Editor's note: We erroneously reported Sharon Lewis' husband Elijah Lewis III is a former councilman. That's incorrect. Her father-in-law, Elijah Lewis II, is a former councilman. The News regrets the error.
It was a tale of two perspectives in Pembroke recently.
Incumbent mayor Judy Cook and incumbent councilwoman Tiffany Walraven touted their experience during a candidate’s forum held Oct. 3 at the J. Dixie Harn Center.
Challenger Sharon Lewis said she’s running for mayor because she wants to help the city she grew up in grow and prosper.
Challenger C. Edward Winter, who is running against Walraven, didn’t attend the event, which was sponsored by the North Bryan Chamber and Bryan County News.
Attended by roughly 75 people, the forum was moderated by North Bryan Chamber President Jessica Guilford, who stepped in at the last minute after former Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards, who now works part time for Bryan County, was sent to the hospital to greet a new grandchild.
Despite the last-minute change, the event gave residents an opportunity to hear first-hand from candidates facing opposition on a number of issues, and included an opportunity for residents to ask questions to the candidates.
In addition, candidates were able to talk directly to voters about themselves, and about why they are running.
Walraven, who was first up, introduced herself by noting she comes from a family of public servants, including her late father, Terry McCoy, a former vice chairman of the Development Authority of Bryan County, and grandfather, Harry Owens, a former Pembroke mayor. Walraven touted her recent naming by the Georgia Municipal Association as one of the state’s “20 under 40,” a group of young elected and appointed city officials considered among the state’s brightest.
And, she listed her experience on the Pembroke Downtown Development Authority, her work with the GMA and as a volunteer at her children’s schools, with 4-H and at her church. Walraven is also a wife and mother, and is a partner in two companies.
Cook, a lifelong resident, is seeking a fifth term as mayor.
She said she started working for the city in 1971 as a utilities clerk and retired as city clerk in 1999 after serving “three different mayors, all with very different leadership styles,” learning from each one.
Cook said she’s a believer in training, “not only for myself and my council, but also for my staff. The more you know, the more you can share and bring back to the city.”
Cook also touted an open door policy “and wants all citizens to have access to elected officials, and have the opportunity to voice their concerns. They may not have always gotten the results they wanted, but I believe I have always given my best.”
A grandmother, Cook is married to longtime former fire chief Jimmy Cook. She has three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“I’ve been married 57 years. That’s a career in itself,” Judy Cook said.
Lewis, another lifelong Pembroke resident, said she’s worked for the state 27 years—15 with the Department of Family and Childrens’ Services, 12 with the Department of Corrections. She’s married to Elijah Lewis III, the son of a former councilman, and they have four daughters, two of whom are teachers, five grandkids and a dog named Noah.
Lewis, who battled a case of nerves during the event, said she has long had a desire to serve Pembroke.
“It’s about the future and building for the future, every single day,” Lewis said. “I genuinely believe I can do a good job. There is a lot of potential in our city and there are many challenges.”
Lewis said she wants to work with city council “and possibly adopt new policies, laws, and programs geared toward citizens and youth to reflect the needs of our city, especially our youth. I can work with anyone, I am a careful decision maker. I am able to hear all sides and make informed decisions. I just want to make a difference in the city in which I live.”
Candidates were then asked a handful of questions, the first of which was why they’re running.
Walraven said she first ran for office in 2008 after getting back from the University of Georgia, where she got her master’s in public administration.
“My dad was serving on the development authority and a lot of my classes related back to the coastal region of Georgia and to growth, and I wanted to help our community grow in a positive way. I didn’t want to come home to see our community bombared with growth without proper planning. I wanted us to be making sure our citizens were taken care, of making sure we maintain the city’s small town charm we’ve always had.”
Cook said she was recruited by three local businessmen in suits to run for mayor in 1999 while cutting grass. They cited her experience in city government and the fact she was a woman.
“I said OK, let’s pray about it and let me talk with my family, and let’s see where it leads,” Cook said.
Lewis said she’s always wanted to run for office, “to make a change. Pembroke is my home and I always want the best for the city and the citizens. I won’t make any empty promises. As mayor, I will serve with dignity and represent the city in a professional manner, with integrity and a vision to keep Pembroke moving forward while keeping the same small town charm.”
Candidates were then asked what made the most qualified – and both Walraven and Cook mentioned experience.
Walraven said through her networking at the state level she’s helped the city bring in some $29 million in funding for projects in six years.
“That’s important, the experience how to go about gathering additional funding through the grant system at the state level and the federal level. I also feel I have provided effective leadership, and lead with integrity and character.”
Lewis said her time as both a DFCS case worker and in the Department of Corrections meant she’s “seen, aided and assisted many families from every community, as well as from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
Lewis said that “when provided with the right tools, assistance and support, people are apt to help themselves to make their lives better. This starts the domino effect of making positive change in the community.”
Cook said “one word, experience.”
“You have to know who to call on any given thing,” she said, citing the recent storm and where the contacts at the city, county, state and federal level were.
“It’s a process there, and I believe experience helps not only in that, but in other areas as well.”
Cook said experience helps her ensure the city’s reliance on grants to help fund improvements is met.
“We’re a small city, we have to depend on grants,” and “we have to be real frugal on how we spend taxpayers money. I’m a conservative when it comes to taxpayers money.”
Candidates were then asked what they hoped to accomplish in both the first three months and then the first year.
