There’s only one local political race in Monroe County to be decided Nov. 3, and the question is whether long-time Monroe County commissioner Larry Evans can fend off what may be the toughest test of his 33 years in office.
Lamarcus Davis, a Monroe County native, Mary Persons graduate and popular long-time coach at the rec department, is challenging Evans for his District 1 post. Davis is running as an independent while Evans as a Democrat. Evans has been the only one to represent District 1, which covers mostly the city of Forsyth, since it was created in 1987 to give the county a majority-black district.
Not everyone remembers that Evans played a big part in creating the district he has represented more than three decades. Evans, along with local activists Herbert Gantt and Charles Wilder, filed a civil rights lawsuit against Monroe County in 1987 alleging racial discrimination. The federal lawsuit claimed the county’s set up with three commissioners, all voted at-large at the time, was discriminatory because they had always been white.
Then-commissioner Robert Williams, who owns the village in Juliette, said the county attorneys at the time suggested adding to the current set up of having three at-large commissioners. Williams said some people wanted to go to seven commissioners. He said he thought that was too many, and preferred five commissioners.
Then-commissioner Tommy Wilson, now the superior court judge for the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, agreed.
“I didn’t see a problem with going to five,” said Wilson, “so long as the chairman was elected at-large. I didn’t mind having districts. But it doesn’t need to get any larger than five commissioners or you can’t get anything accomplished.”
To settle the lawsuit, the commissioners at the time, Wilson, Williams and Linda Arthur, created a county-wide chairmanship and four districts, with one of the districts, District 1, being majority black, to include mostly the city of Forsyth.
When elections were held soon after, Smarr cattle farmer Jim Ham and Evans won the new districts.
Williams recalls the first meeting under the new government in 1987 when Ham and Evans said they were gonna change a few things.
“Y’all have been spending too much money,” said the new commissioners. So Williams said they asked the newcomers for suggestions.
“Anything y’all think we need to cut, we’d be willing to do it,” Williams told them.
By the time they were done, laughs Williams, the new guys had added $300,000 in new spending.
“That’s when things started going up,” said Williams.
Monroe County had a $5 million budget back then, recalls Williams. Now, 33 years later, it’s $30 million.
Ham and Evans would stay in office together for 29 years until Ham’s untimely death in an auto accident in 2016.
Evans faced his toughest challenges early in his tenure. In 1988 he barely beat his first challenger, businesswoman Doris Ogletree. Then in 1992 he narrowly won over her son, Warron Ogletree, by just 60 votes.
After that, Evans was re-elected several times without opposition. In the early 2000s news broke that Evans, a railroad retiree, had been setting aside his commissioner paycheck because if he took it, it would jeopardize his monthly retirement check from the railroad. Some were concerned he would try to collect the paychecks at a later date. The county finally had to stop setting aside the money after the railroad retirement system opened an investigation.
It seemed not to matter to the voters of District 1. Evans handily beat builder Bill Myers in 2008 1,583 to 835 (65 to 35 percent).
In 2011 news broke that Evans had liens on his home for $20,000 in unpaid state income taxes and penalties and late fees. Evans called it all a big misunderstanding. District 1 voters apparently agreed. In 2012 Evans was easily re-election over railroad retiree Donald Smith 1,708 to 1,112 (61 to 39 percent).
In 2016 Evans beat Robert Grier in the Democrat primary 356 to 215 (62 to 37 percent).
More controversy has dogged Evans since the last election. Last year he was chided by his fellow commissioners for blasting county purchasing agent Phyllis Jarrell for hiring a white woman over his favored candidate, who was black.
The commissioners hired Alpharetta attorney Steven Greene to review the episode and see if Evans’ actions left the county vulnerable to a lawsuit. In his review, Greene said it did and recommended the county set up a process to handle employee complaints and ethics violations.
“He admitted he did not know the qualifications of the white woman,” wrote Greene. “He also admitted that he did not know the relative qualifications of the white woman and his candidate. In his communication with Ms. Jarrell, he made it clear that he expected the County to hire the minority candidate.”
As for the liens on Evans’ home, at least some of those appear to have been resolved. In May 2018 the state Department of Revenue filed paperwork in the Monroe County courthouse saying that Evans had satisfied a $29,876 lien against his home.
A survivor, Evans has now been on the Monroe County commission at least 25 years longer than any other of the four commissioners. He has become somewhat isolated on the board, often being the lone dissenting vote in numerous 4-1 decisions. And when Davis qualified to run against him in March, Evans summarily replaced him on the Monroe County Recreation Board, where he had served for several years. Whether Davis can make the case that it’s time for new leadership in District 1 remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: If Davis does end the Larry Evans’ tenure after 33 years, he would be making some history of his own.