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District 5 candidates field questions at NAACP hosted candidate forum
district 5 forum
District 5 candidates, from left, Karl Riles, Betty Phelps and Michelle Harris, prepare for last Thursday’s candidate forum hosted by the Liberty County NAACP. - photo by Denise Etheridge

Five of the six candidates running for Hinesville’s District 5 city council seat addressed issues Thursday during a candidate forum hosted by the Liberty County NAACP at LaQuinta Inn and Suites in Flemington. 

Candidates Michelle D. Harris, Betty M. Phelps, Karl A. Riles, James R. Ryon Jr. and Andrew L. Smith Sr. answered panel questions from forum moderators Luke Moses, an attorney with Jones, Osteen and Jones, and Natalie Hines, and fielded numerous questions from the audience. Candidate Hannah Williams-Donegan did not participate in the forum.

Panel questions included: “What three issues are most important to you in making Hinesville better?”, and, “Is downtown healthy and successful?”

Candidates also responded when asked if they had attended council meetings, which most had, and how they would engage residents in their city government’s decision-making process. Most said they would strive to be accessible to their constituents, via cell phone, email and when out in public.

Phelps said one of her primary issues was to improve the quality of life for youth and families. Teenagers in Hinesville need activities that will “keep them safe, keep them active and keep them growing,” she said. 

Riles’ main issues were focused on business and fiscal responsibility. 

“We need to make it easy for businesses to come in,” he said. This would create jobs and entice young people to remain in Hinesville if they see a viable economic future for themselves, Riles explained.

“It’s important that we stop wasting the taxpayers’ money,” he added. 

Ryon said keeping up with growth and ensuring the city plans for growth topped his list of issues.  

He said equitable service “for all citizens,” was also one of his priorities. Thirdly, “Keeping taxes in order is the main concern for most citizens,” he said. 

Common sense growth and development was one of Smith’s major issues. “We’ve got to fix this infrastructure, these roads before we bring all this growth in here,” he said. “We’ve got to do this in a way that doesn’t put undue pressure on parts of the city that aren’t prepared for it.”

He added offering small businesses incentives would also help support and grow local businesses.

Harris, who works for the Liberty County Board of Education, said she is “all about the youth.” “If children have something to do here, they won’t get into trouble,” she said. Harris said there are activities for children and youth on Fort Stewart, but not all kids in Hinesville have access to the post. 

She also pointed out that homelessness in the city, such as among veterans, was a problem she would like to address. Harris is the founder and president of Classy Ladies Social Club, which works to purchase blankets and tents to distribute to the homeless. Harris also feeds the homeless in Hinesville every other Tuesday, she said in a previous interview. 

Riles, when asked if downtown Hinesville was healthy, he said no, “not at the present time.” He said he had participated in a town hall hosted by the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority to address redevelopment in the city’s downtown area. Riles said one of the takeaways was, “After 5 o’clock, there is no main street.” He added that the city is working to improve Main Street.

Ryon said there are good businesses downtown that need assistance engaging the public, and that the city can help. However, the city “can’t do it all,” he said. Ryon suggested implementing a public/private partnership for such projects as a community center which could draw more families to downtown.

Election Day for the special election is March 19. Early voting ends Friday. Residents can vote early at the Voters Registration Office in the Liberty County Historical Courthouse, 100 Main Street. The official polling place for the City of Hinesville elections is the Charles M. Shuman Recreation Center, 800 Tupelo Trail. Voting will be open from 7 a.m. – 7p.m. March 19.

Whoever wins the District 5 council seat will hold the position for about eight months, before the general election in November 2019. At that point, all council seats will be up for election, and all candidates will be required to campaign again.

Reporter Lainey Standiford contributed to this story.

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