Watch the full interview here.
To get started, tell us a brief biography about yourself.
“I was born right here in Etowah County, down in Rainbow City. I still live where I was born and raised. We sold produce right out of our front yard that my parents and us six kids grew ourselves.
I’ve been married to my sweetheart for 37 years. We have three adult children, a couple son-in-laws and four awesome grand-daughters. Growing up with the kids, I coached T-ball and softball. They are a lot of fun to have around.
I have been a fireman in Gadsden for a little over 30 years. Before I was a county commissioner four years ago, I moved over from the Rainbow City Council where I served for about six years as a councilman.”
You spoke about being a fireman here for so many years. What initially inspired you to enter that field?
“As a young guy, I was volunteering with Rainbow City before it could afford to have a fire department. Anita Bedwell’s father was the fire chief in Rainbow City. He was a friend of the family, and I just kind of started helping out. It’s kind of an exciting thing to do.
I think once you start doing it, you kind of get to where you enjoy the service. You enjoy making a difference and being a part of a solution. Most of the time it’s a sad situation, and people often lose their homes or even their lives. You do what you can, and it’s a good feeling.”
After being in this field for so many years, what would you say you learned? What experience have you gained?
“A lot of experience, that’s for sure. It’s probably the little things that matter – things that you don’t necessarily do in training. It’s in the interaction with the people, and just the small gestures and kindnesses. Those are things that make a difference in somebody’s life. When they’re in a really bad situation, it could just be a touch or a word, but it’s just the little things.
I’ve always preached that to my guys. Of course, I’ve been there 30-plus years, so now I’m the old guy. Now I actually serve as assistant chief, and I tell them that the little things matter. It’s about being ready and having all your stuff ready to go. I’m a little OCD in that matter. My stuff was always right where it needed to be.”
You spoke about serving on Rainbow City Council and then in your role as County Commissioner. What made you transition into local politics?
“Probably wanting to make a bigger change. Rainbow City is just a small community, and honestly, it doesn’t don’t have that many problems that can’t be overcome, because the city’s budget is good.
I had always wanted to do some improvements at the airport. Michael Wildman, a friend from Advance Etowah, and I had talked many times at church about what we would like to see at the airport and how that could be better. We’re working toward that.
What really tipped the scale was talking with Mayor Terry John Calhoun, who was the mayor at the time. We just needed more help from the county. Our county guy had not been accessible as much as possible. You’d call him, and he wouldn’t get back. I told him that I had considered that before, and he said, “Well I wish you would,” and it kind of just tipped the scales.
It was a big race. It was like four of us ran for election that time, and it ended up in the runoff. I got the seat, and it’s been a good four years. I think we’ve accomplished a lot. I’m pretty happy with where we’ve come. There are some things I really want to improve, things I want to do more of.”
Let’s talk a little bit more about those accomplishments. When you first entered your role as county commissioner, what were some goals you hoped to achieve?
“I wanted better things for the airport. I wanted our roads to be better. That’s a big issue and that’s a part of the problem that I didn’t understand at the time. I didn’t understand what the overall situation was, and I’ve learned over the last four years.
It’s much harder to get what we need to do in District 4. The money is divided up equally among all the districts. Where District 2, 3, and 4 out of 820 miles in the county, those three districts have 760 of them. The other 60 are decided between the other three districts. So those three districts don’t really have road issues, and the three that do have so many roads that they have major road issues.
It’s a different balance in what is important or what’s pressing on those different districts. Working through that, I have been able to do better. When I came into office, maybe five and a half miles of District 4 had been paved. I think I’ll have 18.9 miles, which is still very short of what I wanted to do and short of what it needs to be, but we’re working on that.
In 2008, the county borrowed about 10-million dollars to pave roads. The county paved a bunch of roads in 2009 and 2010. The bond the county borrowed was on a 15-year bond and last year, we paid about $948,000, maybe $970,000, on what we borrowed in 2008. Next year, that bond will pay off, but the problem is those roads are all now worn out.
Many roads in my district are coming a part because they were all paved with that bunch of money. It would be good if we could borrow $10 million dollars and do it again, but since then, road paving has gone from $24,000 a mile to $58,000 a mile. So, it’s going to cost us about $30 million dollars and go back and do what they did in 2008, 2009 and 2010. That’s a major issue.
I talked to the other commissioners at the end of the meetings and said I was going to get some numbers together and let them understand where I’m at in my district, what my problem is here and that I need some help. We need to do something drastic and different from what we’ve been doing.
We pave about 20 miles a year. That’s what our road crew can get ready, and we need to be paving about 50 to get all the roads done of the 820 miles before they wear out. If we borrow $30 million dollars, we can do what they did in 2008 and 2009. But we really need to borrow it for 10 years instead of 15 years, so that we can pay it off before the roads wear out. It’s a big issue, and it’s something I think about daily.”
You mentioned some challenges that Etowah County faces. What are some other issues or things you might like to see change in that area?
“I think we’re moving in the right direction. There’s been some changes. I campaigned on the idea that ‘We’re better together.’ I laugh about this because we set up a booth at Altoona Day and we sold RC Colas and Moon Pies, but it really wasn’t just a campaign.
We’ve done a good job of building that relationship – not just me, the whole commission. We’ve built those relationships with our communities, and I think we have more than we ever had. A fabulous example of this is what happened this last week. A lot of people are not as excited about what happened with Rainbow City and the county commission about coming together and signing the memorandum of understanding [for Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site], but it’s a huge event. It sets the stage for water and sewer to go into the mega-site. It sets the stage for police and fire protection, which were two of the biggest issues we needed to overcome, and it then sets the stage for annexation in Rainbow City.
