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Small towns, big politics

When an election comes around, smaller communities often draw more candidates

POSTED: October 11, 2009 1:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Kimberly Swehla of Gillsville sits with Harley, 2, on Thursday outside of downtown Gillsville. Swehla says she has a problem with major businesses not being able to come into town.

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Hall County is home to cities ranging in size from tiny Gillsville, with 225 residents, to the county seat of Gainesville, with more than 33,000.

But when it comes to elections, size doesn’t matter.

Gainesville’s incumbents will go unopposed this year while Flowery Branch will have six candidates vie for three city council seats.

So what is it that makes people want to get involved in small-town politics?

Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey, a former Clermont mayor, said many run for office because they want to be active in their community.

"It’s not that they’re mad or want to make change," Gailey said. "I think a lot of it is more involvement."

Gailey said running for a city council seat in a smaller city like Clermont also is less expensive and time-consuming than competing for a higher office.

This year, Clermont Mayor James Nix is running unopposed. But three candidates — incumbent James "Sonny" Helton, Mary Ellen Rogers and Lynn Adams — will compete for two at-large council seats.

Incumbent Flowery Branch Mayor Diane Hirling is running unchallenged this year, but said a flurry of candidates in Flowery Branch isn’t unusual.

The remaining three incumbents — council members Allen Bryans Sr., Pat Zalewski and Mary Jones — aren’t seeking re-election. But each council seat has drawn two candidates each, a total of six.

"As long as I’ve been involved in City Hall (since 2000), that’s been the case," Hirling said. "It seems almost like there are different sections of the city bidding to try to control the city."

For many years, Flowery Branch’s population centered around its downtown area, a gaggle of streets between Atlanta Highway and McEver Road.

But then it grew, expanding its borders with sizable subdivisions. Most notable is Sterling on the Lake, which could, when fully developed, accommodate some 2,000 homes.

"A lot of new people are coming in, and some are taking interest," Hirling said. "I think it’s a good thing."

A steady stream of candidates also could mean discontent about the government, she said.

"When I had no opposition, I looked at it two ways: Either I did a good job for four years or nobody wanted the job," Hirling said, chuckling.

In Lula, there are two contested races this year. Longtime Mayor Milton Turner is challenged by Paul Cox, while Councilwoman Vicky Chambers is running against Bruce Lane to keep her seat.

Margaret Luther, president of the Lula Area Betterment Association, said she thinks more people were interested in running this year because of the growth and change that is coming to Lula. With a new wastewater treatment plant and development on the horizon, Luther said she thinks people want to be involved in what’s happening in their town.

"Things are beginning to happen," Luther said. "They say, well, maybe I can get my finger in the pie."

Luther said in past years, there haven’t been many challengers to the incumbent city council members, though the mayor’s race typically draws more interest than the council seats.

"It’s not a big town and everybody’s satisfied with the way things are run," Luther said. "When things are going normal and nothing’s going on in the town, nobody thinks that much about running for an office."

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said it is common for small-town officials to go unopposed in elections.

Often, small-town residents do not see that anything needs to be done or feel the city’s needs are greater than the city’s tax base would allow the city to meet, and do not run for office, Bullock said.

But competition arises when localized issues like zoning heat up. People may run for office in small towns to correct what they feel was a wrong decision.

"In small towns where you do find competition, sometimes, not necessarily always, it may be driven by personality clashes within the community or some very localized issue which has reached a flash point," Bullock said.

In cities like Gainesville, incumbents hardly ever face competition either because city residents are happy with the current council or feel intimidated by them, Bullock said.

"It’s a guess," Bullock said. "There may be a culture in the community that you just don’t challenge council members."

People who remember other instances in which candidates lost an election to an incumbent may feel it is a waste of time and effort to take them on in future elections, Bullock said.

"Alternatively, maybe folks are just delighted with the way things are going," Bullock said. "If you don’t have a reason to run and you don’t see that there is a basis for criticizing an incumbent, then how do you run your campaign?"

Gailey said he believes money is a big reason why people do not challenge incumbents in larger races.

"The costs to run those campaigns is getting up there, pretty expensive," Gailey said. "That’s a lot of money, especially when you’ve got an incumbent running, it makes it a lot harder ... They’re going to have an ‘I’ by their name; that’s definitely an advantage."

Oakwood City Council’s three incumbents — Mayor Lamar Scroggs and councilmen Sam Evans and Ron McFarland — are facing no opposition and should be ushered in to new four-year terms on Jan. 1.

Montie Robinson, a longtime Oakwood councilman, said he believes his council’s lack of political antics has helped incumbents avoid opponents on Election Day.

"We’re stern in what goes on," he said. "The way we are oriented is more for the people’s protection. We’ve got to do business first."

Robinson said residents are usually aware when re-election time comes up.

"They say they’re satisfied. When people are not, they come down (to City Hall) and express that, and they know they can (do that) and if we can help, by all means we try to help," he said.

Gailey said in towns like Clermont, Lula and Gillsville, politics are much more personal in places where it is easier for politicians to know their constituents.

This appears to be why no one ran against longtime incumbent Gillsville Mayor Larry Poole and incumbent Councilman Roy Turpin.

When Councilman Tim House announced he would not seek re-election, no one stepped up to run. When the seat becomes vacant in January, the council will have to appoint someone to fill it.

Jeanne Webb, owner of He and She Salon in Gillsville, said she doesn’t worry about local politics because she feels confident with the elected officials in office.

"I know all the guys on the council," Webb said. "They are good people."

Gillsville resident Pam Fuller said she doesn’t think there are many issues in the town that would stir people to action.

"Everybody’s looking out for each other," Fuller said. "We don’t have that much that come up."

Staff writers Ashley Fielding and Jeff Gill contributed to this report.



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