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New commissioner, BOE members take office
New District 5 Commissioner Gene Wallace is sworn in by Probate Judge Billy Reynolds while Wallace's wife Donna stands by his side. - photo by Jeff Whitten

There were no prepared speeches Tuesday night in Black Creek when Bryan County School Board Chairwoman Amy Perkins Murphy and District 1 representative Pam Gunter were sworn in by Probate Judge Billy Reynolds, along with a handful of incumbents. There were plenty of photos, however, then a brief called meeting to settle some administrative items before an upcoming retreat on Jekyll Island.

For Murphy, who spent more than six years on the school board before stepping down in 2018 to run for the chairman’s seat, the group swearing with incumbents David Schwartz, Marianne Smith and Derrick Smith, each of whom is starting a new term, the ceremony emphasized the collective nature of the broad.

“The board has no power as individuals. We function as a board, our decisions are made as a board, and it just felt right to swear in together,” Murphy said.

Her priorities?

Team building and helping new members learn the job is one, and maintaining good relationships with government officials in Bryan County, Pembroke and Richmond Hill is another. So is keeping pace with Bryan County’s rapidly growing population, which makes it one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. by a number of accounts.

Murphy’s seen enrollment grow by approximately 2,000 students in her six years on the board, as families move to Bryan County in part because of the school system’s reputation for strong academics.

“We have challenges we’re facing such as growth and building new schools,” Murphy said. “But my No. 1 priority is student achievement and doing what we need to be focused on to make that happen.”

She also said the board will have plenty of support from parents, businesses and the community at large.

“We have a great community. Everybody values and supports our school system,” Murphy said. “Hands down, everybody supports it, and that’s the no 1 reason we’re successful.”

Gunter, a Bryan County native, grew up in the school system and her children attend the local schools.

“I ran and am serving because I care about our community and our kids and families,” she said. “I wanted to make sure our children and their education come first.”

The newest member of the Bryan County Commission made it official during a Jan. 3 ceremony at the South Bryan Administrative Complex.

District 5 Commissioner Gene Wallace, a retired dentist, was sworn in by Judge Reynolds. Also sworn in were incumbents Brad Brookshire and Wade Price, who ran unopposed for Districts 4 and 2, respectively.

But the podium Thursday belonged to Wallace and the man he replaced, retired Army pilot Rick Gardner. Gardner spent three terms as the District 5 commissioner before deciding not to run again.

Wallace thanked family and supporters, and said when he decided to run he was usually asked two questions.

One was “why?” he said. “The other was, “are you okay?”

Wallace also said he’ll try to apply a yardstick for office similar to one he used in dentistry.

He said as a dentist treating a patient, “you get to a point when you need to decide what to do next.”

For him, that decision was guided by what he would do if the patient he was treating was a parent, or his wife or children, Wallace said.

“If you asked yourself that question, the answer came immediately,” he said. “It wasn’t always the thing most profitable for me as a dentist, but it was the best thing for them as a person.”

Wallace said he’ll try to use a similar approach when it comes to being a commissioner, and at the end of the day he wants to see the same quality of life for his grandkids and their children he found when he moved here decades ago.

“Right now, decisions are being made by politicians that will have lasting effects,” he said. “Things being decided today will 10 years from now be affecting what we try do. So my yardstick will be to measure my decisions by how they will effect today, tomorrow, next week, next year or 40 years from now.”

Wallace said ensuring emergency services in Bryan are first rate is his top priority.

“We owe it to ourselves and our citizens that when we call 911 we’ve got people qualified, certified and they’ve got all the equipment they need to do the job,” he said.

Wallace pointed to his roots — he’s from Pooler but has lived in Bryan County since 1982 and raised his family here — and said that while the county “has some catching up to do,” with growth, there are many positive things happening.

“I’m very happy with the way things are headed,” he said. “It’s easy to sit back on social media and Facebook and complain about everything that comes along. To me, and I’ve come to meetings and there are only four or five people here, if you have something on your mind, show up and bring your friends.”

Wallace also said that though he has his own opinions, “I will always remember the most important thing in my job is the voices of the people and their wishes.”

When it was clear that Wallace wouldn’t face opposition, commissioners invited him to attend meetings and retreats to learn more about issues facing Bryan County, a gesture he said he was grateful for Thursday night.

“I thought I knew a lot until I started going and then realized I didn’t,” Wallace said, before thanking his “dear friend,” Gardner.

The two have known each other for 30 years, Wallace said.

“I won’t be able to fill his shoes, but maybe I can take his place (on the commission) anyway. He is such a wealth of knowledge on the history of our county.”

Gardner said he learned from his mentor, former commissioner Al Dixon, that sometimes the trick is to learn the right question to ask. That first came when Gardner asked Dixon when his road was due to paved, and Dixon told him it was next on the list.

“Four or five months went by and nothing happened, and then it occurred to me I didn’t ask the right question, so I asked, ‘how many lists do you have?’ and Al told me I was No. 1 on the second list.”

Gardner said Wallace as a commissioner will face similar moments when he has to learn the right question to ask, but “I walk away with a clean, wonderful heart because I know you look at things very much in the same light I look at them. My job was to represent the people. I know how I felt about things, but we represent the people.”

Gardner also expressed hope the occasional bumpy relationship between Bryan County and Richmond Hill, and South Bryan and North Bryan, will be calmer in years to come. He said the first time he was sworn in 2001 it took place at Richmond Hill City Hall because it was encouraged by former commission chairman Carlton Gill.

“It’s just being good citizens,” Gardner said. “I hope we can work harder to bring our communities together, be one Bryan County.”





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