Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason will see two challengers in this year’s election: Republican Alex Burcher and independent Bill Hayes.
Athens resident Eliason, 67, was first elected to the county’s Board of Commissioners in 1998. Composed of Eliason and fellow Democrats Chris Chmiel and Charlie Adkins, the county’s Board of Commissioners has remained unchanged since after the 2012 election, the last time Republicans put forward a candidate.
Hayes, who styles himself as a nonpartisan environmentalist, said he can’t predict how a three-way contest will affect the outcome but believes he will draw more significant support in this election.
“The last few years have been real eye-opening for a lot of people with respect to understanding that the government—from top to bottom—isn’t really working very effectively, and they should expect more,” Hayes said.
Athens resident Hayes, 66, last ran for county commissioner in 2020, winning 37.34% of the vote against Adkins’s 62.66%. Hayes previously challenged Eliason in 2018, receiving 34.25% of the vote compared to Eliason’s 65.75%.
This election will be the first for Nelsonville resident Alex Burcher, 25. If successful, he would become the first Republican elected to the board of commissioners since 2008.
Burcher expects to win over new voters and former Democrats because of what he described as a widespread sentiment that “things were better” while former President Donald Trump was in office. Burcher said he believes this sentiment is particularly strong locally given a trend of higher gas prices in Athens County.
Whoever is elected will work with commissioners Adkins and Chmiel, both Democrats who are not up for election, to oversee the county business environment, human services and benefits programs administered by the county, county-level taxation, county property and infrastructure, environmental protection and waste management and other aspects of county government.
Eliason said his experience in government distinguishes him from his opponents.
“I’m the only candidate that has the experience, the respect and the knowledge,” Eliason said, adding that effective service in the commissioner role requires building relationships with other office-holders, which he said takes time. “It’s not something that someone comes in and does.”
Eliason said his main accomplishments in office include support for the Baileys Trail System and new Emergency Medical Services and 911 facilities, as well as ongoing renovations at the Athens County Courthouse and use of American Recovery Act funds (ARPA) to support broadband infrastructure and sewer line expansion.
Burcher has previously described the county commissioners as having been insufficiently responsive to the needs of outlying communities throughout the county. He said he would work to bring the whole county into the conversation by attending township and village meetings and working with local officials to identify their needs “instead of spewing off what I think.”
Eliason said such criticism is unfair, citing the Baileys Trail System, the county’s work with the Athens County Land Bank and the county’s disbursement of ARPA funds as examples of projects beyond the City of Athens.
While Eliason favorably compares his 24 years as commissioner to Burcher’s and Hayes’ relative lack of experience, both challengers said they see that as a virtue rather than a detriment.
“I just don’t see [political experience] being a useful characteristic for holding office or running for office,” Burcher said. “I think energy and fresh ideas and a new approach and a new look at things are all good traits of a public office holder….I’m a newcomer. I come from the people.”
Hayes said, “I’m not running to create a career in politics. If the tables were reversed, and I had been in office for 20 years, and Lenny was a newcomer, I’d hope you’d vote for Lenny. We have elections with the frequency that we do for the purpose of introducing new ideas and new perspectives.”
Hayes said varied work experiences in truck driving, financial advising and gene transfer have given him a diverse skill set he would leverage as commissioner.
Burcher said he would bring his experience as a young person who grew up in Nelsonville to the office.
Eliason said he is generally critical of “people who sit on the outside and say they’re going to do this and that.”
“People run without understanding the scope of their responsibilities and think they can do things they can’t do,” Eliason said. “They think they can do all these things and have all these powers they don’t have.”
Eliason said his top priority if reelected will be to “make sure the county stays in good financial shape,” continue modernizing county services and continue his focus on ongoing projects such as the Baileys Trail System and disbursing federal funds through the ARPA.
Regarding future ARPA disbursements, Eliason said the county is looking at projects to improve indoor air quality and ventilation for public employees as a COVID mitigation measure, extend water and sewer lines and invest in nonprofits and recreational projects.
“When you have one-time money, you have to invest that for maximum impact,” Eliason said.
Burcher said he largely agrees with the county’s current approach to ARPA funds.
Hayes, meanwhile, said he would try to take advantage of available funding to hire grant writers and ensure sustainable, long-term funding streams for the county. Counties may use ARPA funds to replace lost public sector revenue, including by hiring additional staff.
Though not in the context of ARPA funds specifically, Burcher also said seeking grant funding would be one of his top priorities as commissioner. He said he feels that the county is not taking advantage of many grant opportunities. He did not offer specific examples of grant funding the county should have sought, but said if elected he would “use hired grant companies or local citizens to write grants in order to ensure we are getting every grant that is possible.”
Despite previous skepticism toward public schools, Burcher said he would prioritize public education as commissioner. He said, “My tour of all the Athens County schools completely changed my perspective on the public school system,” specifically noting the many “amazing” school administrators and educators.
He pledged to work to identify ways to direct more county resources to local public schools and proposed a program for local students to serve as honorary commissioners.
Burcher’s top priority, however, is attracting jobs. He said he would seek to direct more county land to industry and “welcome any business into Athens County” with a “no turn-down policy.”
Both Burcher and Hayes said they would continue the county’s current focus on economic development projects such as the Baileys Trail System, with Hayes noting that he has “spent a lot of time” volunteering at the Baileys and the Wayne National Forest.
Hayes said he would offer a different approach to economic development projects than local Democrats. He claimed many Democratic officeholders would “love” to see the benefits of development go to individuals who own property in the county but may not live here, while he would work to “figure out ways for more people in the county to earn money from these opportunities.”
“Without doing that, what we’re doing is we’re gentrifying the county, and that’s a huge problem,” Hayes said.
Hayes said he would “look into the minutiae” to identify the best ways local residents can take advantage of development. As an example, he said he has worked to spread the word about an option for local property owners to host campsites on their land to benefit from the outdoor recreation industry.
Additionally, Hayes said he would prioritize support for local farmers. He said significant opportunities exist in farming locally given the ways in which he expects climate changes to damage food systems that rely on less climate-stable regions, such as the American west.
To learn more about the candidates, click here to view a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County.
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