Starting out with Chester Ellis: an exclusive interview with Chatham County’s new chairman

Ellis talks COVID-19 relief, CAT controversies, Chatham fire service, and more

click to enlarge Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis in his office. - MALCOLM TULLY
Malcolm Tully
Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis in his office.
Chester Ellis is accustomed to starting out under tough circumstances.

Growing up poor in Chatham County as the seventh sibling in a family of 10 children, whose parents were continually moving them between rented homes in impoverished neighborhoods, Ellis learned to make the most of what little he had.

“My father didn’t go no further than 3rd grade, my mother didn’t go no further than 8th grade, but they made sure the rest of us, all their children, got the best education they could, and they made sure we were using it like it should be used,” Ellis said, asserting that this upbringing made him a lifelong learner. “Every day is a learning curve for me, because I learn something new.”

Now Ellis is facing the ultimate test of his life's education as the new Chatham County Commission Chairman, after being sworn in on Jan. 4 following a single term as commissioner for Chatham’s District 8. While Ellis has long served in varied leadership capacities – as a coach, a teacher, a pastor, and a community activist – he has never taken on a role like this, assuming direct accountability for the safety and economic wellbeing of some 300,000 county residents.

“It’s an awesome responsibility, one that I have stepped into,” said Ellis of his new position, which he won in the Nov. 5 general election against former Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman, despite his campaign having a relatively meager budget. “My favorite quote to myself if that if you pray for the rain, you’ve gotta deal with the mud that it brings. I wanted to be in this position, I’ve strived to be in this position.”

click to enlarge Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis being sworn in alongside his wife, Wilmotine. - COURTESY OF CHATHAM COUNTY
Courtesy of Chatham County
Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis being sworn in alongside his wife, Wilmotine.
It is not a position that many people would be eager to fill right now. While Ellis praises his predecessor Al Scott for leaving the chairman’s office with Chatham County’s finances on solid footing, he also inherited a number of local problems bigger than any one leader can solve.

Ellis is facing the ongoing community-level impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden and controversial removal of Chatham’s public-transportation chief, a fire-service agency with a $3 million operating deficit, a growing movement to merge the county’s Board of Elections and Board of Registrars, and innumerable other local issues that mean the world to constituents immediately impacted by each of them.

“We’re in the service business, and our service is to the people we serve,” Ellis said of Chatham’s Board of Commissioners, adding that sometimes the individual leaders’ own goals must be shelved for the greater good of their constituents. “It is our responsibility to take care of assets that have been entrusted to us. It may not be what I would like to do personally, but decisions we make should be the best for the county as a whole. They should not put anybody in a hole.”

With an overarching goal of keeping the tax burden on Chatham residents in check, Ellis is tackling the various problems before him with a collaborative approach of bringing together as many local leaders and citizens as possible to address every issue. He hopes that this will lead to consensus-building that helps the entire county achieve a more prosperous future developed with carefully planned growth.

“It comes from the way I was brought up: you use what you have, you don’t worry about what you don’t have,” Ellis said, emphasizing that he always takes a long-term approach to county governance. “I look at who’s behind me, and how do I pave a way for them to go on the road to success. So the job I do now is actually for those who are coming, those who were born yesterday.”

But will Ellis’ plans to address each issue with painstaking deliberation sufficiently satisfy his fully grown peers and voters who are eager for fast action in county leadership? Ellis sees balancing such immediate needs with long-term planning as an essential challenge of his role.

“I try to look at where Chatham County is in 2021, but I also want to know where we are in 2024. That’s the tenure of my time, even though I’m going to be seeking to carry to 2028, but I gotta take care of ’21, ’24 first before I can talk about anything else. If I’m not up to date here, then I can’t prepare for then,” Ellis explains.

Overseeing the county’s COVID-19 response

No issue is more immediate for Chatham County and the rest of the planet than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak first impacted coastal Georgia, Ellis has taken it very seriously, wearing a face mask and rubber gloves at County Commission meetings and public events throughout most of the past year. Even though he’s now received both shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, Ellis still carries on these pandemic precautions, going so far as to now wear two masks in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have to follow the science and the medical professionals,” Ellis said, insisting that the pandemic would subside sooner if everyone follows coronavirus safety measures. “The longer it takes us to do the things that we are supposed to do, the longer it’s going to take us to come out of this.”

Ellis’ very first act as Commission Chairman was to extend Chatham’s emergency order requiring everyone in the county to wear face masks, which he sees as a way for locals to take care of each other while the rollout of new coronavirus-vaccine supplies remains spotty and limited.

