The search for a new president for the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce is over.
Ralph Staffins III was named as the new president and chief executive officer in an announcement Wednesday. He replaces longtime chamber president Milton H. “Woody” Woodside, who has held the position since 1985.
Staffins is currently serving as president and chief executive officer of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce in Covington, located about 30 miles north of Atlanta. He has led the chamber, economic development office, main street program and tourism department there since 2015.
Last year under Staffins’ leadership, the chamber was awarded the 4-Star Certification by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The award is one of the highest given, with only the top 3 percent of chambers in the nation earning the designation.
“We are excited to welcome Ralph to Brunswick and the Golden Isles,” said Jeff Bennett of Collins & Associates, Real Estate Appraisers and the 2018-2019 chamber board chair. “Ralph has the experience as a chamber professional to continue to build on the great work our chamber has been able to accomplish for the past 30-plus years. He will build on that by bringing a new perspective to our chamber and business community.”
Prior to serving in Covington, Staffins served as executive director of Forward McDuffie in Thompson and as the economic development director in Wilkinson County. He graduated from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2008.
He currently serves as vice chair of the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and will chair the organization next year. He is also designated by the International Economic Development Council as a certified economic development professional.
He will start his new job on June 1. Staffins’ family, including his wife, Rachel and their three children — a 7-year-old, 5-year-old and 1-year-old — will relocate to Glynn County this summer.
“To have the opportunity to lead the Brunswick- Golden Isles Chamber and grow in my profession is exciting,” Staffins said.
“Following in the footsteps of a chamber icon like Woody Woodside is going to be challenging. I look forward to becoming a part of the team that continues building a strong business community.”
The judge who wrote a letter that resulted in last month’s suspension of McIntosh County Clerk of Court Rebbeca McFerrin has been assigned to conduct a jury trial on whether she is to be permanently removed.
A computer named Robert Russell, chief Superior Court judge of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit and long-time McIntosh County resident, to preside over the trial for which no date has been set. Russell, along with McIntosh County State Court Judge C. Jean Bolin wrote a letter to then Gov. Nathan Deal last fall asking for an investigation of McFerrin’s conduct in office.
The possibility of Russell conducting the case is remote, however, because of his conflicts of interest, and the same may be true for all the judges in the circuit.
Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said he does not know when the removal petition he filed March 17 will go before a jury as the law requires. Thus far, he has found no road map to follow in trying the case.
“If it was ever used,’’ Durden said of a removal action, “it was rare...I have never seen this nor did I ever hope to have seen this.”
Rare to the point Durden hasn’t found a prior case.
“I agree with that,’’ said Luke Moses, the Hinesville lawyer representing McFerrin. “I do think it’s fairly unprecedented.”
Although Russell and Bolin’s letter went to Deal, it fell to Gov. Brian Kemp to act on the judges’ complaint. Soon after he assumed office in January, Kemp appointed a panel composed of the state attorney general and two clerks of court to investigate McFerrin’s office.
The two judges had asserted that McFerrin had failed to enter the cases of jailed inmates into the court records in a timely fashion. As a result, those defendants sat in jail without the benefit of bail hearings and one, Shannon Daras, needed to see her physician because of an illness and persistent pain. The panel issued an investigative report verifying that portion of the complaint along with a lot of other shortcomings in the office.
Not only did McFerrin not move forward on Daras’ case at a normal pace, she instructed a deputy clerk to place Daras’ case file on the “bottom of the stack” for processing, the panel wrote in its report. That instruction was given because a member of Daras’ family repeatedly called the clerk’s office, the report said.
The report also said that in 2017, McFerrin deleted a Georgia State Patrol citation charging her husband, James Glenn McFerrin, with driving 101 mph. When confronted with deleting her husband’s speeding ticket, McFerrin asserted, “I had the right to do what I did.”
Under Georgia law, prosecutors can decide not to go forward with cases for lack of evidence or other reasons, but only judges can dismiss charges once they are made.
In his petition, Durden said McFerrin’s handling of her husband’s traffic case could be indictable as a violation of her oath of office.
The panel also said McFerrin presided over a chaotic jury selection process, sometimes excused so many jurors there were too few left to select a jury for trial and with failing to record some court proceedings and documents. The report said some documents are missing as are records of entire court proceedings.
As a result of the panel’s findings, Kemp issued an executive order March 25 ordering McFerrin’s suspension and instructing Durden to consider filing a petition to have her removed.
Durden agreed that McFerrin faces a lot of allegations, but said the main ones are the handling of Daras’ case and the deletion of her husband’s ticket.
As for problems with the jury selection process, Durden said it effected both criminal and civil proceedings.
Moses agreed that the report made a number of allegations against McFerrin, but he said she will have her own story to tell.
“Mrs. McFerrin has a case to present,’’ Moses said. “I think a jury of her peers in McIntosh County will exonerate her.”
McFerrin had years of experience in the clerk’s office first as a deputy clerk for Saundra “Bootie” Goodrich.
As chief deputy, she took over the office when Goodrich retired prior to the 2016 election for the office, which McFerrin won.
In the letter to Deal, Russell and Bolin said judges had sought to counsel McFerrin on proper procedures in her office, but she declined to take their advice.
“There were attempts made to get her mentoring or help,’’ Durden said. “That was never followed up with.”
