ERWIN — After the results of the Unicoi County Commission’s vote became visible on the projection screen Tuesday evening, the crowd gathered in the large courtroom of the Unicoi County Courthouse to support Marie Rice broke into applause.
“I was surprised, considering the competition and that I came out late, I was sort of late making the decision,” Rice said. “But I had a lot of backing from the people in the 1st District, I had a lot of support. Without their support, this wouldn’t have been possible.”
At a called meeting held Tuesday, the Unicoi County Commission voted to appoint Rice to fill the first district vacancy on the commission left by longtime commissioner Doug Bowman’s June resignation. She beat out former Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and current East Tennessee State University employee Stacy Wigand and 20-year-old Michael Baker for the appointment. With the appointment, each of the county’s three districts now has equal representation on the nine-member panel.
Five county commissioners — Gene Wilson, Mickey Hatcher, James Howell, Dwight Bennett and Kenneth Garland — voted for Rice, who lives in the Flag Pond community. Prior to the commission’s vote, each candidate seeking the appointment was given the opportunity to state why he or she would be the best choice to fill the vacancy and represent the county’s 1st District. In her statement, Rice told commissioners that she would work to bring business to the south end of Unicoi County, which would not only benefit the district but the county as a whole.
“As a commissioner, I intend to do anything and everything I can do to bring some businesses back into that area,” she said.
Rice, who described herself as an “excellent listener” and “team player” who could bring a unique perspective to the commission, also said the county’s debt has increased significantly in recent years. She said she would work with other officials to address this issue.
“We have to find ways to spend the taxpayers’ money more wisely and try to pay down on these existing debts so we don’t have to continue to raise property taxes,” Rice said prior to the commission’s vote. “We’re just going to have to try to work hard to find other revenues, and I intend to do that.”
After the commission’s vote, Rice said she was encouraged to seek the appointment by people residing in the south end of Unicoi County.
“I just had people in the community come to me and say ‘We’re trying to find someone to stand up for the 1st District and make our voices heard,’” she said.
But it also runs in the family. Rice said her grandfather also served on the Unicoi County Commission.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said it will likely be at least 10 days before Rice is sworn in, as those wishing to challenge the appointment have that period of time to do so under state law. Officials expect Rice to take her seat on the commission when it next meets on Aug. 26 — a meeting that Rice said she is looking forward to.
“It’s going to be scary ... but I’m anxious to see how it turns out,” she said.