A few months ago, after White County Commission chairman Chris Nonnemaker decided that two terms were enough and he would not seek re-election, three people threw their hats into the ring for the chance to replace him in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
They’re entering the race at a time when some commissioners on the current three-member board have faced criticism for not following proper procedures.
In May, when Nonnemaker was on vacation, commissioners Craig Bryant and Joe Campbell awarded a construction contract for a courthouse renovation without going through an open bidding process or having a public meeting.
That followed a similar incident in April, when both Nonnemaker and Bryant were out of town. Campbell gave the go-ahead for an expansion project at the county jail, without putting out a request for bids or consulting with the other two commissioners. Also, one of the contractors Campbell hired was his own brother.
And in May, the commission came under fire from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. After the EPD denied a variance for a White County resident to build within the 50-foot buffer for trout streams, Bryant and Campbell signed a letter giving the homeowner permission to build anyway. The EPD then launched an investigation.
These incidents have led to some complaints about a "good ol’ boy" mentality within the commission. But candidates seeking the chairmanship vow they’ll restore the public trust.
"The county has policies and procedures that have to be followed," said Travis Turner, 36, senior vice president for commercial lending at Regions Bank in Cleveland. "Voters need to have confidence in their commissioners."
Turner’s rivals for the position are Teresa Stansel, 55, a former owner of a natural foods store; and Rick Post, 57, who sells sports logo products and also has a real estate business.
"The reason I decided to run is, I saw the growth in White County and where we’re going to be in 20 years," said Post. "We need to be planning for the future. I think we’re 10 years behind the curve already."
In particular, White County lags behind some communities because it has no zoning laws. But Post, like the other candidates, prefers not to use the term "zoning." It tends to get people riled up.
"I am for some kind of land-use plan," he said. "It’s not the same as zoning."
The current commission is trying to put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters if they want the county to have a land-use plan. Similar initiatives have been voted down twice in the past. But recent events have made people more aware of what can happen when a county has no zoning.
This year, residents in the southern half of White County have staged protests against LHR Farms, a facility that accepts waste from septic tanks all over the region and pumps it into the ground near the county’s industrial park. Many people have complained about the odor, and some claim that pollution from the farm has made them ill.
Independent testing has found bacterial contamination in nearby streams, and two EPD inspections found numerous violations of environmental rules.
But the commission has been powerless to do anything about it because the county has no law prohibiting septic disposal farms.
"Businesses (considering a move to White County) are going to want to know if you have some kind of land-use plan," said Post, who came to White County from Atlanta 21 years ago. "It’s come to the point where we need it. As we grow, it protects your rights and your neighbor’s."
But Stansel believes that instead of imposing zoning laws, a better solution would be to halt the county’s growth.
"Atlanta has been wanton and reckless in its growth," she said. "My family has lived on the same land for five generations, so I’m very passionate about preserving the rural character (of White County). I oppose urbanization."
However, Stansel also opposed the mountain protection ordinance that the commission passed in 2005, which limited development on steep slopes.
She said it wasn’t the law itself that bothered her as much as the way it was handled.
"I am absolutely in favor of preserving the mountains," Stansel said. "But the ordinance was created by a consultant who did not live in White County."
She said she also resented how the county was pressured by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs into adopting the ordinance. Stansel strongly believes that local residents should be able to decide how their county is governed.
"The county can create a truly local ordinance that does not have federal ‘takings’ issues such as endangered species and wetlands protection," she said.
Stansel is almost always present at White County Commission meetings, keeping tabs on what local officials are doing. And she usually provides extensive documentation to support her own positions.
Stansel said if she becomes an elected official, she will base her decisions on the works of the country’s founding fathers, such as the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution.
She also believes that globalization and the United Nations are a threat to local governments. And she wants White County to take over management of the portions of the Chattahoochee National Forest that are within its boundaries.
Turner, a White County native, has a very different perspective. He thinks the county should be encouraging growth.
"We need to be building infrastructure and attracting industry," he said, noting that when most kids graduate from White County High School, they can’t find jobs within the county.
"White County has become something of a bedroom residential community," he said. "I’m a minority in the fact that I was raised here, mostly educated here, and now live and work here."
Though Turner wants more industries that could provide jobs, he doesn’t want the county to lose its rural landscape. "I believe we need to have responsible land-use planning that respects our agricultural history," he said.
As the population grows, one of the biggest challenges for the White County commission has been providing services for the newcomers — police and fire protection, roads, schools, parks, water and sewer — without raising property taxes.
Stansel said a tax increase wouldn’t be needed if the commission would stop spending money on projects she believes are unnecessary.
"Focus on essential services and cut out the fat," she said. "You can only put so much burden on the people."
With an economy based almost entirely on tourism and agriculture, Post thinks White County will have to get creative about its finances.
"We need to find ways to bring in more revenue so we don’t have to raise taxes," he said. "Also, we need to work with Hall County and/or Cleveland to have sewer service all the way down (U.S.) 129. I think that’s going to be our economic corridor."
Whoever wins the Republican primary will compete in November against Joe Hatcher, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.