Tara Baraniak likes to say she runs Richmond Hill. Starting Jan. 1, she probably will.
The Richmond Hill runner is the newest city councilman and will run unopposed in the November election. If she gets one vote, she will be filling the seat of Russ Carpenter, who vacated the council seat to run for mayor of the city, also unopposed.
Although new to elected politics, Baraniak whet her teeth making decisions – some popular and some not – by serving the past several years on the City Planning Commission. The commitment to serving the public on the planning commission is not new to Baraniak’s family. Her husband, also a runner and athlete, served on the planning commission before she decided to serve on the commission.
It’s what the Baraniak’s do – get involved.
Baraniak has one daughter, Camryn, 11, in Richmond Hill Middle School and has been married to Brian for 20 years. She was born and reared in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2006, which coincided with her desire to make a career move into commercial real estate.
"I was involved in real estate in Charleston, before moving to Richmond Hill. Friends of ours lived here and were builders. They approached Brian and I in 2005 and told us this area outside Richmond Hill had a lot of room for growth. They wanted to get into the commercial development side but didn’t have time, so they approached Brian and I about coming and making a move," Baraniak said.
"We came and looked at Richmond Hill and saw that the Richmond Hill area, and Savannah, had a lot of room for growth. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We had fallen in love with real estate in South Carolina."
Baraniak formed her own real estate company in South Carolina and had her real estate sales license.
"So we came and looked here and really loved the area … We formed a partnership with our friends. We started commercial development and in 2007, the market went stagnant. So we had to look elsewhere," she said.
"So, it’s funny. Commercial development brought us to Richmond Hill. It just didn’t pan out."
Soon after, Baraniak started her own company, Pace Out, which is active wear, for the entire family.
"It was about setting your own pace in life. Pick your pace and stick to it and not giving up on what you start," she said with a smile.
Despite being on the planning commission and soon the City Council, the local activist continues to find time to give back to the community.
"I’ve always believed in being involved. Don’t complain if you’re not going to be involved. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem. So I think it is about managing my time and balancing it wisely," she said.
"I love being involved in the community. I’ve been involved ever since we moved here. I’ve been on planning and zoning for three years now. A lot of time I describe it as fun. Even when I decided to run for City Council I thought it would be fun. Maybe it’s because I enjoy it. I like being involved and knowing what is going on and, maybe my whole family is like this, but I don’t believe in complaining without working to find a way to fix things."
For Baraniak it is a simple matter of community involvement versus community complacency.
"People sometimes forget that we are all on the same team. Whether it’s the planning commission or the City Council, we are all part of the same community with the same concerns. The only difference is we can’t have thousands of people making decisions. So I sit behind a big desk with a microphone but we are all concerned about the same issues facing the city and area. We are part of the same team."
Baraniak knows that serving in a public form – whether planning commission or City Council – can open you up for criticism and second guessing.
"I have to be OK with people thinking negatively about me and will have to handle that. I’ll be able to handle that because I know that every decision I’ve made, or will make, will be in the best interests of Richmond Hill residents."
The soon-to-be elected councilman also brings a desire to the table to have the three local governmental entities – city, county and school – to work closely together and have each not operate as if operating in a void.
"In all city, county and school leadership, if you meet these people one on one, you will like those people. They’re good people. Every one of them has good intentions. We just all have a different thought process or way we go about things. But we all have good intentions. No one is taking on a leadership role trying to do anything other than their best."
Baraniak said she was surprised no one else qualified in August for City Council, giving her an unopposed mandate for the seat.
"I was shocked. All the discussions in the past few months about growth. It seems there are a lot people who wanted to get involved. I’m really surprised that no one threw their hat in the ring against me. But I want people to know who I am and what I stand for. The first thing I would have done if someone had qualified against me would be to have gone and spoken to them. If I thought they would have done a better job than me, I would have bowed out."
That’s not something you hear every day from budding or experienced politicians.
Baraniak said jokingly that she would have used the phrase "I run Richmond Hill" in her campaign literature because she is a runner and has gotten in the habit of running around the city to look at different areas that were coming up for some type of action at planning commission meetings.
Her ongoing message — campaigning or not — to people in the city is to get involved and be part of the change process.
She said she will also work hard as a city councilman to work closely with the county and school leadership.
"It’s so important that we are all on the same page when making decisions about this area."
Baraniak acknowledged that the relations between the three government entities seem to ebb and flow and she will try to bring a different perspective to ongoing discussions between the three.
"I haven’t been part of the history. I make up my own mind but will work very hard to be open to working together. It’s that important."
When not involved in community affairs or attending meetings, Baraniak loves to run and exercise.
"I love to be active and exercise. I like to run the city and see different parts of it from the ground view. I love to swim. I’m a member of the YMCA. Staying physically fit is high on my list.
"It’s funny because I love to eat. So, it’s always a mix of running, exercising and eating."
Baraniak said she exercises, conservatively, five or six days a week and runs less than that but still more than the average person.
"All of that is very important to me."
Baraniak said she is invested in the community and can’t see herself leaving.
"There are a lot of cool people in this area. This is a great place to live and we have a lot of room for growth. It just has to be done the right way.
"I’m going to try and help that happen."