RINCON — The candidates in Rincon’s Nov. 2 mayoral election met in an occasionally contentious political forum at The Herald Center on Oct. 12.
Longtime incumbent Ken Lee’s leadership ability was repeatedly challenged by Kevin Exley during a 90-minute event that was streamed live on Facebook. Lee countered most of Exley’s accusations and questioned the challenger’s commitment to public service by citing his attendance record during a short stint as a Rincon City Council member.
“I have a refreshing new vision for Rincon with smart growth and a plan,” said Exley, a lifelong Effingham County resident and council member from 2018-20. “As your mayor, we will get back to how the charter reads to lead the city and away from the backdoor calls and meetings that under our current mayor have caused some elected officials to feel helpless without a voice for the residents that they were elected by.”
Lee, seeking his fifth term, rejected Exley’s notion that he isn’t a consensus builder who operates in a way that isn’t beneficial to the city. The mayor then cited his credentials, including his involvement with the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Effingham County Industrial Development Authority, Savannah Technical College, United Way, Treutlen House, Habitat for Humanity and Rotary.
“My service to the community began 11 years before I ever became mayor so I kind of feel that I’ve got some experience under my belt in avenues that would provide knowledge that would be helpful to me in the position of mayor,” he said.
Lee, a Claxton native and former Savannah resident who moved to Rincon in 1994, is a current member of the Effingham County Transportation Advisory Committee, the Effingham County Board of Health and the Coastal Regional Commission of Georgia, a 10-county planning and intergovernmental coordination agency.
“Earlier this year, I was appointed by Governor (Brian) Kemp to serve on the Coastal Regional Water Planning Council,” said Lee, who worked for Kroger for 46 years. “That is a new position that I just recently assumed.”
When he was initially elected in 2005, the City of Rincon was under a consent order from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
“That restricted our access to water and restricted our growth, opportunity,” Lee said.
After numerous meetings with state officials, Lee and the council managed to resolve the issue and have the consent order removed, allowing construction companies to resume building.
“Our growth has been tremendous since that time,” Lee said. “ Growth presents opportunities and challenges. My goal as mayor, along with our city council, is to manage these growth opportunities and to maintain our community feel and appeal that make Rincon a great place to live.”
Exley, a Waste Pro executive, said Rincon is a dangerous place to live for residents of Picket Fences, a subdivision with approximately 200 lots that is fronted by railroad tracks. He said the situation there spurred him to challenge Lee.
“My heart goes out to the neighborhood and, of course, the people who live in there because of what they face,” Exley said. “That neighborhood faces, during a haz-mat derailment that blocks that location — that could be possibly be 500 lives.”
Picket Fences was developed without a second entrance as called for in a planning code update. Exley said no action has been taken on an entrance even though the council budgeted $750,000 for one.
“The ball has been kicked down the road for 15 years,” he said. “They must have another way out.”
Exley also criticized the way the council recently replaced Ann Daniel, who surrendered her seat in June. He contended that Lee shot down Councilman Reese Browher’s suggestion that Paul Wendelken, a former longtime council member, be considered to fill the remainder of Daniel’s term.
“Mr. Browher brought that back to the council and, when he brought that back to the council, no one even gave him a second,” Exley said. “No one even gave him a second to even give his reason why.”
Ben Blackwell Jr., nominated by Lee ultimately received the nod from the council.
“Again, I go back to the process and how you get things done, and get agreement,” Lee responded. “My opponent here is mentioning a situation where we had to appoint a council member to fill out the remainder of a term and we were preparing to do that.
“I had what I thought was a good candidate, Mr. Blackwell, and I still contend that he is. He has served us well on the Planning and Zoning Board for over four years. He is very capable, very intelligent, he is a military officer, a major in the U.S. and he is a chemical engineer at Gulfstream, and he is very qualified in the budget process and so forth.
“I was not aware of any other candidate. It was not made known to me by Mr. Browher or anybody else of a candidate so I went to council members, lobbied them. I said, ‘I have a candidate. Can you support him?’ Mr. Browher could have done the same thing. He had that same opportunity so if Mr. Browher’s nomination didn’t get a second then, apparently, nobody on the council felt like their was a good reason. I feel like we had some good reasons not to do that and I would just say that this council member that we are talking about — previous council member — was not reelected in the first week of November (2019) and he chose not to come back a meeting over the last two months of his term. He abandoned his term, and that was during the budget process.
“And furthermore, if we had appointed his gentleman, yet the public did not reelect him, would we not be overriding the will of the people?”
Wendelken subsequently decided to run again Nov. 2. He, Blackwell, Damon Rahn and Councilman Levi Scott are seeking one of three seats up for grabs.
During the announcement of his candidacy, Exley said his vision for the city is aligned with Rahn, Rincon’s former representative on the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority Board of Directors. He also mentioned Wendelken as an ally during the forum but added that they had many disagreements during their previous service together.
Exley defended Wendelken’s absences from the final meetings in the wake of his 2019 defeat.
“I don’t know how you would react whenever you’ve been a part of something for 20-plus years,” he said. “Some people take losses harder than others. Some people get up the next day and don’t feel the energy to continue that fight after a loss.”
After a discussion of several issues confronting the city, including traffic, road repairs, drainage and the viability of Lost Plantation Golf Course, Lee denounced Exley’s council meeting attendance during his closing statement.
“He was elected to a four-year term,” Lee said. “During the two years of service in 2018-2019, he missed 38 percent of the regularly scheduled meetings and special called meetings. In the year 2019, he served as mayor pro tem, which means he would conduct council meetings in the absence of the mayor. He missed 44 percent of the meetings.
“I know that he has a job and responsibility, but did he know that he had that commitment when he took office and what it would require? Also, there were other council members who had job responsibilities as well but none of them missed the number of meetings that my opponent missed.
“This, to me, would call into question his availability and commitment. During this two-year period, I missed two meetings when I was out of the country.”
Exley resigned from the council following notification from City Attorney Raymond Dickey that Exley had a conflict of interest during the 2019 sealed bidding process for the city’s trash collection. His employer was one of three bidders and the eventual winner.
An independent law firm agreed with Dickey’s assertion about a conflict. According to Lee, Exley resigned four days after his request for the law firm to reconsider its position proved fruitless.
Exley cited a possible job relocation as the reason for his decision.
“I will let you, the voters, draw your conclusion about this matter,” the mayor said.
Exley called for enhanced recreation opportunities and voiced reluctance to adding a city property tax before addressing his resignation during his final remarks.
“I should have completed my own investigation into this but my company had just announced plans to change our regions and possibly use me elsewhere, and that being Charlotte (N.C.), which would have resulted in a move for me and my family,” Exley said. “After stepping down, our region headquarters were moved to Jacksonville (Fla.) so no chance for the relocate. My region is currently in Jacksonville.”
Exley said most of the other council members told him that the conflict could have been removed by his recusal from the vote on the trash collection contract. He said they did not recommend that he step down.
“The mayor told me on multiple calls that they did,” Exley charged.
The entire forum, sponsored by the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHJ83NUNE9M.