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CARLTON FLETCHER: Dougherty County voters could bring about big changes

OPINION: Drastic remakes of Dougherty Commission, School Board possible

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day.

Nina Simone

It’s all but guaranteed 2014 will be a year of change on the local political landscape. The question a typically apathetic voting public will determine is what that change will look like.

The biggest change that is guaranteed is that the Dougherty County Commission will be under new leadership when the election dust settles. Jeff Sinyard, who has served on the commission for 15 years, 11 as chairman of the board, announced in late January that he will not seek re-election. Considered the region’s most visible and effective advocate on the state, regional and even national level, Sinyard will leave behind some large shoes to fill.

With qualifying now three weeks away, two contenders have emerged to challenge for the commission chairmanship: sitting District 5 County Commissioner Gloria Gaines and attorney Chris Cohilas, who served as the county’s chief assistant district attorney before going into private practice.

Gaines’ decision to run for the chairman’s seat guarantees that there will be at least two newcomers on the seven-member board. She will resign her commission seat mid-term, and a special election will be called to elect someone to finish the unexpired term. Contractor/businessman Harry James, who was defeated by Gaines in 2008, has already begun to look into a possible run for the District 5 seat.

There are three other seats on the commission up for re-election, so the possibility exists for a complete board makeover. With the chairman’s seat, Gaines’ District 5 seat and the Districts 2, 4 and 6 seats set for new terms, the possibility exists that the board could have five new members. That scenario is very unlikely — no one has announced plans to challenge District 2 and 4 incumbents John Hayes and Ewell Lyle, respectively — but it’s the kind of rare opportunity that in a perfect world would generate a higher level of interest in the election.

(It should be noted that city voters put two new faces on the Albany City Commission — Bobby Coleman and B.J. Fletcher — last year in a cycle in which three seats were up for grabs, so it’s clear local voters are not above making changes.)

One commission race has already developed as qualifying draws near: Former 4-H director Anthony Jones has stepped up to challenge for the District 6 seat Jack Stone has held since 1987. Stone, who has battled health issues in recent weeks, had been considering stepping down at the end of his term, but he said his doctor has given him the go-ahead health-wise to seek another four-year term.

Change will also be the order of the day on the Dougherty County School Board. Board Chairwoman Carol Tharin has announced plans to move out of District 4 and will thus step down from that seat. Darton State College professor Aaron Johnson has already announced his intention to seek the District 4 seat, and Melissa Strother, who lost a close and controversial election for the Ward II Albany City Commission seat to Ivey Hines in 2010, has long said she plans to run for the School Board to represent the district.

Darrel Ealum is the second School Board member who won’t be back in 2015. Ealum has already announced plans to run for the State House District 153 seat currently held by Carol Fullerton. Michael Windom, who served on the School Board for 16 years before stepping down in 2010, and two-time unsuccessful candidate Dean Phinazee have expressed interest in moving into Ealum’s vacant seat.

The board’s other seat up for grabs, District 2, has long been held (14 years) by Milton Griffin. There have been rumblings, though, that Griffin has stirred the displeasure of some influential ministers in the community who are looking for a viable candidate to challenge Griffin.

Certainly the statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture and insurance commissioner will heat up as the election process moves forward. And with Ealum and former Dougherty County Commissioner Muarlean Edwards challenging Fullerton for her House seat, there will be considerable interest in that race. But for political junkies and persons concerned about the future of their community, it’s the County Commission and School Board races that should be the big draw in Dougherty County this year.

Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.