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Second candidate forum brings debate to Pembroke
Predictably, Hyundai's upcoming Metaplant in Ellabell dominated the conversation at Pembroke's candidate forum held ahead of primary elections on May 21.

Candidates weighed in on Hyundai’s impact on Bryan County during a lively forum held on April 24 at the Dixie Harn Center in Pembroke.

The forum, the second of two organized by the Bryan County Republican Party in advance of the May 21 primary, included candidates for Bryan County Commission chairman as well as the District 1 post. Candidates for the Bryan County School Board’s vice chairmanship also participated in the forum, which was moderated by Laura Anderson Picone and included questions the candidates did not see in advance.

A few questions were on topics other than Hyundai’s Metaplant America, which was announced in May 2022 at an initial $5.5 billion investment and is the state’s single largest economic development project in its history, but it seemed most tied in one way or the other to the Metaplant in Black Creek.

Here’s a breakdown by seat of the candidates and what they said at the forum. See the chairman’s portion in a separate story here

County commission, District 1

Candidates Alex Floyd, Scott Puffer and Wes Silas are running for the seat being vacated by three-term Republican incumbent Noah Covington.

Floyd, a former Pembroke city administrator and special projects manager for Richmond Hill, currently works as a construction inspector for Enviroworx. Puffer is a utility locator for Bateman Civil Survey on Fort Stewart; Silas owns Industrial Technical Coatings.

Floyd, the grandson of former county commissioner Colen Floyd, has served three terms on the Bryan County Planning and Zoning Commission while Puffer and Silas are newcomers to the public arena.

The three were first asked why there was a need to build large scale subdivisions in North Bryan.

Floyd went first, citing Bryan’s status as the sixth fastest growing county in the U.S. and fastest growing in Georgia, adding, “people need a place to live.”

Floyd said he doesn’t support the notion of Pembroke zoning various areas for large scale projects, but is for expanding the types of housing available in the area. Still, he doesn’t think North Bryan will be overrun with large subdivisions.

“I don’t see us exploding with houses anytime soon,” Floyd added.

Puffer followed, saying the boom in subdivisions in Chatham, Effingham and Bulloch counties should negate the need to build large subdivisions in Bryan County.

“Houses are everywhere (in those counties) and traffic is terrible,” he said.

Puffer also pointed to Hyundai’s need for water – estimated at 7 million gallons a day – and noted subdivisions will also “dig into the aquifer.”

Puffer said he moved to Bryan County 20 years ago because it was quiet and peaceful and he wants it to stay that way.

“Let the other counties take on that burden,” he said. “Let them build houses.”

Silas said the issue needs careful study, but more houses will help support the new water and sewer plant in Pembroke.

He called the situation a “double-edged sword,” adding “some people want growth, some people don’t.”

Silas said the problem is Pembroke needs the taxes generated by new homes.

“It’s a situation we have to look at,” Silas said.

The candidates next were asked about a rise in crime in the “greater Pembroke area,” and all three said they were unaware crime was getting worse.

“If it’s bad now I’m not seeing it,” Puffer said, adding that if people think crime is bad now, add another 15,000 residents to the mix and then “apparently we’re going to have a real big problem.”

He said he thinks the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Mark Crowe “do a fine job.”

Silas said if there is a spike in crime then local law enforcement needs to have additional resources, and he agreed that a rise in population will lead to a rise in crime.

The problem, Silas said, was how to pay for more public safety.

Floyd said he supports BCSO and an expansion of the jail, which is too small to handle current inmate populations.

Candidates were also asked about support for Pembroke’s downtown.

Silas is a proponent of working with city officials to bring in more businesses downtown. Floyd cited his ties to Pembroke as both an employee and historically, including when his grandfather as a child sold eggs on the city’s sidewalks. He said he’s for more commercial areas, but not at the expense of the city’s historic downtown.

Puffer said he supports small businesses already in place and questioned why food trucks from fast food franchises are coming into town and taking business from local restaurants.

“I wasn’t a fan of it,” he said, adding that the city and county need to be selective in recruiting new business for downtown while focusing on aiding the small businesses that have already set up shop in Pembroke.