“I wish that we had vaccines for everyone. But we don’t have that. And so in the meantime the scientists are telling us these three things you must do: you must distance yourself, you must wear your mask, and you must wash your hands frequently,” Ellis said, noting that between New Year’s Day 2021 and mid-February, approximately 100 Chatham residents were reported to have died from COVID-19, according to Coastal Health District statistics. “Those are our loved ones.”

click to enlarge Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis. - MALCOLM TULLY
Malcolm Tully
Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis.
Beyond encouraging Chatham residents to adhere to face-mask mandates and other coronavirus-safety measures, Ellis is planning to plot a course for local economic recovery from the pandemic by gathering business leaders from the Chamber of Commerce, the Savannah Economic Development Authority, and other impacted organizations to “strategize on how we can help one another” while moving forward.

“We are in the middle of recovery, and we can honestly say that Chatham County has not fared bad,” Ellis said. “We have been hurt in some areas – take for instance the tourism industry, they have been hurt the most – but there is a plan for recovery.”

Ellis added that he expects more federal pandemic aid to arrive in the near future.

“There is some more relief coming for Chatham County and for all the municipalities, and I’m just hoping that when we get these kinds of packages we put it where it’s needed and give it to those who need it the most,” Ellis said.

Controversy at Chatham Area Transit

Within the first few weeks of Ellis’ term, the Chatham Area Transit Board of Directors abruptly voted 6-3 to terminate the contract of agency CEO Bacarra Mauldin during their Jan. 26 meeting. Mauldin, who was hired to run CAT in June of 2020, has since filed a lawsuit against the public-transit agency for unlawful termination.

While Ellis declined to comment on the Mauldin case, citing legal counsel barring him from discussing litigation and personnel matters, he acknowledges that numerous long-term problems are preventing CAT from providing optimal service to Chatham residents.

“This didn’t start with Ms. Mauldin. Even when I was on the CAT board, there were areas of corrections I thought that needed to be made,” Ellis said, citing poorly planned population growth across Chatham as a complicating factor in achieving efficient public-transportation service. “The county has grown and spread out, and so we are behind because we didn’t do any future planning. Now we’re in the present, where the plans should’ve been made 20-30 years ago for what’s coming.”

Ellis is confident that a qualified new CAT CEO can reshape the county’s transit network in a way that will better serve constituents in the not-too-distant future.

“We’ve gotta have a leader over at Chatham Area Transit who is a visionary, because first of all you have to understand how to catch up, and then how to project forward,” Ellis said. “We can have a quality transportation system here in Chatham County, and so it is our responsibility to work to that end.”

If Chatham’s public transit is not improved, Ellis believes this will be detrimental to the entire county’s future economic growth.

“Public transportation is a need and not a want, so it becomes our job to make sure we get the best,” Ellis said, noting that long-term transit planning could include rail service for commuters heading into Chatham from neighboring counties. “If we could formulate a plan to catch up and provide these services that are needed, then we can plan for the future.”

The dilemma of Chatham Emergency Services

During a Nov. 5 County Commission workshop, representatives of Chatham Emergency Services – the nonprofit firefighting agency tasked with extinguishing blazes in most of the county’s unincorporated areas – announced that the organization has a $3 million operating deficit, which they blamed on a large number of county residents not paying subscription fees for fire service. CES Chief Operating Officer Phil Koster said that if the cash crunch continues, the agency’s firefighting units would soon be faced with the difficult position of having to consider declining to put out blazes at homes of non-subscribers.

click to enlarge Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis, center, during his first meeting after winning the post in November's general election. - NICK ROBERTSON/CONNECT SAVANNAH
Nick Robertson/Connect Savannah
Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis, center, during his first meeting after winning the post in November's general election.

Since becoming chairman, Ellis has commenced a series of virtual town-hall meetings to gather public input on this issue from residents of each of the county’s seven districts served by CES. His goal is to solicit opinions from the largest number of constituents affected by the options currently under consideration to address the CES cash crunch, which range from launching an entirely new county fire department to mandating CES subscriptions to doing nothing at all.

“That will help us to understand what is it that we’re looking for,” Ellis said of the solution to the CES budget shortfall, which he says will impact Chatham residents no matter what outcome is determined. “You’re talking about something that will affect their taxes and their homeowner’s insurance, so they need to know.”

