This week the Baker County Commission welcomed back a former commissioner from the 1980s, James Croft, and wished Mr. Croft’s opponent in the Republican primary last August, Commissioner Michael Crews, a fond farewell.
As the board’s regular meeting November 19 came to a close, Commissioner Jimmy Anderson, elected two years ago, called the outgoing commissioner “an inspiration.”
“He’s all-the-time busy, all-the-time working,” said Mr. Anderson before expressing his confidence that Mr. Croft, who was in the audience, will perform well and how Michael Crews will nonetheless be missed.
Former county commissioner Alex Robinson, who lost his re-election bid in 2010 to Mr. Anderson, was present for Michael Crews’ final meeting with the board that evening.
He thanked the commissioners for continuing their service despite criticism, saying, “For all the criticism you hear, there are many more that are proud of the work you do for Baker County.”
Mr. Robinson also challenged Mr. Croft to serve the county as his former opponent has done, and wished both men well in the future.
Michael Crews, a one-term commissioner and the head of security at Northeast Florida State Hospital, had some parting words of his own.“The last four years have been an honor and an experience I will never forget,” he said at the end of the meeting.
He listed the accomplishments in which he’s taken the most pride: improving county roadways, avoiding tax increases with “a minimal loss” of employees by cutting spending and using the county’s reserves, and hiring county manager C.J. Thompson to replace Joe Cone, who retired in 2010.
“One thing I really admire, whether [Mr. Thompson] agrees with you or not, he gives you both sides … And when you give him direction, he runs with it like it’s his own,” Michael Crews said.
The commission’s former chairman also pointed to “unfinished business” from his time on the panel.
He reiterated his support for using special assessments in lieu of traditional “ad valorem” property taxes as a more equitable way of funding county government.
He said the public expects the county to provide everyone with the same level of service but 47 percent of the county’s property owners pay $500 or less in ad valorem taxes annually.
“That’s something the board will have to fight with, and assessments are the fairest way to do that, even though they’re unpopular,” said Michael Crews.
He said there needs to be redundant staffing for important posts like the finance and human resources director positions to ensure retirements in those jobs won’t lead to messy transitions.
Michael Crews said he also wanted to furnish raises to county employees who are “under appreciated and underpaid.”
The sometimes outspoken commissioner ended his monologue with a simple pledge: “Right now, I have every intention of being back.”
After the meeting adjourned, Mr. Crews elaborated on his final comment, saying he plans to seek public office, but not necessarily a spot on the county commission.
“Anywhere I feel I can make a positive contribution and have a good chance of being successful, I would seek that office,” he said. “I’ll keep all options on the table and we’ll see what happens.”
About 24 hours later, three members of the newly-constituted county commission were sworn into office.
Commissioners Anderson and Adam Giddens complete the five-member governing board. They will be up for re-election in 2014.
Mr. Croft, 53, begins his second stint on the county commission after first serving in the late 1980s.
Last September he detailed plans to remake the county’s budgeting process into a more rigourous and time-intensive review of county spending priorities.
The Olustee resident dismisses criticism that such an approach equates to “micro-managing” county finances. He argues the scrutiny is necessary given the county’s budget deficits in recent years.
Democrat incumbents Mark Hartley and Gordon Crews return to the board after overcoming Republican challengers in the general election earlier this month. Both will be serving their third terms in office.
Gordon Crews narrowly won re-election with 51 percent of the vote against political newcomer Leonard Davis.
When asked if he intends to seek a fourth term in four years, Gordon Crews, 51, wasn’t certain.
“Right now, my wife and I are discussing what might be in our future,” he said.
The ER nurse manager at Fraser Hospital was surprised by the election results, both in his race and others. He said he didn’t expect a landslide victory but thought he’d prevail with a “comfortable” lead.
“I though it would be comfortable because I didn’t do anything I would say was bad, except for what [my opponents] were saying — closing Barber Road — but I would close it again today if I had to vote on it,” said Gordon Crews. “It’s just unsafe.”
Looking back on the 2012 race, he said he learned the value of meeting with voters face-to-face, which gave him an opportunity to counter strong political headwinds.
He described battling not only his opponent, who received financial support from the local Republican Party while he got nothing from an essentially nonexistent local Democrat Party, but also an anti-incumbent sentiment among the electorate and his image as a registered Democrat.
“I realized I’ve been a commissioner for eights years, and the two things they could come at me with was the closing of Barber Road and the budget process. That’s it,” said Gordon Crews. “So I’m thinking I’m doing a pretty good job and I should be secure for re-election, but I found out that wasn’t true. There was a whole bunch of people that wanted to ‘kick the bums out,’ so it didn’t matter.”
But by going door-to-door and talking with voters, including Republicans, and sharing how commissioners have cut spending and reduced taxes, he said he was able to garner enough votes to win.
“My opponent (Leonard Davis) did the same thing,” said the commissioner. “I feel if it hadn’t been for the grace of God and doing what I’ve been taught to do — go door-to-door and talk to as many people as you possibly can — it may have been different.”
Mark Hartley secured his third term on the commission with a little more room to spare than his fellow Democrat, topping Eddie Davis Jr. with 54 percent support.
Mr. Hartley, 53, didn’t rule out seeking a fourth term in 2016. When questioned about that possibility, he said, “I enjoy serving the people of Baker County. I hope to continue my service.”
The high school history teacher said his latest campaign taught him the people of Baker County “are truly concerned about the well-being of Baker County.”
More than 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the general election early this month.
Asked what he hoped to accomplish in the next four years, Mr. Hartley pointed to four goals: maintaining county services, supporting safe industrial growth with high-wage jobs and supporting recreational activities.
Gordon Crews had a similar vision for the future.
“I would like to work together with the commission to broaden our tax base by luring business or industry and creating a better job market for Baker County,” he said.
Incumbent Sheriff Joey Dobson, also a Democrat, was asked similar questions about his intentions for the future and his thoughts on the 2012 campaign. He did not respond by press time.