Now a year into her fourth term, Judy Cook has been mayor of Pembroke almost as long as some of the freshmen at Bryan County High School have been on earth.
Add Cook’s time in city government — she started working for the city in 1972 and became city clerk shortly afterward — and she’s been a part of governing the city her great grandfather helped incorporate for longer than some of those same students parents have been alive.
Monday, Cook spent part of the afternoon sharing some of her experiences in government with BCHS students.
In some circles, it would be called "having a dialogue."
"How many of y’all would like to see a Walmart in Pembroke?" she asked, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
"I’d like you to think for a minute," Cook said. "What does Walmart have that Pembroke doesn’t have?"
She then mentioned everything from groceries to pharmacies to gas stations to auto parts, summing up by saying, "We have everything that Walmart has."
That led to a discussion involving Pembroke Downtown Development Authority Director Alex Floyd, a BCHS alumnus himself, on how money spent at local businesses stays local while money spent at a big chain retailer like Walmart leaves the community.
While it may have been city government 101, before Cook’s talk was over she’d covered everything from the city’s charter to the role the press plays in "keeping us honest."
She also noted her great-grandfather, John Bacon, was a state legislator who carried Pembroke’s request to become a city to Atlanta and got the bill passed.
The town was incorporated in 1905.
And, Cook proudly told the students her age. She’s 72, and was the first woman in Pembroke to be elected mayor.
"There have been 26 male mayors," she said. "Guess what happened to No. 27?"
Cook raised her hand. "That’s me."
She urged students who aren’t registered to vote to do so when they turn 18 and provided them copies of the city’s charter. She explained the differences between council and mayor and gave an outline of the city’s budget, which at $2.1 million isn’t all that big when salaries for the city’s 28 full time employees are taken into consideration.
She explained zoning, such as one that prohibits residents from keeping of chickens within a certain distance from a neighbor’s house. Another soon to change zoning ordinance apparently will apply to other livestock as well.
"We have somebody on that list (who will be affected by the change) and she has two goats," Cook said. "Right now, she’s legal, and when she’s rezoned she will still be legal up to a point, but if one of these goats dies, or both of those goats die, then she can’t have any more goats."
But all codes and ordinances have to be balanced by "common sense," Cook added. "You have to use your common sense."
Her visit with students was one of a number of city events involving officials from both Pembroke and Richmond Hill as part of Georgia Cities Week, a Georgia Municipal Association creation that seeks to inform city residents of the roles municipalities play in their lives.
"Cities" week in Bryan County kicked off Sunday when Pembroke dedicated a pair of parks, then got into high gear on Monday with a breakfast sponsored by the Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce at thes City Center featuring GMA president Lamar Norton.
Pembroke leaders met at the Black Creek Golf Course for lunch and to get an update on state legislation impacting cities, then Cook and Floyd made the trip back to Bryan County High School to talk to students.
Among them was freshman honors student Amber Neuroth, who drew applause when she asked a question about gerrymandering. Afterward, Neuroth said she learned a thing or two from what Cook had to say.
"I thought she was really good, and I enjoy learning about government," Neuroth said, noting she is interested in pursuing some sort of work in government once she finishes school.
Cook also applauded Neuroth’s question, explaining that both Republicans and Democrats try to shape districts to benefit them when they’re in power.
She contrasted state and federal politics with her city’s nonpartisan elections and said if it were up to her, all elections would be run without party labels.
"That way candidates are elected based on their qualifications, not their party," she said. "I wish the state and federal government would do the same thing, but that’s just my opinion."
Cook had some parting advice for the students, asking them "what’s the one thing everybody has but only you can give away?"
When no one got it, she responded, "your name."
"The kind of reputation you have, it will carry you in a small town, I promise you that," she said. "So I encourage you to be kind, be respectful, and don’t smart off."