ALBANY — Albany City Manager James Taylor, who’s been through the local government wars with Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard over the years, said he knew what the call was about the minute Sinyard rung him up recently and said he wanted to talk.
“I just told him no,” Taylor quipped Monday evening. “I think I caught him off guard. He called me a little over a week ago and said he wanted to talk. I told him I didn’t want to hear what he wanted to talk about because I knew what was coming. But in the end it came down to what every person in this business faces: A man’s got to do what’s best for his family. That’s what Jeff is doing.”
Sinyard stunned most in the community Monday when, at the tail end of the commission’s morning meeting, he announced that he would not seek re-election to the office he’s held for the past 11 years. The commission chairman said Tuesday morning “It’s been a crazy 24 hours (since the announcement)” as he talked about his career in county government and his ongoing love affair with Dougherty County.
“Getting to know all the people of Dougherty County and learning to appreciate all their different viewpoints has been one of the highlights of being in this position,” Sinyard said. “Over the years, I know some of the decisions I’ve made have been better than others, but I made every one of them doing what I thought would bring the best results to the greatest majority.”
Some of Sinyard’s closest friends on the commission said that while they were initially shocked by the timing of the chairman’s announcement, they weren’t really surprised.
“Jeff hadn’t specifically said anything to me about his plans, but while I was surprised that his announcement came when it did I wasn’t really surprised at his decision,” District 1 County Commissioner Lamar Hudgins said. “And as I thought about it during the day, it dawned on me that Jeff did this when he did because that’s the kind of person he is. He wanted to get the word out there early enough so that other folks could start thinking about running.
“I’ve never seen a person more passionate about a county and its people. Jeff absolutely loves Dougherty County. And, frankly, I’m a little concerned about where the board might go in the future. I’ve served on this commission under Lamar Reese, Gil Barrett and Jeff Sinyard. I hope the county gets someone else of that caliber to step up and run.”
District 6 Commissioner Jack Stone, the senior member of the commission, said the community will be hard-pressed to find someone with Sinyard’s passion.
“Jeff and I talked Sunday morning for 30-45 minutes — he called me on the way to church, and I think I ended up making him late,” Stone said. “I told him that the county would miss his leadership, but I also pointed out that when he ends his term he’s going to be closing in on 60. If he wants to do some things with his family, now is the time to do them.
“I think Gil Barrett has always been considered one of the best leaders to serve this community, and he was certainly a good chairman. But I believe Jeff’s done a bettr job than anyone who’s ever been there. He works his ass off for this community; he’ll take off and go to Washington and go to Atlanta if he thinks it will help. I’ll tell you one thing, this county will miss Jeff a lot more than Jeff will miss the county.”
The newest county commissioner, District 3’s Clinton Johnson, said he’s sad to know the lessons he can learn from Sinyard will be limited now that Sinyard has announced plans to leave the board.
“I told Jeff I was disappointed because I haven’t had enough time to soak up all I can learn from him,” Johnson said. “I haven’t been around very long, and I feel like my tutorial had just begun.
“In the end, I admit to having mixed fellings about Chairman Sinyard’s departure. On the one hand, there will be an element of excitement with the opportunity to learn new things from a new person at that position. On the other hand, the leadership that Jeff brought to the table will be hard to replace. And it will be missed.”
Sinyard’s political career started in 1986 when then-District 5 County Commissioner Karl Hall died suddenly only one year into his term. Friends talked Sinyard into making a run for the seat, and he spent three years learning under the tutelage of leaders like Barrett.
A job change forced Sinyard out of politics for the better part of seven years, but when he challenged for the commission chairmanship in 1994 and defeated James Bush by a scant 47 votes, he slowly became an entrenched figure in Dougherty politics.
Born in Albany, Sinyard’s sales rep father was transferred to Augusta when 7-year-old Jeff was in second grade. Over the next eight years his family moved frequently: from Augusta to Rome, from Rome to Atlanta, and from Atlanta to Columbus. Finally, in 1971, the Sinyards moved back to Albany and then-16-year-old Jeff finished his junior and senior years at Albany High School.
“I was always the new kid at school,” Sinyard said. “I think I went to three schools in Augusta, three in Rome, three in Atlanta and three in Columbus before coming back to Albany. I guess the one constant was athletics, and that’s one of the things that’s always helped me meet people.”
Sinyard played baseball for two years at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton before heading to Athens for a chance to play football at the University of Georgia. An injury all but ended Sinyard’s athletic career, and he eventually transferred to Georgia Southwestern College in Americus. There, he ran into a woman he’d first met at ABAC, and the two became a couple.
“When I ran into Lillie again at Southwestern, I figured we were supposed to be together,” Sinyard said of his wife of 35-plus years.
The Sinyards married in 1978, a year after Jeff Sinyard graduated Southwestern. He’d landed a job with the Metropolitan Insurance Co., and the young family settled in Tifton for a three-year period. In 1981 Sinyard was promoted to district manager and transferred to Augusta, where he remained for less than a year.
His next job assignment?
“They brought me back to Albany,” Sinyard said. “And I haven’t left since.”
Sinyard and a large group of young professional businessmen were encouraged to start the Artesian Sertoma Club, and the convergence of business relationships — “I still stay in contact with just about all of those guys” — and work with poorer people in the community would forge Sinyard’s interest in politics.
When Hall died, Sinyard caved in to building pressure from his colleagues and ran for the District 5 seat.
“District 5 was this amazing cross-section of Dougherty County at that time,” Sinyard said. “It started in Doublegate and went across (U.S. Highway) 19 into Putney. You had some of the county’s wealthiest, some of its poorest and some of just the regular middle-class folks. It was pretty much every walk of life in one district.”
Sinyard defeated three opponents to win the commission seat and finished the three years left on Hall’s unexpired term. But there would be no re-election.
“Metropolitan wanted to transfer me, and they offered me three choices: Little Rock, Ark., Miami and New York City,” Sinyard laughed. “Man, I’m this country boy from Georgia, and I just didn’t want to leave Albany again. I started talking to some folks and sending out resumes.”
One of the folks Sinyard talked with was Morgan Murphy at First State Bank. Murphy offered Sinyard a position as head of the institution’s marketing and economic development departments. But the job came with a catch.
“They told me I couldn’t run for office,” he said. “I didn’t really understand, thought it would be a good thing for the bank. But they explained that I might find myself at odds on the commission with someone who is a customer at the bank. I needed the job, so …”
After he left office, Sinyard was appointed by the County Commission to serve on the newly-formed Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission. He would become the third chairman of that board after Jimmy Gray and Will Kidd.
In 1993, Sinyard started talking, casually at first and increasingly more seriously, with J.D. Adams about his Adams Exterminating business. Sinyard and the business owner became close friends and would meet one Wednesday of every month to discuss the business. Finally, on July 1, 1994, Sinyard said, “Me and the bank bought the business from Mr. Adams.”
“I knew the business stuff, but I didn’t know the first thing about bugs,” Sinyard said. “I took every course, every bit of training that was available. I was also very fortunate that Mr. Adams stayed on and taught me about the business.”
Freed from the no-politics rule of the bank, Sinyard threw his hat into the ring in 2002 and was narrowly elected to serve as commission chairman. He’s served there since, earning praise for his passion in promoting the county he loves so well.
“I don’t know what people will say about my tenure in office, but I will tell you this about it,” Sinyard said. “The high point of my political career was meeting the airplane that contained the people who were coming to the Firestone plant to start Cooper Tire in 1987. The lowest was the day in 2007 that they left.”