Candidates for city school and school board in Social Circle took part in a forum hosted by the Walton County Chamber of Commerce Monday night. Above, City Council District 4 candidates John Griffin Miller (left) and incumbent Steve Shelton discuss the issues. Cassie Jones photo | MAK Photography
The Walton County Chamber of Commerce brought eight candidates for office in Social Circle’s municipal elections together at the Church at the Grove in the Blue Willow Village for a public forum, allowing those in attendance to hear from everyone involved in the city’s four contested races.
The event began with the two candidates running for the District 4 seat on the Social Circle City Council. Incumbent Steve Shelton is running for re-election against challenger John Griffin Miller, who said he wants to make the city friendlier to small business and more receptive to the citizens’ needs.
“As elected officials, this should be what we’re doing, having a conversation with the citizens,” Miller said.
Miller and his wife have lived with their seven children in Social Circle for the past 15 years and he said he loves his adoptive city.
“We love it here,” Miller said. “It’s been an absolute blessing. I live my life with a good deal of optimism and I want to bring that optimism to the city.”
Shelton, on the other hand, emphasized his homegrown background in Social Circle.
“I’ve lived here my whole life for the past 59 years,” Shelton said. “I grew up here. I’ve always loved Social Circle. It’s always been home. I serve the citizens here and I look at what’s best for the city.”
Miller said he wanted to make the council more accountable to the citizens and make it easier to navigate the city’s ordinances to create businesses and be prosperous in town.
“If you’re a big, faceless company, the city government will roll out the red carpet for you,” Miller said. “If you’re a homegrown business without hundreds of thousands of dollars, there’s nothing for you. The city makes it difficult.”
Shelton contested this, saying the city was working to review its ordinances but had allowed many businesses to thrive in town.
“The lifeblood of the city is our businesses and our citizens,” Shelton said. “Social Circle is not out to stop anyone form having a business.”
Shelton did miss the days when the city was a more intimate place where everyone knew everyone.
“Most of the people here don’t know Social Circle the way it was 20 years ago and more,” Shelton said. “I used to know everyone in town. I’d like to see Social Circle like that again. That’s part of what makes it unique.”
But Miller pushed back against what he saw as a ruling clique pushing against new blood in civic leadership.
“There’s a handful of folks behind closed doors making decisions,” Miller said. “In a lot of cases, those decisions are against the will of the voters. We have a responsibility to be honest with the people.”
Both candidates emphasized they are fighting to make Social Circle a better place.
“I’m asking for you vote because if you vote for me I’ll work for economic development that understands the kind of community we want here,” Miller said.
“Social Circle is my home and will always be my home, whether I’m elected again or not,” Shelton said. “I will work to keep my home a great place to live.”
On the other side of the ballot, there are three contested races for the Social Circle Board of Education, as David Baird and Taylor Morris vie for the chairman seat, Beth Brewer runs against incumbent Amber McKibben and Maggie Bonnell defends her newly appointed seat against John Gardner.
The big topic of the night was the contentious decision by the current board on where to build a new elementary school, which saw two board members resign in protest over the selected location on the Social Circle Parkway.
Most defended the location, whether incumbent or challenger, but Baird was less approving.
“I wouldn’t put a school out there,” Baird said. “We have something special here right now. All of our schools are within walking distance and that makes Social Circle unique. We’re going to lose that with this new location.”
But a new school was a necessity in everyone’s mind.
“We need a new school,” Morris said. “We’re growing. We need to be looking at growth long-term. The school board scoured every piece of property in the city that could handle a new school and future growth there and this was the best choice.”
Gardner said it was vital to make good decisions to ensure parents continued to get the best schools for their kids, comparing the city’s current schools to those he attended as a child in Gwinnett County.
“I don’t want the schools here to be like those I grew up in,” Gardner said. “We have a great thing here and I want to protect it.”
“We’re all here for the same reason,” she said. “I want to see our system grow and thrive.”
McKibben, the only candidate who was on the board when the vote was taken to acquire the property for the new elementary school, said the decision was the best one for the community and system alike.
“I wouldn’t send my daughter to a school that wasn’t safe, let alone anyone else’s child,” McKibben said. “This decision was made in the best interests of everyone, and will let us build a new middle school there too down the line.”
Bonnell said one of her priorities on the board was ensuring the board worked well together and communicated with the community.
“Being on the board is a collaborative effort,” Bonnell said. “It’s important that the city and school system work well together and that everyone come together to make the system successful.”
“We must listen to the people we represent,” Brewer said. “We must make the necessary decisions to support our teachers and students. I want the best education possible for my daughter and that’s how we get there.”
Ultimately, the candidates agreed that it was less important who was chosen to be on the board and more important that those selected worked to continue to improve the school system.
“I can’t tell you if I’m the best candidate for the position for not,” Gardner said. “But I get up every morning to get things done.”
Others had similar arguments.
“What compels me to be a candidate is my love for these schools,” Morris said. “I’m not a perfect candidate but I love these schools and I love these kids.”
Baird said he brought his kids to Social Circle because of their unique character, citing the system’s performance during the pandemic as a plus, and wanted to preserve that.
“Social Circle does everything different,” Baird said. “That’s what sets us apart. At the end of the day, I’m just a dad. That’s why I am doing this.”