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Best of Savannah 2008: Politics and Public Affairs 

Best City Council Member

Tony Thomas

As Alderman for Savannah’s Sixth District, Tony Thomas serves as “the sounding board for the district,” he says. “My job is to relay their concerns and issues to City Hall.”

Thomas, now 42, took office in January, 2000 and this year began his third four-year term on Savannah City Council.

An energetic and visible presence in Southside Savannah, Thomas gathers input from citizens everywhere he goes--meeting with neighborhood activists, assisting neighborhoods in starting their own associations, and building coalitions in the community and with other elected officials.

“I advocate for issues they feel are important and work to bring the capital projects back to the district, like recreational opportunities, drainage, landscape improvements and roads.”

But mostly, his job is to listen.

“Being an alderman, you get stopped at the gas pump, at convenience stores, the grocery store,” he says. “You never go anywhere that people don’t tell you about what’s going on. Surprisingly it’s a lot of good stuff. They tell you the other stuff too, and you would never know if you don’t listen.”

“Tony is a very bright young man with a high level of energy,” says David Gellatly, Sixth District Chatham County Commissioner, whose county district largely overlaps Thomas’s. “He really cares about his constituents. There’s nothing phony about him. He’s very knowledgeable. Personally I’d like to see him run for mayor sometime.”

The greatest challenge as an alderman is the time factor, says Thomas. “Very few people can have a full time career and serve in public office. You have to work every day, as many hours as you’d work on a full time job. If you have children and a family and a job you can overextend yourself very easily. For me, I’ve replaced the wife and family with the constituents and public service.”

The rewards? “The simple thanks from a person that didn’t have anywhere else to turn,” says Thomas. “You were able to help them out in some small way. Giving people the strength to ask the right question and go in the right direction.” - RWG

Runner-up: Larry Stuber


Best County Commissioner

Pete Liakakis

If you are in half as good a shape in your ‘70s as Pete is, you’ll be doing pretty good. Heck, a lot of us are in worse shape half his age. He’s up for reelection this year, people, just sayin’.

Runner-up: Helen Stone


Best School Board Member

Joe Buck

This longtime Armstrong veteran shows grace under pressure in his challenging new position.

Runner-up: Greg Sapp


Best Local Activist

Tom Kohler

Ask Tom Kohler what an activist is and you’ll get a multi-layered response.

“Someone who tries not to be indifferent to everything,” says Kohler. “An activist continues to be willing to ask questions about what is and isn’t happening around them, and to take action. Someone who both appreciates and encourages other people. It is rarely something that a person does by themselves.”

Kohler, 56, Connect’s Best Activist for 2008, says his first activist experience was “growing my hair out the day I left high school. Feeling I was connecting to the antiwar movement and the youth culture.” The lifelong Savannahian is a graduate of Jenkins High School and Armstrong State College (now Armstrong Atlantic State University).

His activism roles have included leading the Savannah Arts Academy’s parent association and spearheading a1990’s movement of Charles Ellis School parents, persuading the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System to keep the doors open of the historic school building in Ardsley Park.

Other projects range from organizing the Jim Collins Bar Alumni Association, which gathered for several years to support the now-closed downtown watering hole; to assisting Jane Fishman in coordinating a twice-yearly community plant swap on Boundary Street; to sponsorship earlier this month of a local screening of the Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There by the Psychotronic Film Society. Kohler calls that effort “extremely small-scale cultural philanthropy.”

“Tom has been active in preserving the idea of indigenous wisdom,” says Superior Court Judge Louisa Abbot, who’s known Kohler for 18 years. “He set up interviews with Judge Gadsden and Judge Cheatham relating to civil rights events, preserving the history of the African American community. He’s led the effort to photograph all the crabhouse art and barbershop art” referring to Kohler’s unofficial role as curator of hand-painted African American advertising signs over the past 15 years.

Best known as the bushy-bearded coordinator for Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy since 1978, Kohler leads the non-profit in its effort to include people who have disabilities into mainstream community life, by partnering people who lead ordinary lives with people who are nudged to the margins of society because of disability. Under Kohler’s leadership, Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy has introduced hundreds of people, resulting in many long-term partnerships. Some matches have continued for decades.