All these things are about working together as a community. I think it’s the best thing that we can do as a community and what we are doing. We’re building those relationships, and that’s one of the other things that I kind of campaigned on four years ago.”
What do you think is the key to facilitating that cooperation?
“It’s relationships, it’s trust. It’s just about doing what you say you will do for the betterment of everybody. It may not be exactly what your community needs in your small zone, but it is what the whole community needs together. Everybody is just moving together.
We are one small community in Etowah County – there’s no reason for us to be divided up. All cities have their own little master plan but overall, it should be one big master plan [for the county].”
You mentioned the mega-site. Tell us a bit about your perspective on the value it will bring to Etowah County.
“I don’t think anyone has really fathomed what that value is. Look at what Honda has done to Lincoln, and what the Mercedes plan has done around Vance and Tuscaloosa. We may not get an actual automobile manufacturer, but we’re going to get something substantially big that hopefully will bring 2-3,000 jobs.
I want it to be some kind of clean industry that has electric vehicles. I’d like something that is for the future, and I believe that’s very attainable. The progress we’ve made up to this point is just a step in the right direction and none of this happens quickly.
The highway department is on board with us and we’re trying to work with the state so that we can get in and off the interstate and work well. The new I-759, what they’re calling the Eastern Connector, is a huge part of all of this. It all works in unison for us to be a better county and for us to move forward.
Everything’s clicking right now. There’s a good working relationship between the commissioners. Again, we have different focuses depending on our people. But we’re all focused on the county and we understand that the cities are part of the county. We are working with those cities to bring everything together.
It’s a bright future and that’s the real reason I’m excited about running for the second term. I came on the commission four years ago, and I’m going to do this twice. I’m not the guy who stays in there forever. I served on Rainbow City council for about six years. I was planning on doing two terms there. I’m just going to do this twice and then I’m going to go play with my grandkids.
I don’t have long-term ambitions about being in politics. I want to do what I can to make this county better and then I want to service it up for somebody behind me to say, “Hey, we’ve got it here, it’s in good shape.” You’ve got to know and go out and get it done.
I hope the person that comes in behind me serves for two terms and then hands it over to somebody that’s fresh and ready and has bright ideas and is ready to move forward.”
What prompted you to run for re-election and what would your approach be to the second term, should you be re-elected?
“Just finishing what we started. I’m excited about where we are. We’re moving forward, and I would hate not to be serving as commissioner in the next four years because I think we’re going to see some really big improvements. We’re going to land something at that mega-site in the next four years. I’m excited about that.
We’ve got other things started that I’m hoping to do. As far as short-term things, we’re putting in a food distribution at West End High School where the kids can take food home for the weekends so they can have meals.
I’ve got Etowah Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Cosby surveying West End to get a baseball field on campus. I want to watch a game there. It won’t happen in this term, so I want my re-election to help facilitate the resources into making that happen. Sometimes you start something and it grows into something you never thought it would be, and that’s all I want.”
What characteristics do you think make an effective commissioner?
“Being a good listener. Just hearing what people are saying is a big deal. People just need to be heard. You might not be able to fix what they have going on and you might not be able to solve their problems, but you can hear what they’re saying, and then at least you can give them an answer. This is why we are where we are.
Sometimes I just have to be blunt and say, “I can’t fix that. But I can get you in touch with someone else or I can advocate for you.” I think being a good listener and being an advocate for the people is all we can do.
My position is to be your voice. Like what happened with the rendering plant, I’m still getting beat up a little bit about that. The truth of the matter is, I was never for the rendering plant, certainly not for it at the airport. It didn’t fit us, so we got out of that.
I called [City of Gadsden Clerk] Iva Nelson and got myself on the agenda to speak at the city council meeting. I got beat up pretty good in Southside, and that’s part of it. You get beat up occasionally, especially when people don’t know the truth. I went as a voice to the people. I told them what the people said, that we don’t want this in Etowah County. The people are our lifeblood and we’re all a part of that [Gadsden] seat. It’s crucial to listen to them.”
What can residents of district 4 expect from you as their commissioner?
“More of the same – I’ll do what I can. I’m very accessible. Most of the stuff that I hand out, my door hangers and push cards, it’s got my phone number on it. My phone rang 89 times the other day. It wasn’t all county commission of course, but my phone rings quite a bit. I put my number out there. If you need your county commissioner, I want you to call me. Put my number in your phone.
I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m going to be available to you and I’m going to do my best to fix the problem you’ve got with all the knowledge I’ve gained.”
Should you be elected, what knowledge have you gained during your time as commissioner that you would take with you?
“One of the things I’ve learned just over the last year, is really how the road system works and what the problems are that we’re up against in paving. I said earlier, it’s about how much money it’s going to take and what we have to do. It took a long time to unearth all those things and figure out why all my roads were falling apart.
I’m hoping that in the next year, there are at least a couple major changes in our direction on what we are doing on road paving. We’ve got to do something completely different.”
How would you describe your ultimate vision for Etowah County?
“I think we have so many assets here. The river runs through here and Noccalula Falls is under-appreciated for its beauty and outdoor activities. It’ll promote the mega-site and really bring up the county.
All of that goes into making our community better. I think we could do better with our schools. What’s happening at Gadsden State is really the cornerstone of advanced technology. They’re building a new [Advanced Manufacturing] center over there hopefully soon. Things are really looking up, and I’m excited about being a part of that. We’re moving in the right direction.”
If there’s a message you’d like to send to voters, what would you say to them?
“Get involved. Be a part of the community. Be a part of the people who actually know what’s going on. Let’s promote what’s positive, because there’s a lot of positives to promote. Come to the commission and council meetings and find out what’s going on. Be a voice for what you want, and just get involved. Be a part of the solution.”