One complaint that Ellis is hearing repeatedly is that CES subscribers feel taken advantage of when the resources from their fees are used to extinguish fires for non-subscribers. “Some folks want to make sure that the 70% who are paying their subscriptions cannot be penalized for the 30% that’s not paying their subscriptions. You’ve gotta take all that in, and the only way you can do that is to have the citizens get involved,” Ellis said.

However, for now Ellis is not providing a time frame for when the County Commission may move forward with a plan to address the CES budget crisis, noting that after the district town-hall meetings conclude, he plans to launch another series of countywide forums to gather more public input before whittling down the options available for action.

“I look at what Hank Aaron said to me in 1974: every day you get up, try to help somebody else. Then you look in the mirror at night and be proud of the fact that you have helped someone,” Ellis said.

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Merging the county’s balloting boards

With 2020’s drawn-out election cycle now in the rearview mirror, local Democratic and Republican leaders are clamoring for reform to Chatham’s voting systems, as a movement to merge the county’s Board of Elections and Board of Registrars is quickly gaining steam. The Chatham delegation of state-level elected officials, which has the authority to reconfigure the county’s voting-governance structure, is currently assessing how such a merger could be carried out before 2022’s midterm elections.

However, Ellis believes that the powers-that-be should avoid any “knee-jerk solution” based on problems with 2020’s election, which he says was plagued by the onset of COVID-19 and inherent difficulties with adjusting to Georgia’s new voting machines.

“The call to merge the two is based upon the primaries of this past year, and I think that to be reactive to that and make drastic changes is a mistake,” Ellis said. “Is it best to merge them together, or is it best to streamline their duties and responsibilities? It might just be a matter of changing some procedures that they’re using to streamline things.”

Although Chatham is one of very few Georgia counties with separate departments for elections and registrars, Ellis believes that this may be a blessing instead of a curse.

“That didn’t just fall out of the sky,” Ellis said of the past decision to structure Chatham’s two voting boards as separate entities, while encouraging the delegation to carefully examine any newly proposed structure before moving ahead with enacting it.

“Change takes time, and we need to give ourselves that time to make sure the changes we are going to make are the changes that we want. When you do things on the spur of the moment, there are consequences for it,” Ellis said. “You need to make sure that those consequences aren’t going to be negative consequences toward any voter in Chatham County. We want everyone to vote, we want every vote to be counted.”

The long view

With all of these pressing issues weighing on Ellis every day in his short tenure so far − in addition to the usual hiccups encountered when starting any new job − it seems likely that finding time to plan for long-term projects would be difficult or impossible.

However, Ellis considers one element of advance planning to be eminently crucial: the development of a new Emergency Operations Center at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.

“One of the top priorities that’s on the list is for us to be ready for disaster,” Ellis said, describing the county’s current preparedness status as faltering. “We’re lagging behind in technology for disasters, whether we’re talking about a hurricane, whether we’re talking about a tornado, whether we’re talking about COVID.”

Ellis said that the new Emergency Operations Center will improve the county’s disaster-response abilities by consolidating representatives from Chatham’s municipalities and appropriate public-safety agencies within one reinforced command center.

“In that command building, we’re going to have where all of the instructions will come out of one central area,” Ellis said. “Everybody will be under one roof. The building is being designed now to stand up to a category 5 [hurricane]. It’s also being designed to handle the storm surge and the flooding.”

On the topic of flooding, Ellis also plans to comprehensively address rising sea levels in Chatham during his first term, citing climate change as an existential problem for all county residents. He intends to bring together county business leaders with environmental-agency representatives and officials from local municipalities to develop plans that will keep Chatham from being inundated during upcoming decades.

“It floods everyplace in Savannah. There is no place in Chatham County that is immune from flooding. So how do we handle that before it gets out of hand? Don’t wait until it gets out of hand, and let’s try to make up a plan,” Ellis said.

Above all, Ellis stresses that his primary motivation is to assist his fellow Chatham residents in building a fruitful future for the generations to come.

“I think this is my calling, and my calling is to help people. Personally, there’s no major benefit for me, because I could’ve sit home, because I’m retired and have a good retirement,” Ellis said, recalling a memory with a recently deceased baseball great as a major influence on his decision to continue working as a public servant.

“I look at what Hank Aaron said to me in 1974: every day you get up, try to help somebody else. Then you look in the mirror at night and be proud of the fact that you have helped someone,” Ellis said. “That stuck with me since he told me that in ’74, and so every day I try to get up to help somebody.”

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