“Tom has an engaging, forceful personality,” says Abbot, board chair for Citizen Advocacy. “Or maybe it is forcefully engaging. He’s powerful in his manner and yet he’s not intimidating. It’s a pretty unusual combination. A lot of times people who are passionate can put you off and yet he draws people in.” - RWG

Runner-up: Joe Driggers


Best Charitable Organization

United Way

From its base on beautiful Monterey Square, this perennial winner continues to facilitate good work for the community.

Runner-up: Red Cross


Best Local Conservative and Best Local Legislator

Jack Kingston

This longtime First District congressman was the toast of YouTube for going on Bill Maher’s show and ripping Barack Obama for not wearing a flag lapel pin — while himself not wearing a flag lapel pin! But to his credit, Jack, ever the good sport, had a laugh along with everyone else.

Runner-up, Best Conservative: Eric Johnson

Runner-up, Best Legislator: Regina Thomas


Best Local Liberal

Donna Antonucci

This popular St. Vincent’s teacher is a repeat winner in this category.

Runner-up: Joe Steffen


Best Local Scandal

Loco’s vs. Van Johnson

Alderman Johnson’s seemingly one-man crusade to clarify the rules regarding entertainment and cover charges in local restaurants consumed a lot of media oxygen (too much media oxygen?) for weeks and made the phrase “Lemon Pepper Wings” an all-purpose punchline around town.

Runner-up: Ben Crystal for Congress


Best Emergency Medical Technician

Cindy Gore

We added the EMT category this year due to public demand, and this SCAD grad is your inaugural winner.

Runner-up: Mark Bednarz


Best Cop

Joey Warenzak

A veteran of SCMPD since 1990, APO (Advanced Police Officer) John “Joey” Warenzak is currently working at the new Islands Precinct as a patrol officer.

Runner-up: Roy Harris


Best Firefighter

Capt. Holt Coursey

In 31 years with Savannah Fire and Emergency Services, Savannah’s Best Firefighter, Captain James “Holt” Coursey, has seen a few changes.

“When I came on, we didn’t use breathing apparatus,” says Coursey, 54, who leads Station 10 on Coffee Bluff Road in southside Savannah. “Now we wear close to sixty or seventy pounds of equipment.”

“But firefighting is really never changing, it’s going in and doing the hard work, as we say, ‘putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.’ ”

After 14 years in engine companies downtown, Coursey joined the Technical Rescue Team in the early 1990’s. In addition to fighting fires, the rescue team is responsible for emergency rescues, mostly using the Jaws of Life for vehicle extrication.

During Coursey’s 17 years in that unit he won an award for valor, leading the rescue of a construction worker who was trapped in a crumbling portion of the Trustees Garden during its renovation. “We had to have him out in forty minutes or less before the second collapse,” says Coursey, working alongside the doctor who amputated the worker’s arm on site.

At the Port Wentworth Imperial Sugar fire in February this year, Coursey and his team relieved the initial firefighters.

“The guys there initially did most of it,” says Coursey. “The next day we were putting out spot fires and catching fires inside. We made recovery of one body” based on reports of where people had been at the time of the explosion. “That was a group effort, everybody was working as a team.”

Fighting fires is a family affair for Coursey, with two uncles, two sons-in-law, and one son in the field. Challenges of the work include injuries (“I’ve fallen down an elevator shaft, I’ve had third degree burns”) and the strain on family members.

“You are with the fire department more than with your own family. I’ve been married over 36 years. The wives have to get used to the husband being gone every third day for a full 24 hours, and then just putting up with the mentality of the firefighter.”

Coursey describes life at the fire station as “a house with a fire engine in it. We live here. We have our own beds, a refrigerator, a kitchen. We’ve got some of the best cooks in the world. After five or six we’ll watch TV, movies together.”

The rewards? “I guess it’s corny but saving property, saving somebody’s life,” says Coursey. “It’s all worth it. And, dealing with the people in the fire service. We’ve got some of the best people in the world, they put themselves on the line to help people.

