COVINGTON -- Keith Ellis never aimed to be a politician. When friends approached him about running for chairman of the Board of Commissioners, he laughed them off. It took several more tries to convince him they weren't kidding, and two months for Ellis to make up his mind.
This week, he became the first Republican candidate to announce a run for the chairman's seat. He likens his approach to being chairman to an event that took place at his church when he was 17: "They needed somebody to lead the singing. I said, 'I can't sing.' They said 'Just tell them what page to turn to and wave your arms.' And it worked," he said. For chairman, "What we need is a choir director that will kind of be quiet and let the others sing."
Ellis said he supports the majority of the board's recent decision to transition to a county manager run government.
"We need somebody with an accounting degree that's not going to change every four years. I think it's a positive shift," he said.
He sees the role of chairman as that of consensus builder and lobbyist for the county on the state and federal levels, "somebody to be the face of Newton County."
"I think it's still a full-time job," he said.
Ellis said a top priority if he is elected is to build a bipartisan board. He said he would meet one-on-one with commissioners to discuss the role of chairman and to hear their priorities for their districts, and help the board as a whole reach a consensus. He also said he would make sure information is presented to the board well in advance of meetings so they have time to study the issues.
"I think the general public wants to see our meetings held in a pleasant manner, sticking to the agenda and not having our emotions in it. I think the majority of decisions should be reached prior to the meeting. We shouldn't debate issues at the last minute and have hour-long discussions," he said.
The shift in the chairman's obligations will allow more time to build partnerships with other local governments, such as the municipalities and the school board, Ellis said, as well as visit legislators in Atlanta and Washington.
Ellis worked on the local campaign to elect Gov. Nathan Deal and said he's confident the governor would have a meeting with him. He also said he might go to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal transportation dollars.
On the local level, Ellis said he'd like to focus on economic development, securing more jobs for locals. As a member of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, Ellis said he's sat in on many confidential meetings with industries looking to locate or expand, and he's aware of "how the inner workings go."
A member of the Leadership Collaborative, Ellis is a proponent of the 2050 Plan, which identifies development nodes where growth would be concentrated in the future. He said the plan will benefit utility providers and public safety personnel by making it easier to provide services, and developers as well, who will know where their profit margins will be.
Ellis said he also wants to focus on marketing Stanton Springs, the four-county mixed-use development, and getting the Bear Creek Reservoir built. The reservoir could be a revenue generator for the county, if there is excess capacity that could be sold to other counties, he said.
"I don't know where the money is going to come from, but we need to find a way to build that reservoir in the future, not the distant future," he said.
Ellis said he will be bold in his campaign, finding residents in various communities to ride with him and go door to door and promote him to their neighbors. He said he plans to ask for Democrats' votes, too.
"I plan to run a very positive campaign. I'm focusing on the future and not dwelling on what's happening now," he said.
Ellis said he won't make campaign promises, since as chairman he only has a vote in the event of a tie, but pledged that, "If I can serve the county and they choose to elect me, I will work hard. I will work with honesty and respect. I want them to feel like they can trust us again and respect the people that sit in those chairs."
A Newton native, Ellis, 53, is a University of Georgia graduate with a bachelor's degree in agriculture and a master's degree in education. He taught in Newton County public schools for 15 years. Following his teaching career, he operated a small business building custom homes and developing subdivisions. He currently works as an energy auditor and building analyst.
He and his wife of 27 years, Sherrie, have three children: Will, Courtney and Charity.