Undaunted by a close mayoral loss last year, Pete Liakakis now bids for the countys top job After a narrow run-off loss to Otis Johnson in the race for Savannah mayor a year ago, some pundits said the political career of Pete Liakakis was over.
No sooner had the words crossed their lips than the former city alderman threw his hat into the ring for Chatham County Commission chairman, a seat made open by the term-limited departure of Billy Hair.
Most everyone in town knows Liakakis from his tireless attendance at neighborhood meetings and community events. Youll no doubt see him helping serve food at the Greek Festival this weekend, as he does every year.
But Pete is also, quite simply, one of Savannahs most interesting people. The 72-year-old black belt martial artist was once a bodyguard for Burt Reynolds. A former Air Force officer, Liakakis served as head of local Civil Defense during much of the Cold War, and can tell some entertaining -- and sometimes chilling -- stories from what he saw during that time as an intelligence officer and bomb disposal expert.
Currently president of United Security, Liakakis still takes a great interest in homeland security issues. During our recent interview at his downtown office, he took a phone call from someone donating a truckload of hurricane relief supplies to Savannah Responds, a relief organization Liakakis helped found in 1960.
Connect Savannah: You run a business, youre running for office, yet you find time for hurricane relief.
Pete Liakakis: Im proud of how generous this community is. Weve had people donate over $2 million worth of items for hurricane relief. We organized the very first ship to bring relief after the big Italian earthquake.
I remember after Andrew hit. I went down to Florida City and it looked like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb. The devastation was incredible. We sent over 200 people down to help rebuild and clean up. Thats one reason Ive pushed so hard over the years for flood relief in this community.
I help people because its the right thing to do. There are a lot of times Ive helped people that only God, me and they know about.
Connect Savannah: This is the first race where youve had to declare a party affiliation. Has it hurt or helped to declare yourself as a Democrat?
Pete Liakakis: Well, my relationships in the Democratic Party have always been good. I know a lot of Democrats and helped a lot of them over the years, and so I made that decision to run as a Democrat.
Recently I spoke at the Skidaway Island Kiwanis Club, which of course is mostly Republican. I told them my position and my vision, and afterwards a few came up to me and said, Im going to vote for you. This Week at the Landings was there, and they wrote that Id made a few converts (laughs).
Ive worked with a lot of Republicans over the years and been good friends with them. Al St. Lawrence, Ben Price. John Oxendine, the insurance commissioner. Larry Dillon, a great judge on the Recorders Court.
You know, if you vote to pave a street, to fix a pothole, to add sanitation or to extend some county service, you dont vote on that as a Republican or Democrat. Youre providing a service to the people of the community.
My whole position is, the government doesnt belong to elected officials. The people are the government. The elected officeholders are just there to set policy and carry it out for the people.
Connect Savannah: What kind of support are you building so far?
Pete Liakakis: There are a lot of veterans supporting me, because of my service in the Air Force and the National Guard. Im still a member of the Carpenters Union, and there are a lot of individual union members whove said theyre supporting me.
A lot of people support me in neighborhood associations. You know, in eight years on city council, I sometimes went to four or five meetings a day. I never went just for politics -- I went because thats where you can best hear peoples concerns and issues and address them.
Ill tell you about the time I went to the Victory Heights Neighborhood Association. Theres a park on the 2000 block of 42nd St. where a lot of young guys would hang out dealing drugs, staying up 'til 2 or 3 in the morning, keeping the elderly people awake. Theyd run and hide when the police would come.
Some people there were very angry at city council. They wanted something done about all this. I called the city manager and said, Michael, these people are angry. Weve got to put this at the top of the list.
And soon we had yellow lines painted for no parking zones, we added a street light, we cut limbs around the one light that was already there, and fixed all the potholes.
Connect Savannah: Meetings of the current commission often deteriorate into personal attacks. As chairman, how would you change that atmosphere?
Pete Liakakis: Yes, you often have one commissioner berating another during the meeting. Sometimes the staff even gets attacked.
My theme is a team of nine. It doesnt matter what party you are. Im a consensus builder. I want a more positive attitude. I want to work with individuals and with other commissioners and collectively try to create an atmosphere with more civility. Being a consensus builder, I can get us all to work together for the common good.
I wish and pray that we could all work together on issues facing us. If we did that, a lot of problems wouldnt happen. We wouldnt be in Bosnia, we wouldnt be in Afghanistan or Iraq. But you know, we move on. We truly need to help each other, because its the right thing to do.
