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Lee's 'red-headed stepchild' district to pick leader

Mary Egler

Mary Egler

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The race for the District 1 (Smithville/Chokee) seat on the Lee County Commission is not about yard signs or lining up endorsements. It's not about putting together a war chest of campaign funds.

The main concern in a district that's being called "Lee County's red-headed stepchild" by one of the candidates is to muster adequate support from a constituency that feels it has been overlooked during a tremendous growth spurt in a county that had long been considered a bedroom community for southern neighbor Dougherty County.

Residents of District 1 regularly attend commission meetings to complain about the poor conditions of the district's miles and miles of dirt roads, about the lack of recreational opportunities for its young and the paucity of funding for infrastructure and public service concerns in what is a sprawling northern half of the county.

Incumbent Dennis Roland, who is frequently seen as a commission lone wolf in his fiscally conservative efforts to win support for projects in District 1, is being challenged by Independent Mary Egler. And while the two share similar views on many of the issues that most impact the district, there is a distinct separation of style that will allow voters to easily differentiate between the two.

"What I've seen on this commission is a tendency to poor-mouth about the county's lack of funds while trying to borrow money or fund other projects that just aren't vital to the community," Roland said. "We have to stop doing that, but it's hard to get the other (commissioners) to agree when they've already got the things they need in their districts. They're not going to do anything at the expense of their own districts.

"I think it's a sign of weakness on our part when we have policy in place to address issues but we don't enforce the policy. It's like giving someone 60 days to get the 911 (address) numbers on their houses. People know there's an ordinance in place. If they are in violation, they should be issued a citation and then perhaps given 30 days to get in compliance."

Egler, who has never held elected office but ran against Roland as a Democrat four years ago, said the incumbent doesn't go far enough in his opposition to unpopular county policy.

"Everyone says 'Dennis is the only commissioner who will stand up and complain about some of the things that are going on in the community,' but even when he does he turns around and votes with them," Egler said. "Once I get on the board -- and I do intend to win --

I will find out all the facts about an issue, and if I don't think it's what's best for my district and the county, I will vote against it even if everyone else votes yes.

"It's like the (recently passed) sign ordinance. There were parts of it -- especially the part about charging a $10 fee for a temporary banner -- that I just did not agree with. I'm not going to vote for something like that no matter what the other commissioners do."

Roland said he has had to pick his battles during what has been at times a contentious term on the board, but he said his constituents know where he stands on the issues that most affect them.

"When it comes to the critical issues -- the money issues -- I will not compromise," he said.

Both Roland and Egler said they are not sold that the planned library branch/conference center currently under redesign is best use of taxpayer money.

"I've told Mr. Duffy I have no problems with building a conference center that doesn't take away from the library, is cost-effective and doesn't raise taxes," Egler said. "But when you start cutting things out of the building like the county is talking about doing, I don't know that it will not end up being more costly in the long run. Cheaper does not mean most cost-effective.

"And another question I have is use and maintenance of a conference center. They say they want to have it available for one chamber of commerce meeting, but what about the other days of the year? Who else is going to bring 300 to 400 people here, and how much will it cost the county to maintain the building?"

Roland said his primary concern with the proposed building is the commission's plan to borrow as much as $1.2 million to complete it.

"I'm against borrowing money and going further in debt completely, but I've always said that if we're going to go into debt it should be for public safety," Roland said. "That is our No. 1 concern. Why borrow $1 million for a conference center when there is a need for a fire station out (State Highway) 32? People need insurance relief more than the county needs a conference center.

"Our sheriff's department needs to be a priority concern. We need to keep crime out of our county. If we make sure the crime in Dougherty County -- which is No. 5 in the nation in crime statistics -- stays there and doesn't come here, we will have an opportunity to see more economic growth."

Egler said the citizens of District 1 deserve more from their commissioner.

"We're getting a new fire/EMS station soon, and I hope that goes well," she said. "And we get garbage service that's not all that great. That's all we get for our tax dollars. People are not happy with the poorly maintained roads, the lack of recreation, the lack of programs for seniors. And there's been no cooperation between the Smithville/Chokee commissioner (Roland) and the Smithville City Council.

"I won't make promises about anything I will do in office; I have to get there first. But once I do get in I will try and find ways to make things better for the people in (District 1)."

Roland said a number of cost-saving proposals he's made -- requiring cross-trained emergency personnel, outsourcing right-of-way maintenance and making developers and subdivision homeowners responsible for greenspace -- have been rebuffed by the commission. But he says that won't stop his ongoing efforts on the county's behalf.

"In the four years that I've been in office, we haven't done a single thing to cut spending other than asking department heads to reduce costs," he said. "No one will do anything if they think it will hurt their district. We've got to come up with some new ideas to cut spending.

"It's just time for us to quit being weak, for us to stand up for what we believe is right. The majority of our citizens obey the laws, and they expect us to stand up and be tough on those who don't."

Voting in the District 1 race will be conducted in precincts 1, 2, 3 and small portions of 4 and 10, Lee Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson said. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.