Political turnover on both sides of the river this year

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 28, 2012 

It was a year for political turnover on both sides of the river. Phenix City's municipal government experienced an almost complete makeover in November, while Muscogee County voters broke up a school board bloc that had challenged the school district's executive leadership.

1. Phenix City makeover

Following several contentious years of battling between a faction of Phenix City Council and Mayor Sonny Coulter, voters cleaned house, replacing all four councilors and the mayor, who did not seek re-election.

Eddie Lowe, the city's first black mayor, replaced Coulter, and Chris Blackshear defeated Jimmy Wetzel as the at-large councilman. Jim Cannon won the District 1 election to replace Max Wilkes, who opted to run unsuccessfully for mayor and then died in October. Gail Head defeated Michelle Walker in District 2. In District 3, Arthur Day defeated Arttie "Pontez" Sumbry, son of incumbent Arthur Sumbry, who withdrew from the race while facing criminal charges for forgery and perjury.

2. Voting on principals

On May 21, Muscogee County School Superintendent Susan Andrews brought a slate of seven proposed principals to the school board for approval. What is usually a perfunctory and celebratory event, with friends and family gathered to congratulate the new principals, turned into an awkward spectacle that left many in the board room fuming, including school board chairwoman Cathy Williams. One by one, the principals were presented, only to be turned away by the same five-vote bloc of John Wells, Pat Hugley Green, James Walker, Norene Marvets and Beth Harris.

Andrews had already announced her intention to retire before the principal debacle, but she decided afterward to hasten her departure by a month, leaving at the end of June instead of July. That led to the school board bringing back former superintendent John Phillips as an interim, at a salary of more than $17,000 a month.

Green, Walker and Marvets were up for re-election in November, and only Green survived the challenge. Many observers attribute the makeover to an organized "Boot the Board" effort.

3. SPLOST falls short

While the school board wrestles with replacing Andrews, it is also struggling to deal with a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that fell short of providing the money it was expected to produce.

According to law, municipal SPLOSTs are in effect until a set amount of money is raised. School district SPLOSTs are in effect for a set time, regardless of the amount raised.

Because of the slow economy, the board voted to eliminate the Academic Success Center and to help make up for the $40 million shortfall in the 2009 SPLOST, and to allow the district to build an arts academy.

4. Cheers!

The last session of the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation allowing municipalities to hold referendums on the package sale of alcohol on Sundays. This year, many cities, including Columbus, did just that.

In spite of organized opposition from liquor store owners, who said their overhead would increase but their sales wouldn't, Columbus voters overwhelmingly approved Sunday sales. The vote was 61-39 percent.

So, on Sunday, Dec.2, liquor stores opened their doors … but not until after church.

5. All about roads

Columbus is the hub of one of only three regions in the state to pass a much-ballyhooed Transportation Local Option Sales Tax in November.

The tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2013, and last for 10 years. It is projected to raise about $1.8 billion in the 16-county River Valley District, about $260 million for projects in Columbus.

In addition to the River Valley District, only the Central Savannah River District, which includes Augusta-Richmond County, and the Heart of Georgia Altamaha, just to the south of that district and to the west of Savannah, passed the tax.

6. Carver reopens

Hundreds of alumni, educators, elected officials, students and other visitors gathered at the new campus of George Washington Carver High School on Eighth Street to celebrate the opening of the 225,000 square foot school on Sept. 1.

The school, on the site of the old school, cost $37 million, financed through the 2009 SPLOST.

7. Locks stay open

In the face of considerable public and political opposition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course on a plan to close down the locks at Lakes Walter F. George, Andrews and Seminole, effectively land-locking Columbus for the first time ever.

In September, the Corps announced the plan to make the locks available only to commercial traffic, and then by appointment only. After a political and public outcry, it announced that the locks would remain functioning for 10 hours a day, four days a week.

8. Prison overhaul

In spite of a little pushback from the city's Personnel Review Board, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson completed an overhaul of top management at the Muscogee County Prison after it became apparent to her that previous management was not up to the task.

Tomlinson first gave former Warden Bill Adamson several options, of which keeping his job was not one. When he retired, Tomlinson installed retired state prison warden Dwight Hamrick as interim, then permanent warden. One deputy warden was also replaced and several other command staff changes were made.

One of those dismissed, Lt. Little Lynn, appealed to the review board and was reinstalled. But Tomlinson appealed that ruling to Columbus Council, which upheld Lynn's dismissal.

9. Old Cobb Hospital razed

Sixty-five years after it was built, the old Cobb Memorial Hospital was torn down. The building, which Phenix City bought for $650,000, cost just over $1 million to take down.

Cobb Memorial Hospital opened as a 72-bed facility in 1947 and expanded eventually to more than 250 beds. It struggled financially in the 1990s, when Phenix City voters denied it a 10-mill ad valorem tax in 1993. In 1994, city leaders levied a 1 percent sales tax for hospital operations, raising about $2 million a year. Columbus Regional Healthcare System bought the facility that year but would close it down in 2001.

10. CHS principal gets job back

Columbus High School Principal Marvin Crumbs was reassigned then reinstated in April after considerable protest from students, parents and community leaders.

Crumbs was removed as principal by Superintendent Susan Andrews because he played a video clip of comedian Ron White's "You can't fix stupid" routine. The story went national when White got wind of the dismissal and took to the airwaves.

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