While she was under investigation, McFerrin told The Brunswick News she was undergoing continuing training and making corrections in the way her office was operating.
Contractors told local officials and village business owners at a meeting Wednesday they expect to finish infrastructure work in the Pier Village on St. Simons Island by the end of next week.
“We’ve got asphalt down on both sides of Mallery right now. We’re getting ready to put asphalt down in Oglethorpe Lane this morning before the paving crew leaves,”said project manager Aaron Beckworth. “We had anticipated putting the striping down as well, but of course, unforeseen things have come up in that, so the temporary striping won’t be done until tonight for the parking spaces.”
The construction work is part of a larger project to improve stormwater drainage in the Pier Village. Sidewalks and parking spaces were broken up and repaved at a slightly greater angle centering on the gutter, which county engineers say will move stormwater out of the village faster.
Contractors still need to replace two drainage lines under the sidewalk on Beachview Drive, Beckworth said.
“I have the train of thought that by the end of next week, we’ll have the whole line complete and the sidewalk put back unless we run into some kind of snag at the concrete plants, which is not unheard of,” Beckworth said.
Once work in the commercial area of the village is finished, Beckworth said they’ll start on some work in a drainage pond into which water from the village drains. There, contractors will build what he called a custom-built, concrete weir to collect any trash that makes its way into the pond.
Jim Barta, owner of Barbara Jean’s restaurant, said he’s been impressed with some of the contractors’ recent work.
“He (Beckworth) came into restaurant Thursday and asked about Easter Monday, being a relatively busy day, and decided to ask if we prefer they not tear up the sidewalks on Beachview that Sunday night so we’d have a clear day on Monday. Would we prefer they start at midnight Monday night,” Barta said. “I thought that was an extraordinarily thoughtful and generous thing to do.”
Once the infrastructure work is complete, Glynn County Public Works Director Dave Austin said he’d like to continue working on beautification of the area.
Scott McQuade, president of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, brought a list of ways to improve the village’s look without too much effort.
First, he took aim at what he called “faux piers,” wooden posts with rope either tying them together or running between them. They are located in landscaped islands to serve as decorations. The decorative features are also showing their age and sporting frayed or severed rope.
Austin said the decorations are the responsibility of the village business owners, but that public works could remove them if requested.
Second, he suggested consolidating all the newspaper and magazine dispensers into one area or into one machine. Most of the dispensers are in bad shape and some have been empty for more than a year, he said.
In addition, Austin said he’s working with Georgia Power to paint light poles and install fixtures to allow the county to hang banners.
The county recently bought grates to place around the base of palm trees in the village, Austin said, which will also improve safety and aesthetics in the village.
Finally, Brogan’s owner Forrest Brown asked about getting a street sweeper to drive through the village regularly.
Austin replied that the street sweeper had broken down, but it was recently fixed and will sweep the streets in the village twice a week.
One of the successes of environmental conservation in Coastal Georgia is the rebounding of the sea turtle population, as measured by the number of nests laid along the state’s barrier islands. Statistics presented Tuesday at a sea turtle conservation workshop indicate this year could be the largest on record.
Mark Dodd, head of the state Department of Natural Resources’ sea turtle program, displayed a graph showing an upward trajectory over a significant number of years. While nesting goes in cycles, the last couple years have been above average. Even last year’s number of 1,735 nests, which was below 2017’s 2,187, was above what it could have been.
As it stands, nesting’s growing at around 2.5-3 percent annually.
The pattern tends to indicate this will be a significantly bigger year than last, and some of the people participating in the cooperative meeting pegged it at a record year. Not so much more than 2,500 nests statewide, but topping 3,000.
There were 3,291 nests recorded in 2016, according to seaturtle.org, an online database of sea turtle nesting statistics.
Surveys have to start this year by May 5, and one of the actions pondered during those surveys is nest relocation. Sometimes turtles nest seaward of the high-tide line, leading to the chances that nest gets washed over. But, it’s to be the action of last resort.
“Nest relocation — last year, our state relocation ran about 27 percent, so that was really good,” Dodd said.
Although, he pointed to one instance last year in which a notably high tide before July 4 ended up swamping a number of nests.
“There is a very strong correlation between elevation and hatching success, and that has a positive effect on population size,” Dodd said.
Like everything else, there are tradeoffs — one concern, although not a major one now, is nests at higher elevations tend to get warmer, which tends to lead to a higher ratio of females hatched.
Generally they like to move the nests higher than the largest spring tide.
“A couple days ago, we had a full moon, we had a pretty big tide,” Dodd said. “It was about 9.1 on the Ft. Pulaski tide gauge. Usually we get a lot of wrack deposited on the beach, and when you first go out in early May, you kind of see where this line is on the beach.”
In absence of a wrack line, other beach conditions are taken into consideration to estimate the mark of the highest tide. That’s the primary criteria for making sure a nest is out of the way of the tide — later in the season, there’s another assessment as to whether a nest should be moved because of storms produced by hurricane season.
In terms of high tides, they’re cycling larger as the year goes on, with the largest tides coming in September, which are to come in at around 9 feet. Unfortunately, that does tend to correlate with some of the worst times for tropical cyclone activity.
This hurricane season, the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project predicts 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes, which would be similar to last year, in which there were 15 named storms, eight hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
However, if tide issues are mitigated and dangerous storms take a pass on Southeast Georgia this year, it could be a season to celebrate.