Walraven said she wants to see a number of projects finished, including the Ash Branch senior housing development and others.
“In the first three months I hope to see a lot of these projects break ground, and to continue on I hope to close the books on a lot of projects by the end of the year.”
Cook said she wants to see projects finished, but said her top priority is getting an accurate count on the 2020 Census, which will determine the city’s ability to get federal and state funding.
She also pointed to projects done in the last year ranging from the new ell to streetscape plans and work to fix the city’s problem with rainwater getting into the sewer system.
“I’ve dug more dirt and cut more ribbons in the last year than I have in my lifetime, and that is a positive thing,” Cook said, reminding residents of Camilla Row, an affordable housing project in which money from the sale of the homes will be reinvested into building more affordable housing.
Lewis said she wants everyone to “be on the same page.”
“I want to find ways to increase revenue and expand our services as the city grows, and continue to have clean water, good streets, police and fire protection,” she said.
Candidates were also asked how they’d help build consensus with other elected officials on matters facing the city.
Walraven said the council works together.
“We may not always agree on everything that comes before us as a city council and mayor,” she said. “But we compromise, we work together, we bring in ideas from citizens and take those into account. At the end of the day, I go home at night and I know I’m doing what I’m doing not only for my district, but my city. We work together.”
Lewis said she didn’t know enough about the relationships on council to answer that question.
Cook said council members are provided information in advance so they can discuss issues together. They also serve on committees.
Candidates were also asked what the largest issue the city will face in 2020 will be.
All three said it’s dealing with growth. Walraven pointed to the city’s new well, which is located in Bulloch County because Bryan County is restricted by the state Environmental Protection Division from how much water it can pump from the aquifer.
“That took creative thinking on behalf of our engineers and regional cooperation with Bulloch County,” Walraven said.
City leaders believe it’s necessary because Pembroke’s the most western city within 50 miles of Savannah that hasn’t seen explosive growth, “and with the growth of the port, we’re going to see growth and we have to plan effectively and properly,” Walraven said.
Cook said that while Pembroke’s housing market has long been “flat,” she said the digest went up by 3 percent in 2019, which “tells me people are finding Pembroke. But we also want controlled growth. We don’t want to explode.”
Lewis said “as people come in, you have to have something for them do and some place for them to eat.”
She said she’d like to see more businesses locate downtown.
“We have empty buildings, I’d like to see them get filled with something,” Lewis said.
Candidates were then asked how they’d handle contentious issues facing the city.
Walraven said communication is key. She recalled work as part of a Georgia Initiative for Community Housing in which the city held town hall meetings in churches to make it easier for residents to feel comfortable.
While Lewis declined to answer, saying she didn’t know enough about the issue, Cook said it’s important to be transparent.
“I have an open door, and instead of trying to skirt around an issue, be honest with them,” Cook said. “If something comes up with the city I will tell you. You may not like what I have to say, but I will tell you and be honest with you.”
Four questions were submitted by residents, starting with Dave Williams, who wanted to know what candidates wanted to do to improve the employment rate and whether that included transportation.
Cook said the city’s had a number of job fairs but transportation is an issue to get to jobs in Savannah or out at the industrial park on I-16.
“I’d love to see Bryan County Schools on the north end offer more vocational- technical classes so we can get some of our young people trained,” Cook said.
Lewis declined to answer, and Walraven said through her work with the DDA she’s been trying to provide more information to the public on what’s available.
“As an HR professional myself, we have a hard time finding people to fill our open positions,” Walraven said. “Either they don’t show up for interviews, they don’t show up for work or they come with us, stay for two or three months, then they leave. That’s hard on an employer.”
Another resident, Joseph Ivey, asked why Pembroke is the last small city west of Savannah.
Cook said growth is coming, but “in order for the growth to come, we have to have people who will come and make a commitment to this community.”
Walraven said Pembroke’s the only small town outside the metro Savannah area yet to see the explosive growth experience by Pooler and Richmond Hill, for example.
“We’re the next municipality that will see that growth,” she said. “As far as taking care of that growth, we need to ask how we can better assist businesses coming into our community. What resources do we have available.”
Kristen Floyd asked the same question to both mayoral candidates, though she had to change the wording slightly. She asked Lewis what she wanted to differently than her predecessor in 2020, if she were elected..
“There’s no simple approach,” Lewis said. “For a city to get its priorities realigned, everyone from the mayor to the engineers to the maintenance workers, everyone needs to be working to get more out of existing investments.”
Lewis said she’d meet with department heads on a regular schedule to find ways to increase revenue and increase services “as our city continues to grow.”
Cook was asked if there’s anything new she’d do in 2020.
“I keep going back to our young people,” Cook said, saying she wants to expand a summer internship program for teens into the school year.
The last question came from Arlene Hobbs, who asked candidates to explain the role of government in bringing business to Pembroke.
Cook said residents who live outside Pembroke can play a role.
“Years ago when we had three grocery stores everybody from all around came to Pembroke on a Saturday night,” Cook said. “Now lot of people on the outskirts of Pembroke hop in their car and get on I-16 and head to Pooler. I think we need to let people outside our city limits know what we have to offer here in Pembroke.”
That led to the one exchange between the two mayoral candidates, when Lewis said, “Ms. Cook says let them know what we have to offer, but if we don’t have anything to offer?”
Cook responded, “We do, we do.”