City council hopeful John Ring hit one nail squarely on the head Monday night at the Richmond Hill Bryan County Chamber of Commerce candidates forum.
“I’m amazed at all the candidates for this seat,” Ring said, noting recent elections in which candidates ran unopposed.
It’s certainly a crowded race, with Ring one of six candidates vying for the Post 1 seat left vacant in December by the death of former Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Murphy.
The others are Kristi Cox, Wayne Jackson, Darryl Lawrence, David London and Justin McBride, and all but McBride participated in Monday’s forum, held at Richmond Hill High School.
It was the second of two such events aimed at informing voters of the candidates’ positions in advance of the March 19 special election to fill the seat.
McBride, who along with Lawrence and London participated in a Feb. 26 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, had a family emergency and couldn’t attend the RHBC Chamber event Monday, which was moderated by Chamber Executive Director Brianne Yontz.
It was conducted in a question and answer format, with each candidate answering the same question under a time limit. Candidates were selected in random order to answer, and in many cases they gave answers that were similar. Afterward, candidates were able to meet one-on-one with those who attended the event.
Here’s a recap of Monday’s forum in which candidates were first asked to list their top three goals.
For Lawrence, who is retired military and actively involved in his church, it was bringing in more and better jobs; low income housing; and public safety in the form of sidewalks, animal control and street lights, in that order.
Ring, a National Guardsman with a law enforcement background who is involved in Democratic politics - he’s head of the local party, and wife Lisa ran for Congress last year gave his in reverse order.
They included the need to continue to make the city more diverse and welcoming; better communication between elected officials and residents; and, at No. 1, was his desire to improve traffic safety, particularly around I-95, Highway 17 and the Piercefield entrance.
Cox, the former Bryan County United Way director and a longtime local volunteer whose husband Allen is head of transportation for Bryan County Schools, said her top priority is public safety, which included working to ensure emergency workers have resources. She also wants to work with the county on issues that impact residents. Lastly, Cox said she wants sidewalks, bike lanes, more parks and playground equipment that is accessible to special needs children.
London, a West Point graduate and retired Army officer who now teaches JROTC at Groves, said his goals are smart growth and better communication.
Jackson, a longtime developer and businessman who has long volunteered for local events with his Grillzilla, noted that he agreed with everything the other candidates said, but thought his first priority is “keeping our brand,” by sticking to the philosophies that made the city desirable to families and led to its booming growth.
Jackson also wants to see more things for children to do, support for public safety, and more affordable housing.
The second question was on possible consolidation of services with Bryan County in areas such as fire and EMS.
Ring said he’s not in favor of it right now. “I’d need some details on how people would be impacted before I could vote for it.”
Cox said discussions are early on, and she too would prefer more information before making a decision.
London said it could save money, but questioned whether the savings would be worth a negative impact on the ISO rating. He also noted Richmond Hill Fire Department is “heavily involved in the community,” and “that might change and it might not,” were RHFD and Bryan County Fire and Emergency Services to consolidate. He also said it would be better to decide after the city and county’s lawsuit over service delivery is decided.
Jackson said he was against it “until I get more information,” and wanted to research it before making a decision by asking governments that consolidated such services “what would you not do?”
Lawrence said Richmond Hill citizens are also county citizens, and he wants to do whatever “best serves” the community.
Growth also got its turn in the spotlight, as candidates were asked how they wanted to see it dealt with in terms of development.
Cox said she wants more green space and bike lanes and considers Blueberry and the Bottom as “the heart of Richmond Hill.”
London said it’s coming as Savannah continues to grow, and his priorities are more greenspace; making sure roads and other infrastructure are in place before houses are built; ensuring there are things for families to do so they don’t have to drive to Savannah and protecting local businesses “so they’re able to compete if big business comes in.”
Jackson said he wants more of the city’s history made visible to newcomers, “how we got to where we’re at,” and continued “brand development.”
He also loves trees and wants to make sure they’re protected.
Lawrence said he wants to balance preservation and green space with ways to make sure development fits in, and appointing committees to decide how.
Ring said it’s important to focus on infrastructure and the city’s older communities, while also adding such things as basketball courts and a swimming pool to J.F. Gregory to provide residents with more recreational opportunities.
Candidates were then asked what the city’s single biggest issue was.
London said it was growth, and called it a “blessing, but a mixed blessing,” while noting people in his hometown in Kansas lost jobs. He said city leaders are “working hard” to effectively manage growth and are doing a good job of it.
Jackson said growth and the city’s water and sewer infrastructure were both important.
Lawrence agreed that growth was the issue, but noted the opening of the Belfast Keller interchange on I-95 will “open up a lot of options” and help alleviate congestion.
Ring said it depended on who one talked to, noting longtime residents or those from the city say it’s growth, while newcomers say they don’t get information necessary to make good decisions. He said residents deserve council members who think ahead, work together and listen to them.
Cox said growth, and wants “to see it slow down a little” so the community can catch up. She is against more townhomes and low income housing, noting service agencies are struggling to keep up with demand.
“We can’t take care of what we have, how can we add more?” Cox asked.
Candidates also were asked whether knowledge of business and finance was important to council.
Jackson went first, noting that he’s been in private business for 30 years and knows budgets. He said he thinks “if there’s a weakness on council, and they have great hearts, it’s (the lack of business experience).”
Lawrence said he has budget experience working as volunteer facilities manager of his church, with a $2.5 million annual budget.
Ring said the budget isn’t an individual task, but rather the result of a team effort including the work of city employees, but noted he acted as his wife’s campaign manager during her run for congress and handled expenses.
Cox said her work with United Way and responsibility for its fundraising campaign shows she’s fiscally prudent. She also said neither she nor her family have been in bankruptcy or foreclosure.
London said it’s important to know “those are tax dollars. People work hard for those dollars. We have to be respectful of that, know the process and do the right thing.”
He said his career as an Army officer career meant he was fiscally responsible for tens of millions of dollars of equipment and massive budgets.
Monday’s forum was quicker paced than the Feb. 26 event, which was moderated by Savannah Morning News Editorial Page Editor Adam Van Brimmer and included 16 questions on topics ranging from growth to opioid abuse and diversity, and candidates were not given advance notice of what would be asked.
Only Lawrence, London and McBride attended that forum. Others responded saying they had previous obligations.
SEE RELATED STORY: Meet the candidates