Shelly Echols will officially start on the Hall County Board of Commissioners in January, but she’s been staying up to speed on the issues.
In May, she won the primary to represent District 3, taking 71.9 percent of the vote. Because there was no Democrat to oppose her on the ballot in November, she secured the position early, giving her time to build connections and work on bridging what she said can be a disconnect between North and East Hall, her district, and the rest of the county.
“I’ve made it a priority of mine now and during my term, to attend Town Council meetings and City Council meetings in my district,” Echols, a lifelong East Hall resident, said. “There’s very few Commission meetings I haven’t attended. … Communication with the mayors, or city councilmembers or managers, just to know that, shoot me a text and call me, let’s talk about what’s going on and see what the two of us can come up with together. Especially with Lula and Gillsville, there’s been some disconnect in the past.”
She took her oath of office Friday.
Echols said she never saw herself in the political arena — she always thought her husband, Jaemor Farms’ Drew Echols, would be the one more likely to run for office. But when she saw issues with county employee morale and heard from residents who felt like county government was not hearing their concerns, she wanted to do something about the situation.
“I am the kind of person when if I think something needs to be done and no one else will, I will,” she said. “It was time to step up and put my name out there.”
In 2017, the county was considering moving ambulance teams from fire stations in District 3 to more densely populated parts of South Hall. The plan went public before a decision was ever made, but when community members criticized the proposal, the county dropped the idea.
Echols said that controversy was not the reason she decided to run for a commissioner position, but it did get her to start paying more attention to county government and how those decisions affect residents’ everyday lives.
“That was certainly one of those situations where something happened, the people didn’t like what happened, and the people didn’t feel like they had a voice,” she said. “So much outrage had to happen before those people were listened to.”
She said improving county employee morale will be one of her priorities as a commissioner, although she has seen improvement in recent months. County employees received 5 percent raises as part of the budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
She was especially concerned about morale in the fire department, she said.
“It was almost like Hall County was a training ground. We spent all this money training all these employees and as soon as they get all their certifications, they were going out to get other jobs with more money,” she said.
District 3 is Hall’s largest and most rural district. Echols said she agrees with other officials’ predictions that Ga. 365 will be a growth corridor for the county in coming years, bringing change to her district.
“I grew up in Tadmore, right off of Harmony Church Road. I remember when it was nothing but farms out there, and the area has changed,” she said. “…I feel like the East Hall area, the 365 corridor, is kind of the bull’s-eye for the next four to eight years of where everything is going to be happening.”
She said that growth will be welcomed by some and challenged by others, but the change needs to be sustainable.
“You have to make sure before you allow a rezoning to happen, or an industry to come in, that the infrastructure is in place to support that,” Echols said. “Otherwise, you get in a gridlock situation where you have businesses attracting all these cars in and the roads can’t handle the people, or you put a subdivision in and the roads can’t handle the people.”
Infrastructure like sewer and internet will also support that growth, she said, noting that her home behind Jaemor Farms cannot get internet and she would like to see increased broadband access.
“We can’t have communities thriving and schools thriving and businesses thriving if they don’t have access to something as basic as internet or sewer or water,” she said. “But I’m also very conservative with spending, and I know projects like that are very expensive. It’s hard to justify spending that amount of money if only a few people would benefit from it.”
Those projects could also involve cooperation with municipalities, as Lula is working on an expansion to its sewer lines that would bring service down Ga. 365.
Working with municipalities is another of Echols’ focuses.
“The ultimate goal for the county or those municipalities is to provide a better quality of life and better services for the citizens of those areas, whether it be that the county provides them or the cities provide those,” she said.
Increasing taxes to fund improvements would not be her first idea, she said.
“I can’t say that I would never vote to support a tax increase because I don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “But I do think that before I ever voted to support a tax increase, I would have done everything I could have done to make sure we didn’t have to do that. That would be a last resort option for me.”
Echols runs an educational tours company and she and her husband Drew have two children, 15-year-old Chloe and 10-year-old Cohen.