District 6 race heats up heading into final week

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- The race to determine who will represent the county's sixth district is becoming more lively as two of the county's more colorful personalities head into the final stretch before the July 20 primary.

Incumbent Jack Stone is trying to earn his sixth consecutive term on the Commission, while businessman Richard Thomas is trying to do what no other person from Dougherty County has done in more than 20 years: unseat him.

Stone, a fixture on the Dougherty County political scene, is taking on this campaign much like he has all of his others -- running on what he says is his strong record.

A car salesman, Stone unseated Commissioner David Gambrell in 1986 before surviving a tough comeback effort by Gambrell in 1990.

Stone has been heralded and criticized for his bluntness and regular use of colorful adjectives to describe anyone or anything that he disagrees with.

Since he's been in office, Stone saw the exodus of Firestone and the arrival of Cooper Tire and Rubber in its place. More than 15 years later, he was sitting in that same District 6 seat when Cooper left.

A staunch proponent of the special local-option sales tax for county road, bridge and building projects, Stone was one of the first to suggest the site off Blaylock Road as a possible home for the Dougherty County Jail in the early 1990s. He went on to approve, with the Commission, SPLOST projects that included a fire station and an EMS station in East Albany and various road resurfacing, drainage and infrastructure developments.

Early in his career, Stone pushed for the redesign and expansion of the Five Points intersection in East Albany, the extension of Corridor Z through Albany and challenged Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital when the Commission first considered changing the way hospital authority board members were appointed.

More recently, Stone, along with other commissioners and their counterparts with the city, was involved with the negotiations to bring a Wal-Mart into East Albany, and he was on the Commission when it gave its approval to create a Tax Allocation District that has been touted as a means to develop downtown and parts of East Albany.

More recent SPLOST projects that Stone has supported have also helped to develop an East Albany industrial park, which continues to be under development.

Stone has been a staunch opponent of efforts to consolidate the city and county governments and has been a key vote in putting both attempts down on the county side.

Thomas has gone a different, but no less colorful, route in his campaign.

A strong believer in a thrifty and transparent local government, Thomas has campaigned against what he says is government waste, fraud and corruption.

Thomas has criticized Stone for sitting idly as other parts of town have developed and become more affluent than his East Dougherty County district.

In a forum Thursday, Thomas called Stone's inaction rephrehensible when the city developed the TAD and included only a small portion of East Albany while managing to wrap the boundary around the Wal-Mart site so that funds could be distributed downtown.

Acknowledging tight fiscal constraints that the county government now finds itself encumbered with, Thomas has said that if elected, he would avoid raising taxes by cutting all non-essential services.

Thomas has questioned certain SPLOST projects that built multimillion-dollar buildings, which then required tax dollars to keep up and maintain, while projects like infrastructure and other necessities have fallen by the wayside, leaving East Albany "looking like a third-world country."

Thomas said he believes in privatization as a means of reducing overhead and cutting costs so that essential services that the voters demand, like public safety, can be adequately funded.

In a statement to The Herald, Thomas said the citizens of East Albany should know that there are problems that people in Washington, Atlanta and in local government won't fix because they are unpleasant to talk about or discuss, and that if elected he would continue to volunteer his time to make "Albany and Dougherty County a leading, first-class community where people want to live, not move away from."

Thomas said that something has to be done about the rising birthrate among unwed mothers and a general lack of economic development.

The 2010 race isn't Thomas' first foray into politics.

After having first taken up the flag against what he calls government waste and overtaxation back in the early 1990s, Thomas got his first taste of local politics when he, as representative of the Citizens for Responsible Government, launched a recall effort against District 5 Commissioner Juanita Cribb in September 1990. The effort was later withdrawn.

Thomas then ran against Cribb as a Republican when she sought re-election to the District 5 seat in May 1992.

Ironically, Thomas' and Stone's paths crossed then when Stone joined fellow commissioners Victor Edwards and George Brown in endorsing Cribb for re-election.

Cribb would go on to collect 54 percent of the vote in the race to retain her seat, but Thomas would remain a constant force on the local political scene, publicly outing examples of what he believed to be waste, fraud and abuse of local government.

Thomas, who was named Dougherty County's Conservationist of the Year in 1997, founded Albemarle Plantation and has donated more than 1,100 acres of land as permanent conservation areas to the Georgia Legacy Trust.

Two years later, he would garner headlines after he and other plantations around the area were named in an investigation involving the use of poisoned eggs to kill predators. Thomas readily admitted that he put the eggs out, but said he had no knowledge that the practice was illegal. Thomas would pay a $500 fine after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. When the EPA re-opened the investigation three years later, Thomas and representatives of seven other plantations would settle with them for $40,000.

In the late 1990s, Stone's and Thomas' paths would cross again.

Trying to fulfill a campaign promise to keep canals and ditches in Dougherty County's flood-plagued areas clear, Stone and the Commission authorized a tract of land be cleared on the Piney Woods Creek.

After county crews apparently razed the wrong side of U.S. 300, Thomas and fellow land owner Liz Klemann sued Stone and the Commission, alleging the county destroyed the ecosystem and violated environmental law by razing a protected wetlands.

The case would later be settled out of court.

In 2007, Thomas -- as chairman of the Dougherty County Taxpayers' Association -- rallied angry property owners when he filed suit against Dougherty County following a revaluation of property that led some to have dramatic increases in property tax assessments.

He and the group would later challenge a move by the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority to obtain $6 million in general obligation bonds that could put the city taxpayers at risk should the authority ever default on the bond.

With both running as Democrats, voters will decide July 20 who has earned a seat at the Commission table.