Connect Savannah: A recent county budget stirred controversy when it appeared to not quite add up. Whats your take on it?
Pete Liakakis: That budget -- the one my opponent submitted -- had a $6.3 million shortfall. Frank Murray put $5 million in from added revenue that wasnt there. Nobody bothered to call the tax commissioner to find out how much taxes were being collected and how much revenue was expected.
Historically, there have been two property tax bills, because not many people can pay the full amount all at once. Generally, the county collects about 26 percent of its revenue in the first bill, that April. The next tax bill collects the rest, around November 15.
The professional staff told the commission, There could be problems with this budget. Frank Murray said the money was going to be there. Now, if the money is not there, that could cause the commission to propose a millage increase to raise taxes.
You know, the number one priority of government is the protection of life and property. The commissions budget proposed taking $300,000 away from the Counter Narcotics Squad. The drug squad is very successful -- theyve arrested thousands of people over the years. They have a 96 percent conviction rate. If youre going to cut the budget, you cant take the money from an area as critical as crimefighting.
I want to look for other sources of income. There are too much property taxes already. We need to find other ways to help pay the operating costs of the county. We have to increase financial responsibility of government, and control services in a more economical fashion.
Connect Savannah: Specifically, what other sources of income are you considering?
Pete Liakakis: Im very interested in increasing economic growth and development. SEDAs (Savannah Economic Development Authority) done a good job, but we need to work on getting more support for business and industry in our community.
I want to see us appoint people who are former chairmen of boards, former executives and business owners, who can serve as as ambassadors for our county. They can go to business owners in other parts of the country and say, Wed like to see you come to Savannah, Georgia, and locate your business there.
That means we have to support workforce development. When JCB came in, Savannah Tech and the Quickstart program were training workers for those jobs there. With me serving as president for three terms of the Chatham County Municipal Association, which combines seven cities and the county, I can build good relationships with other cities in our area.
The schools are important in this. I strongly support our public school system. You know, 40 percent of all high school dropouts end up committing a crime. They do this mostly because when they drop out they have no skills and cant find a job. Not all of them -- some of them turn to crime because theyre just mean -- but most of them. I want to help the school board put a program into place so these kids are not dropping out.
And I want to do something thats never been done before: I want to have regular meetings with all the cities in the county. So for example if Thunderbolt needs something, its not just Thunderbolt doing it. We all can lobby legislators and grant sources and get funding. Look at what good that can do for us.
Pete Liakakis faces Frank Murray Nov. 2.
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I think we can do things better than we are now
Frank Murray says hes ready to bring a steadier hand to the county commissions gavel
in his fourth term as county commissioner representing the islands, Frank Murray now bids for the hot seat of chairman, vacated by the departing Billy Hair.
But in a sense, Murray is not only running against Pete Liakakis. You could say he is also running against Hair himself.
Though a Republican like Hair, the two mens styles could not be more different. Calm, cool and courtly, the 58-year-old Murray makes no bones about his disapproval of the ugly spectacle commission meetings have so often turned into after Republicans gained a majority on the commission four years ago.
Critics say that in defending the commissions work while campaigning for change, Murray wants to have his cake and eat it too. But those who know him well say its all part of Murrays willingness to call things like he sees them, without spinning the facts.
Recently retired from the Air National Guard after nearly four decades of service -- including a stint helping enforce one of the no-fly zones over Iraq before the invasion -- Murray currently works three days a week coordinating drug enforcement training programs for St. Petersburg College in a contract with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga.
We spoke with Murray, fresh from that mornings commission meeting, at Maggies Antiques, his wifes antique store in Ardsley Park.
Connect Savannah: Going into this interview I expected you to defend the status quo, but youre definitely calling for a big change in how meetings are conducted.
Frank Murray: I think we can do things better than we are now. Id like to see the meetings run more smoothly. As chairman, Ill let people speak freely. Im the kind of person that can respectfully listen to people without agreeing or disagreeing. And you know, if we have to put a time limit on things, thats fine too.
I was elected vice chairman of the commission in my second term, and chairman pro tem in my third and fourth terms. So Ive had the opportunity to run some meetings, and I do know how to conduct meetings. Ill definitely run things more smoothly.
Connect Savannah: What in your view is the problem in the meetings?
Frank Murray: What weve seen is that for whatever reason the meetings break down. Im not pointing fingers, but it does seem like we spend most of the time putting out fires. And for whatever reason, the votes always seem to come out 5-4. Should votes always be unanimous? No. But you have to look at whats in the best interest of the whole community.
