Twiggs voters to choose commission positions

For the past few years, Twiggs County commissioners and development officials have been trying to drag the county's economy up from a bottom-out in the local kaolin industry.

How they've gone about that seems to be the main issue in a push to unseat Commission Chairman Ray Bennett. The commission's District 1 seat also is contested, with a former commissioner as well as a political newcomer challenging the incumbent.

Bennett has worked closely during two terms with appointed County Administrator Glenn Barton to establish an industrial park and on plans to run new water lines in the county.

Academy Sports is building a large distribution site at the park alongside Interstate 16, and company officials have promised to bring 250 new jobs to the site when the facility opens later this year or in early 2009.

But some have wondered how many of those jobs will go to Twiggs residents, particularly since a modern distribution facility requires training many county residents - who graduate from high school at a much lower rate than the state at large - might not have.

And Jeff Stone, a local businessman making his first political bid by challenging Bennett, wants to know why out-of-town contractors are building Academy Sports' facility and why county roads are "being ignored." He also wants to know why Barton, as county administrator, has so much sway over decisions.

"I support industry, but I just feel like things should be done different," said Stone, whose company makes airplane parts Boeing Macon uses on the C-17.

Stone's complaints are similar to the ones that some of the the county's older power brokers have with Bennett and Barton, whom former Commissioner Donald Watson called "the present regime" in a Telegraph interview last year.

Bennett said there will be "ample opportunity for people in Twiggs County," including an Academy Sports job fair coming in the next couple of months. He has noted that the county's books were so out-of-whack when he took office in 2000 that it took weeks to tab the county's debt at $1.5 million. A special purpose local option sales tax and state grants helped pay for the Academy Sports deal, and now a new SPLOST will be used largely for road repairs, Bennett said. Water lines are planned for the Huber area and Dry Branch, he said.

As for the work at Academy Sports, "there's not a local firm large enough to build a $50 million complex," Bennett said.

All in all, "from where we were to where we are, the Lord has blessed us," Bennett said.

Stone said he would do things differently. He didn't say he'd change county administrators if elected, but he did say the elected officials would make decisions, something Bennett contends is already the case.

Stone promises to work with educators to improve the county's ailing school system. He said new industry should be required to guarantee local jobs up front, particularly if the county helps them build a facility. Stone said his qualifications are that "I've always been a leader," running a successful independent business since 1999, when he left Boeing Macon to run his own machine shop.

Stone said he never wanted to be in politics but thought someone should "stand up." Asked what specific plans he has if elected, Stone replied: "None that I want to advertise."

Bennett said Twiggs County is full of rumor and innuendo when it comes to politics and that many critics don't take the time to educate themselves by attending county meetings.

"You just can't walk into a county office and say, 'Oh, I want to run this office,' " he said.



Longtime incumbent Tommie Lee Bryant has been a county commissioner at least since the late 1980s. He declined to tell The Telegraph about any plans he has for the future.

"I do not speak to newspapers, sir, thank you very much," Bryant said before hanging up.

Former District 3 Commissioner Wayne Huston will face Bryant in the Democratic primary.

Huston represented District 3 from 2000 through last fall. But he moved to District 1 last year, resigned his District 3 seat and figured he was done with politics until "the Lord put it on my heart" to run again.

The winner in the Democratic primary will face Republican James Holmes in November.

Huston arrived on the board with Bennett. They share many priorities, and Huston said he wants to see the county continue to grow as it has - with state grants to help establish the industrial park and new water lines, and sales tax funding that helped purchase the county's new fire trucks.

"We've got some good people there and every vote helps," Huston said. "I want to see Twiggs continue to grow and prosper."

Huston said he basically has two messages: Continue the county's growth, and trust in the Lord.

"People are not praying anymore," he said. "My message is to put your trust in God, not in man."

Twiggs County voters also will choose a probate judge July 15. The candidates are incumbent Ken Fowler, Barry A. Faulk and Oscar J. Basley. All three are Democrats.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.