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Candidate forum covers county, statewide issues

Editor’s note: The Bryan County Republican Party will host a second forum in Pembroke on Wednesday, April 24, beginning at 6 p.m. at the Dixie Harn Community Center.

With early voting beginning Monday for the May 21 primary, Republicans in contested primary races for local and state office got a chance to make an impression with voters during a candidates’ forum Thursday night at the Richmond Hill City Center.

Of those races, perhaps the most hotly contested is that for the chairmanship of the Bryan County Commission – a seat currently held by two-term incumbent Carter Infinger.

While the question and answer format of the forum did not allow for debate between candidates, it was clear there were sharp differences – or differences of opinion on the job done by the incumbent -- between Infinger, a pharmaceutical sales rep who has been on the commission since 2011, and Holly, the owner of firearm parts manufacturing company C&H Precision.

Holly repeatedly touted his business acumen while pointing at what he said were failures by incumbent leadership.

“I’m not a politician, I admit that. I’m gruff sometimes,” he said at one point, adding, “you may not like where I stand on a position, but you’re going to know where I stand on a position. I make business decisions based on data, I don’t make business decisions based on emotions. Some people don’t like that.”

Infinger, meanwhile, said his experience and service on boards ranging from the I-16 Savannah Harbour Corridor Joint Development Authority to a regional commission on health services and his relationships at the regional, state and federal level make him better qualified for the seat.

“This election isn’t about games, gimmicks and photo ops,” he said, adding “I have the experience and knowledge to continually move our county forward …. You might be able to afford a seat in first class, but you still  have to know how to fly the plane.”

The event, sponsored by the Bryan County Republican Party, drew a crowd, most of whom stayed until the end.

The field included candidates for the District 3 seat on the Bryan County Commission and the vice chairmanship of the Bryan County School Board, and the Georgia Senate. And with no Democrats running, the winners in the Republican primary will take office in January, should no write-in candidates arise before September.

Moderated by radio personality Laura Anderson Picone, the April 18 forum lasted just under an hour and 45 minutes and drew eight of nine candidates for seats representing South Bryan. They took turns answering questions on everything from growth to water to election security. And, in their opening statements, each candidate was able to introduce themselves and tell voters why they were running.

In addition, Picone led off the forum noting questions were emailed to organizers and weren’t seen prior to the event. Candidates had two minutes each for an opening and closing statement as well as to answer questions.

Perhaps the easiest of the questions was the first, which asked for a yes or no answer whether candidates supported term limits. All said yes.

County Commission Chairman

The looming opening of the Hyundai Metaplant in Black Creek as it relates to the county’s comprehensive plan was the topic of the first question asked by the candidates.

Holly cited the need for affordable housing and preparations for the increase in workforce heading to the county, more job training and a more nimble commission which moved faster to get projects such as Brisbon Road finished.

Holly then charged the county isn’t treating North Bryan residents equally, citing what he said was lack of resources devoted to restoring facilities at Hendrix Park in the wake of the April 5, 2022 tornado that leveled the recreation park.

“People on the north end feel like the red headed step child,” Holly said, adding, “If we can’t fix the little problems we have now, how do we prepare for the growth we’ll have in the future.”

Infinger called the county’s 247-page comprehensive plan a “living document” and a roadmap, and one which is updated regularly. Improvements to Brisbon Road are forthcoming in 2025 and the new gym at Hendrix Park is out for bid, he said, while citing a $54 million road improvement project at Belfast Keller and noting that the 2022 tornado resulted in a time-consuming $18 million insurance claim with the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia – the largest such claim in the ACCG’s history, which has slowed some of the repairs.

“There’s a lot of work going on that people don’t see,” Infinger said. “I think we’re on the right path.”

Another question directed to Infinger and Holly referred to claims that crime in West Point increased by 400 percent over a 12-month period after the Kia plant opened there in 2010. The two part question also asked how the county would work with the sheriff on building a new jail in Pembroke. The current jail was heavily damaged during the April 2022 tornado, forcing the county to pay to house inmates elsewhere, and critics say it is also too small to deal with Bryan County’s years of rapid growth.