“I seriously doubt I am the best firefighter in Savannah,” he says, “but if you are called a firefighter by the other firefighters, that is what counts.” - RWG

Runner-up: Jimmy Cooler

Best Judge

Louisa Abbot

When informed that our readers had named her “Best Judge”, the Honorable Louisa Abbot was quick to note that she felt more than a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of being —as she put it— “in competition with other Judges for anything.” That’s a valid point.

While the entire idea of creating such a category is to give our readers a chance to voce their admiration or appreciation for someone in that position whom they feel is doing an exemplary job, Judge Abbot’s position that to view her role —and those of her fellow adjudicators— in such a way borders on trivializing the sanctity of the law actually speaks volumes about the way she carries herself and her authority.

In fact, it’s that very sense of dedication and solemnity which likely led to this award. When asked for a comment for publication, Judge Abbot initially declined, but ultimately offered this statement:

“While I am glad to know some people feel I am doing a good job, I certainly do not consider myself the ‘Best Judge’ in Savannah. There are far too many outstanding Judges in this community who’ve been valued public servants for many years, and I can only aspire to someday possess the wisdom they have displayed.” - JR

Runner-up: Tammy Stokes


Best CAT Driver

Joyce Lee

This Chatham Area Transit veteran makes your bus ride a pleasure.

Runner-up: Vincent Fuller


Best Local Newspaper Columnist

Bill Dawers

Savannah Morning News

For the past eight years, Dawers has played an invaluable role in chronicling the ebb and flow of certain segments of the local small business community, as well as its arts and entertainment scenes.

He’s also occasionally been a driving force in shaping the public discourse on a wide range of water-cooler topics such as the true state of the area real estate market and the Historic District’s parking woes.

Originally penning a weekly column on downtown cultural events for the earliest incarnation of Connect Savannah, he soon found a home for his opinions and observations on an increasingly wide-range of subject matter at the Savannah Morning News, where his weekly musings and profiles run under the heading “City Talk”.

“It’s become rather amorphous, and I think folks like not being able to predict just what I’ll focus on,” says Dawers. “I consider anything related to public life in Savannah fair game. One week you’ll have news of a brand-new restaurant and the next you’ll have something about taxes.”

As for this award, Dawers adds, “I’m very pleased. It’s nice to know people are reading my work and seem to enjoy it. I know that may seem a boring response, but I sincerely mean it!” - JR

Runner-up: Tom Barton


Best Local Website

Savannahnow.com

“Data Central” is a nice new touch.

Runner-up: Connectsavannah.com


Best Local Blogger

Scott Larson

Scott’s popular “City Unfiltered” blog at www.savannahnow.com/unfiltered is a snarky mix of innuendo, gossip, and honest-to-goodness policy education. At some point he’s going to have to name more names, however. Just sayin’.


Best Local Anchor

Sonny Dixon

A former politico turned newsman, WTOC’s Dixon still enjoys the limelight. Runner-up: Kim Gusby


Best Meteorologist

Pat Prokop

The Sunday morning of the recent tornadoes, Pat was on WTOC most of the day keeping everyone informed, a calming and rational presence in a media world overrun with hysterical dunces.

Runner-up: Dave Turley


Best TV Sports Anchor

Rick Snow

No one else but this WTOC stalwart makes high school sports seem so relevant. Runner-up: Big Frank


Best Local Talk Radio Station

WTKS 1290 AM

Bill Edwards is the local face -- uh, voice -- of the home of Rush Limbaugh and Neal Boortz, among others.

Runner-up: WBMQ


Best Local Radio Personalities

Dixon & Dooley

The Kix 96 heroes win again!

Runner-up: Jerry Rogers


Best Local Radio Station

Q105.3

Longtime winners in this category, Jerry Rogers & Co. are back on top after a rare loss last year.

Runner-up: Kix 96


Best Local TV Commercial

Sonic

Um, is this really local? We don’t watch the tee-vee much.

Runner-up: Coastal Chevy

(Sorry, no information is currently available for other years in this same award category.)

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