have a voice, communication, and disseminating information to the masses. In commenting on creating jobs and fostering economic dev elopment , Holloway said an educated workforce is one of the assets a business is looking for when choosing a location. “So when industries come here, we have a job pool and say we can handle your needs.” He advocated better preparing young people for emerging into the workforce by broadening their horizons about the kinds of skills and expertise industries expect. He advocated an annual college fair in Montgomery County to introduce young people to what is available. “We want an educated workforce to keep finances within the county, maintain revenue, and build up.” On the matter of applying resources to community priorities, Holloway said the local crime rate, the rise in substance abuse and the need for better mental health care are issues that concern him. A master addictions counselor, nationally certifi ed counselor and a licensed professional counselor, Holloway has over 15 years of experience in the mental health field. He referred to the fact that crime, drug addiction and mental health issues are often inter-related and place an additional burden on law enforcement. “Decrease the time the sheriff has to spend on these issues. Bring in a free medication program for mental health issues. We do not have enough resources for pro bono services and sliding scale fee services.” He also advocated putting more money into a local afterschool program which can provide tutoring to increase test scores as well as provide secure child care. He also expressed concern about inadequate housing for fixed-income and lowincome families.
Regarding the issue of upgrading dirt roads in the largely rural county, Holloway noted, “If there is a large rain, children cannot make it to school. If you have a child with a learning difficulty, that is another day of learning you have to try to make up and children with discipline issues need structure and consistency.” He allowed, “Most of the residents live on dirt roads. We have to keep the roads clear for the Post Office and delivery services so the county can move fluidly and safely.”
About his experience with budget preparation and authorization, Holloway said, “My experience sitting on boards and committees had taught me how to make wise decisions.” He offered as an example his work with the nonprofit Tri-County Family Connection where he has assisted the director in managing those finances for a three-county area, including Montgomery County.
In closing, Holloway referenced the lessons he learned from his parents and grandparents who “gave their last to help others.” He added that winning this post would afford him an opportunity to serve on a greater platform. His priorities, if elected, would include a transit program for the elderly and underprivileged; helping felons to clear their records so they can be productive community citizens and provide for their families; and giving a voice to those who have no voice.
Ginger Byrd Morris
Educator Ginger Morris seeks to make a difference in the community where she grew up. “A life well lived is a life of service,” she observed. During the last 10 years, Morris has served as an assistant principal, principal and Federal Programs Director before becoming the Assistant Superintendent for the Vidalia City School System. In the public school arena Morris has “worked hard to meet the needs of stakeholders.” Now, she hopes to apply what she has learned in her capacity as an educator and community volunteer to serve the citizens of Montgomery County. Commenting on the issue of economic development and job creation, Morris said, “It is critically important to bring in new industry, but that requires infrastructure. We need to consider what Montgomery County has to offer, what it is capable of doing and what industries will expect. We must ask the hard questions.” She advocated determining the county’s niche in future industrial development. “We need to talk to legislators and remind them that there is a Georgia below the fall line. The Internet and technology are not here and it’s not fair.” She applauded the fact that Brewton Parker College is part of the community, but emphasized the need to find other effective ways to train the workforce of tomorrow so that new business and industry will be inclined to locate in Montgomery County.
If new resources were made available, one area of county services on which Morris would focus is the county’s infrastructure. “It is the challenge of the unknown to make sure citizens receive everything they need. We could not have imagined COVID and masks a while back,” she said of the unexpected pandemic which has changed every aspect of daily life. “Also, I would like more resources to go into the educational system. The value in that is that we will raise productive citizens ready to answer the needs of the 21st century.” Pointing out that Montgomery County has over 200 miles of dirt roads, Morris commended the county’s maintenance crew for its “phenomenal” work. She added that citizens should expect to have good roads on which to travel, “but you always have more need than money.” She explained that as a Federal Program Director she worked on many grants and will use that expertise and a systematic approach to find funding to ensure the financial burden for road improvements is not placed on the shoulders of county residents. About her experience with preparing and authorizing budgets, Morris said, “My entire life has been spent in public service. As an administrator at a system level, a Federal Programs Director at a district level, and as past president of the Chamber of Commerce, I have served on a lot of boards. I understand budgets and being frugal with people’s money. I understand having to work as a team and set priorities to meet basic needs while at same time having vision forward.”
In closing, she remarked, “Democracy is wonderful when we participate. With a servant’s heart I understand and recognize there is a lot of need out there and everybody has to be heard. Character and integrity matter and so many times those things are forgotten by public servants. I won’t forget who I work for and serve.”