The candidates were then asked about balancing environmental concerns with the loss of land to development.

Floyd, whose family is in the tree business, said the state has done a good job of protecting wetlands but economic pressures make it tough on timber growers to continue operating.

“It’s a very hard decision to keep growing $16 a ton pulpwood on $100,000 an acre land,” he said, adding the decision to stay in the business is up to each property owner.

Puffer lamented the loss of land to Hyundai and the impact the construction has had on natural resources.

“They probably could’ve put that Hyundai somewhere else,” he said. “I wasn’t a real big fan of it,” then added, “that’s been my platform from day one. We need an ecosystem here and to save stuff for our kids and future generations. We’re going to look like Pooler.”

Silas said you can’t fault landowners for selling at the prices they’re likely being offered.

“It’s about protecting greenspaces and making sure the proper surveys are done and wetlands are protected,” he said, adding, “it’s going to be a battle moving forward as development is coming.”

Hyundai’s impact on water was also discussed.

Puffer said Hyundai’s demands on the aquifer are already impacting local farmers, including one who said the EPD told him he couldn’t put up a pivot because it causes salt intrusion.

Puffer questioned why Hyundai will be allowed to withdraw millions of gallons daily, and said the state and local officials are bending over backward to make the company happy at the expense of those living here.

“It’s sad, all this water being sucked away from the aquifer, taking it away from future generations,” he said.

Silas said it is important to ensure farmers had sufficient water, and he would work with government agencies to find the best way forward.

Floyd said his family is among the farmers impacted by Hyundai’s need for water and called the situation “a huge injustice to the people of North Bryan and South Bulloch counties.”

Floyd added, “It’s wrong. It’s destroyed relationships and it should’ve been handled differently,” noting, “Hyundai should use Ogeechee River water, just like Union Camp has.”

Floyd said it was important going forward to monitor water going into Hyundai, and “more importantly, water coming out.”

The candidates were asked about the risks to groundwater in the light of industrial growth and Silas responded by saying planning should already have been done before permits were issued. He said working on projects in Savannah he’s seen infrastructure that is deteriorating and it’s important to ensure the same doesn’t happen here, through preventative maintenance and regular inspections of facilities.

Floyd said he’ll attend all meetings of the Regional Water Council.

He also referred to an EPD meeting in Bulloch and EPD claims the Floridan acquifer won’t fall more than 15 feet from Hyundai’s withdrawals, which they called a reasonable loss. Floyd said it wasn’t reasonable, and equated that loss from a 200 foot well to one suffered if a person had $200 and someone knocked him on the head and took $15 of it.

“That’s not reasonable,” he said.

At the same time, Floyd said Bryan County “is blessed to have a 200,000 acre water filter known as Fort Stewart between us and the ocean,” and that land is among the most monitored environments on Earth.

Puffer said Fort Stewart is regularly ranked as one of the top military posts with regard to water management and takes pride in that.

“It’s about the water,” he said. “It’s about the resources. We’ve got to do what we can to protect what we have.”

Puffer said he’d like to see measures put in place to protect the aquifer, and cited a report in which the aquifer level would drop by 19 feet with Hyundai’s pulling 7 million gallons a day from the ground – and that isn’t counting other usage.

Future generations, he said, will be the ones to suffer if groundwater used isn’t curtailed.

In closing, Silas, a volunteer recreation coach who said he’s running in support of youth programs, apologized for not having all the answers to the questions. He promised to study.

“I will work hard if elected to do what’s best for north Bryan County,” he said, while noting the standing room only crowd in the Harn Center was a sign of a healthy community.

Puffer said it didn’t matter which candidate those in attendance supported, the important thing was to vote.  

“Everybody wants to complain, nobody wants to vote,” he said. “If you want to be heard, go out and vote.”

Floyd, who thanked the other candidates for getting involved, said he’ll be out stumping with his son Ellis while asking those in the audience from South Bryan to make sure they bought some gas and groceries in Pembroke before they headed back to Richmond Hill.