The Savannah Morning News always wants to talk about me being in the so-called Gang of Five -- I despise that terminology, by the way -- but Ive always voted for the communitys interests.
I dont concern myself with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. When youre elected to serve, then youre there to serve everyone. And so far Ive been able to work with everyone.
Connect Savannah: There have been some cases of commissioners publicly berating county staff. What do you think about that?
Frank Murray: I dont like it and Ive never liked it. Its inappropriate to chew someone out in public. You can take them into an office in private for something like that.
I remember one time I said some things to a county staff member during a meeting. The next meeting I publicly apologized to him for my behavior, in front of everybody. Later he told me, Frank, you didnt have to do that. I said, look, if youre going to attack someone in public, you should apologize in public.
And weve got a great staff. The commission just has to set policy and have the staff carry it out. Im not sure weve actually done that.
On the other hand, this commission has accomplished a lot. The CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) continues to grow. Weve got vehicle replacements happening soon. We put the police merger in place.
Connect Savannah: The police merger went off better than many skeptics predicted.
Frank Murray: The Chief gave us an update just this morning at the commission meeting. He says things are running a good bit further ahead than he expected. And when the new 911 goes into place here soon, well be that much further ahead.
Connect Savannah: Is city/county consolidation on the radar screen?
Frank Murray: You might see that one day, but its way off. Ive proposed the inspections department as an area that would make sense to be next to consolidate. Recreation is another area that might work.
Connect Savannah: Pete says the latest budget that you submitted included revenue that didnt exist.
Frank Murray: Well, if he thinks that then I dont think he quite understands the process. Ive worked on these budgets for 16 years.
First off, there were several things we had to take advantage of this year before they went away. One was the Bamboo Farms, and the other was the bond to renovate property for SABHC (Savannah Area Behavioral Health Clinic). Then we changed finance directors, and some line items were changed. There was a mistake made, and weve admitted that.
But so far, the first two months of revenue are up significantly from what we expected. Then theres the fifth penny, the LOST (Local Option Sales Tax). Thats going to bring in $700,000-800,000 more than we expected.
One budget should not be the issue; you have to look at the trendline. Weve started building the fund balance. Four years ago, there was zero in the fund balance. Now were much further along, and well soon have enough in there that our bond ratings will go back up where they should be.
Things are tight, but were there.
Connect Savannah: Are you ruling out a millage increase?
Frank Murray: We wont have a millage increase. In fact, if we do come up short, well have enough in the fund balance. There will be no need for a millage increase.
Connect Savannah: Is it true that your budget called for a cut to the Counter Narcotics Team?
Frank Murray: No. The money was put into the budget and held in a restricted account until the money is needed.
Connect Savannah: Workforce development is a pressing issue locally. What are your views on that?
Frank Murray: Yes, weve already lost a few businesses because of that. Weve got to continue to work with the Board of Education -- though I realize they have their own board and their own way of doing things -- and to work with local trade schools. We need programs so that public schools can offer hand-on training.
We dont just need that in manufacturing, we need that for high-tech jobs as well. If we expect to bring jobs into Chatham County we have to have training for the workers that are already here. Thats going to mean the Board of Education, Savannah Tech, and the Georgia Tech campus here all working together.
The tools are all here, its just a matter of bringing everybody together. And we need to keep young people from dropping out of school.
Connect Savannah: During a previous term, the Guard sent you to Kuwait. Some local Ready Reservists -- a few in their 50s like you -- are now being sent to Iraq. If elected chairman, how could you serve if you get called up again?
Frank Murray: If by some small chance I was activated, of course I would step down. It wouldnt be right for the citizens for me not to do that. But its highly unlikely. Theyre only calling certain fields now, people with certain expertise. Theres almost no chance of that happening.
Connect Savannah: You and Pete have slung very little mud so far in this race.
Frank Murray: And you wont see any from this side. Its just not me. Im not running on my opponents record, Im running on what I can do. Petes done a lot for this community, and I have, too. Obviously, I think Im more qualified to be county commission chairman (laughs).
I did work hard on getting the Demere tract for the county, and I am proud of that. I talked with Mr. Demere for two years to help make that happen. And the county acquiring that property on Eisenhower Drive, the National Guard property, I helped put that together.
But Im really not one that seeks credit for things that Ive done. For me, if the job gets done, thats whats important. So often in city and county government people are just protecting their turf. Im not in this to protect my turf or anyones turf. Im in it to protect the citizens and the community.
Frank Murray faces Pete Liakakis Nov. 2.
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