Infinger said the county is working with Sheriff Mark Crowe – the first-term sheriff is running unopposed in 2024  – to secure $50 million in funding for the new jail, and has routinely funded everything from new vehicles to increased patrols where necessary, and will, continue to do what it took to help protect both ends of the community.

Infinger added that the damage to the Bryan County Courthouse caused by the tornado led to some hardships, but he expects the Courthouse to be operational in mid-July.

Holly said problems with the jail show that “to run a county if you’re going to solve problems you need to think ahead proactively, not reactively.”

He said the cost of a new jail would be $55 million, and claimed the current facility is the worst in the state.

“A strong business leader is always proactive looking three, five, 10, 15 years ahead,” he said. “That’s advantageous for the community.”

The candidates were also asked about their take on the duties of the commission as well as what commitments were made to Hyundai and what they knew about lawsuits against the county.

Holly responded the county commission’s role is to govern the county and the chairman’s role is to set the agenda and “lead from the top.”

He claimed the county’s lack of transparency made it difficult to know what exactly commissioners may have promised to Hyundai, but knows the county is responsible for providing water and sewer and it’s important that the carmaker succeeds, otherwise taxpayers will be left with a huge burden.

As for lawsuits, Holly raised the issue of four suits filed in July and October 2023 by firefighters alleging whistleblower violations and more. He claims a number of fire and EMS personnel have left the department and questioned what leadership was doing to cause it.

In his answer to the questions, Infinger noted he’s been to some 120 commission meetings – “some have been to zero, I’ve been to a lot,” before noting the county has roughly 500 employees and it’s not uncommon for some to have issues. As for the Metaplant, Infinger gave a quick rundown on the county’s role, from zoning and inspections to working with the Savannah Harbor Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority, of which Infinger is chairman to provide infrastructure.

Infinger then took a different tack on lawsuits, adding that the county was sued in 2019 by the Savannah Homebuilders Association over its development ordinances and impact fees to help fund transportation projects in South Bryan.

“Five years ago we had to make a decision whether we were going to stand with the home builders or stand with the people in this community,” he said, adding “I believe in impact fees.”

The two men were also asked about recreation and if there are plans to build an aquatic center.

Infinger, citing the recent building of a new gym and additional fields in Henderson Park, said the county is expanding recreation services as the county grows. He said a study has been done on an aquatic center, which would be a “$20-25 million investment,” to build and operate it, and “right now we’re not at the population to support it.

“I would like to see it, but don’t want to put it on the backs of taxpayers,” Infinger added.

He also rebutted claims Hendrix Park has been neglected, noting that after the tornado no games were missed and summer camp programs there have been expanded.

Holly in turn said Infinger was a politician, and “that not one parent up there (in North Bryan) believes the rec facilities are up to par,” while citing issues ranging from safety to bleachers to concessions. He said the county also needs to provide recreational alternatives to children who don’t like sports, such as art.

During their closing statements, Holly reiterated the slogan on campaign signs that he will be a “chairman for all people,” while adding what the county does for South Bryan it should do for North Bryan. At one point Holly said he thinks that part of Bryan County has been “shafted on funding.”

During his final two minutes, Infinger referenced the county’s growth and said “there are issues we need to work on,” but added that he’s out in the community “every day.

“And it is not about a North Bryan and South Bryan,” Infinger said. “It’s one Bryan. We take care of one Bryan. We are all Bryan County.”

Other candidates appearing at the forum were District 1 State Sen. Ben Watson, M.D., and his challenger, Beth Majeroni; County Commission District 3 hopefuls Kevin Bowes and Chris Raiford – a third candidate for the D-3 seat, Jeff Neilson, was reportedly unable to attend due to a prior commitment and sent a statement to be read; and Marianne Smith and Scott  Novinksi, candidates for the vice chairman’s seat on the Bryan County School Board.

Both that seat and the District 3 post on the Bryan County Commission will be open because the incumbents, Karen Krupp and Dr. Gene Wallace, are stepping down at the end of their respective terms in December.

Vice chairman’s seat, Bryan County School Board

The second round of questions began with one directed at Smith and Novinksi. Namely, whether they supported impact fees for education to help the school system deal with growth. Bryan County has added more than 6,000 students over the past decade while its operating budget alone has more than doubled from approximately $53 million in 2014 to more than $111 million in 2024.