School board, Vice Chair

Marianne Smith and Scott Novinksi are both seeking to take the vice chairman’s seat currently held by Karen Krupp, who is not seeking re-election for that seat. Smith, a registered nurse, has been the board’s District 4 representative for 11 years while Novinksi, who with his wife owns a coffee shop franchise in Pooler, ran unsuccessfully for chairman in 2022.

The first question was whether the school board should have a policy to enforce limits on “obscene and pornographic materials in school libraries.

Smith said parents can ask the system to remove books they find objectionable, and if that’s unsuccessful there are options under the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which was signed into law in 2022.

Under it, “if your child is under 18 you’re in charge,” Smith said. “You can see the curriculum and if you don’t think it appropriate they will accommodate your child.”

Novinksi questioned whether the committee involved parents and cited the termination of a substitute teacher in 2022 and her subsequent lawsuit against the system over a book she found objectionable. Bryan County Schools later settled with the teacher, paying her $45,000 and her attorneys $136,000, but admitted no liability.

The candidates were next asked if the system was prepared for what’s coming. Novinksi called for tougher grading while pointing to the Heartwood community in Richmond Hill and what he estimated as another 15,000 people moving in -- and similar population increases related to Hyundai in North Bryan -- as something that the school system isn’t prepared to handle.

Smith said the district is prepared, pointing to the district’s 5- and 10-year capital improvement plans, which include a new Bryan County High School. That school, though being built initially to hold 1,000 students, can be expanded to 3,000.

She said it is also critical to retain teachers, who in Bryan County make about 12 percent above the state salary scale but deserve more “than anybody else in Georgia, in my opinion.”

The most pressing issue currently facing the school system now is teacher retention, Smith said in response to a question on that topic.

Novinski, meanwhile, listed student discipline and the board’s membership in the Georgia School Board Association as concerns.

A similar question led Novinski to cite student mental health and parental involvement as a challenge facing the system, along with issues of what they’re being taught.

Novinksi said the district needs to do better when it comes to communication with parents and said if elected he’d support the chairman while challenging the GSBA influence on the BOE.

Smith said school safety was her top concern, and pointed to a range of safety improvements made in the district during her time in office. Those ranged from a school resource officers and a hotline students can use to provide anonymous tips to safety vestibules in all the schools and safety plans, which include mock shooter drills.

“Anything we can do to keep kids and teachers safe,” she said, while noting she believes the school board has a good relationship with the community and other governments.

The board’s relationship with longtime superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher was also broached, with the candidates asked whether they did their own research on items he brought before them.

Smith said while board members rely on Brooksher for information it’s their responsibility to do their own research. She said the board is accessible to the public.

Novinksi said it was important to “trust but verify,” what the superintendent tells the board. He also called for more open meetings, claiming meetings prior to the board’s involvement with GSBA were longer and had more public discussion.

“(There used to be) agendas six  pages long with notes,” he said. “You get an agenda now and it’s one page and it’s do you agree, do you agree and they all vote the same. We’ve got to come up with some middle ground.”

Lastly, the candidates were asked whether they supported DEI – short for diversity, equity and inclusion – curriculum being taught in the system.

“You’re asking me ‘do I support racism’,” Novinksi said, “because that’s what DEI is all about.”

He asked what happened to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 's “don’t judge me on the color of my skin but on the content of my character?”

He said it would separate students based on race and “I think it’s the wrong thing to teach.”
Smith said she doesn’t support DEI and that there’s a policy in place to prohibit discussing or teaching divisive concepts.

“There is a policy to prohibit that,” she said. “If you know of something going on in a school, go to the principal.”

Smith added, “We don’t know if we’re not told, so go tell someone.”

In his closing remarks, Novinksi said some of the issues he and others who ran in 2022 had mentioned have already been addressed, but there were still issues to work on – including opposing bullying and other related issues. 

Smith said she hopes voters will look at the system’s rankings in academics and the improvements made in North Bryan during her tenure, which saw BCHS graduation rates climb from over 60 percent to better than 90 percent while expanding opportunities in academics, athletics and vocational education.

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