Smith, a registered nurse and current District 4 incumbent who has served on the BOE since 2011, said she supports such fees to help offset the immediate costs associated with new students entering the system.

Novinksi, who with his wife Jill own a Biggby Coffee Shop franchise in Savannah and ran unsuccessfully for chairman of the school board in 2022, said he supports funding to help offset the cost of more students, but said the district has to be careful of what is asked in return for any funding.

The two candidates were also asked about the cost to Bryan County Schools associated with teaching undocumented immigrants.

Novinksi said he was the grandson of immigrant parents from Poland persecuted by Nazis in Germany, and that while he didn’t know the number of such students, “we need to take care of our students and take care of one another. Teaching kids is important,” before referencing the school board’s joining the Georgia School Board Association and asking whether that meant the BOE gave up its power to the system’s superintendent, Dr. Paul Brooksher.

Smith answered the question of the cost of undocumented children in two words: “Zero dollars.”

The candidates were asked how many genders should be recognized in Bryan County Schools. Both said “two.”

Smith and Novinksi were also asked if the system’s not paying into the Social Security System was costing them teachers who leave Bryan County Schools to work elsewhere for better benefits.

Smith said the issue is a complicated one and while she has friends who’ve left the system for Chatham County, she believes BCS has a better retirement system in place, which is perhaps a reason the system has great teachers and strong teacher retention. She also promised to study the reasons behind BCS’ opting not to pay into Social Security and provide the answer on her Facebook page.

Novinksi said for as long as he can remember there have been concerns Social Security might run out of funding, though it might come down to the cost to the county to pay into the system and that it felt employees money was better invested into another option, such as a 401K.

In their closing statements, Novinksi, who was one of a handful of Republicans to challenge incumbents in the 2022 primary in an effort to “flip the board,” said their candidacies in that election had an effect on the system in terms of better transparency and improved policies on cell phone use and bullying, for example, but there was still work to be done to improve a good school system and make it better.

Smith touted the system’s rankings as one of the best in Georgia as well as the quality of its teachers and its graduation rate, which she said has improved from 63 percent when she came on board to better than 93. She also said she’d hoped there would be an opportunity to talk about school safety measures, as well as the effects growth has had on the system.

She called the current Bryan BOE “the most phenomenal board around,” adding “they’re family, the teachers are family and we’re not done. I’ll fight for your kids and their education by any means possible.”

District 3: County Commission

Neilson, who owns beverage stores and is a longtime volunteer firefighter and recreation coach, had a statement read by Picone at the beginning of the forum in which he stressed the importance of recreational opportunities and promised to hold meetings with voters.

District 3 hopefuls Bowes and Raiford were first asked to give their takes on budget constraints and fiscal responsibility and accountability. Bowes, an enrolled agent and owner of Dynamic Businesses and Tax Services who serves on the Richmond Hill DDA and Bryan County Planning Commission, called for a department by department look at how tax dollars are being spent to make sure they aren’t wasted.

Raiford, a Claxton Bank vice president and head of the bank’s branch in Richmond Hill as well as an unsuccessful candidate in 2023 for a seat on Richmond Hill city council, said the county needs to look at coming growth due to Hyundai’s Metaplant and try to understand how it applies to local small businesses and families. A longtime member of Richmond Hill’s planning and zoning board, he too called for financial transparency and county commissioners who were approachable. 

The two were also asked about the need for transparency on the commission.

Raiford said he’d be “extremely approachable,” and that he wouldn’t pretend he had all the answers, “I know the starting point is putting the right people in place.

“Nobody should have the feeling of condescension or have a pit in the stomach from trying to get something approved at the county commission,” Raiford said, adding, “sometimes I feel like local government is a kink in the hose and we need to get it out.”

Bowes said in his job it’s important to be transparent and that he tries his best for every client.

“I think having an honest person (on the commission) is a paramount need right now,” he said. “Everybody should know the exact thing going on at the exact time.”

The men were also asked how they’d work with other governments to accomplish goals.

Bowes, who cited his work on boards, said it’s important to meet with others and get perspectives, and include everyone.

“It takes a village,” he said. “We’re all one county, whether up in Pembroke or down here in Richmond Hill.”

Raiford also pointed to his experience on boards, saying, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

He added that he has respect for Richmond Hill’s City Council members and Mayor Russ Carpenter, and “I feel the same way about some of our county commissioners,” and that he would be a “humble, approachable,” conduit between the county and city.

The candidates were also asked about requests that the county get rid of electronic voting machines and go to paper ballots.

Raeford said the issue needed study and questioned whether paper ballots would be better at preventing fraud and if the issue should be addressed at the state level. He promised to listen to constituents, however.

Bowes said the issue should be decided at the local level but technology is not perfect and any system can be hacked. Still, he said it is more important to research and rein in technology rather than “go back to the stone age.”

In his closing statement, Bowes said the word “constituent” was being overused and that it was better to use “family, friend, citizen, neighbor. We’re all in the same pod here.” He promised transparency and to work for residents.

Raiford, meanwhile, thanked those who came to listen and asked that they read the standards expected of commissioners listed in the county’s  comprehensive plan – being a good financial steward, consistently delivering services, promoting a standard of excellence and acting transparently, and that he’d  try to live up to those standards. 

“We’re at a critical spot in our community, the growth we’re about to see is unprecedented,” Raiford said.

State senate

The first question directed at the candidates for state senate regarded election integrity and Spaulding County’s vote to require hand recounts of paper ballots in tandem with the Dominion voting machines.

Majeroni, a retired teacher, is in favor of “unplugging the Dominion voting machines,” she said, and using paper ballots with watermarks and without QR codes.

“None of us in here can read a QR code with our eyes,” Majeroni said. “You as a voter should be able to read everything on your ballots. We need to go to paper ballots and dump the machines.

Watson, an MD who has served in the General Assembly since 2010 as both a representative and senator, noted the QR code has already been done away with and ballots will be watermarked, He said that recounts by machine were preferable to “hand marked” ballots because of possible issues.

“I do not trust hand marking in Fulton County,” he said. “They’ve had improprieties for decades.”

Watson said such hand counted ballots could be open to interpretation. He added the senate addresses election integrity each year, most recently with SB 202, which among other things allows the state to step in if a county “does things wrong.”

Senate candidates were then asked about the recently passed HB 1146, which if signed by Gov. Brian Kemp into law will allow a private company to put in a water system in North Bryan in order to help speed up home construction.

Watson said the bill encouraged conversation about water in Bryan County, where county government has already invested more than $350 million into expanding a water and sewer system to serve both Hyundai and other users in North Bryan.  He said Bryan County currently can’t provide enough water for housing in North Bryan, and working with the private company, Water Utility Management, will help against a proliferation of private wells and septic tanks.

Majeroni was flatly against the measure, which she said puts management of a public natural resource into private hands while disrupting local rule. She also claimed the water company is a top donor to Watson’s campaign, though a check of Open did not show any donations from the company in either 2023 or 2022.  The company has donated amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000 to Watson at times sporadically since 2012, the website said.

The candidates were asked about school  vouchers, which Majeroni called a step in the right direction.

“I am in support of school choice as a concept,” she said. “I believe all parents should have the opportunity to choose what type of learning environment their children take part in and right now parents with money get to do that.”

Watson said the passage of SB 233 providing $6,500 vouchers to parents of students attending schools in the bottom 25 percent was the right thing to do, although it won’t affect parents in Bryan County because there are no failing schools here.

In her closing statement, Majeroni reminded voters that the actual election is May 21 and she’s running as a grassroots candidate against a “five term establishment Republican who’s never had to earn his seat.”

She said her platform is “restoring parental rights, crushing illegal immigration, eliminating state income tax and election integrity.”

Watson, who listed the committees on which he serves, said the difference between he and his challenger are clear, and that he’s the candidate who builds relationships while working with leaders at all levels to get things done. He also noted he went out to make sure all of Bryan County was put into Senate District 1 to keep the county together, and did so prior to knowing Hyundai was coming.

Bryan County GOP Chairman Jordan Given called the event “a testament to the candidates’ dedication to our community and should inspire us all.”

A second forum set for April 24 in Pembroke is expected to include candidates for Districts 1 and 2 on the north end.

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