Jackson County Opinions...

 March 22, 2000

The Jackson Herald
March 22, 2000

Tolbert action rife with conflicts
To say that Rep. Scott Tolbert used poor judgment in his bid to undermine an important legislative bill last week would be a vast understatement. Not only did he attempt to kill the bill, he did so because of his personal involvement in a lawsuit related to the merits of the legislation.
It was a blatant example of his personal agenda over-riding his public responsibility and should not go unnoticed by the citizens he was elected to represent.
We have always questioned the wisdom of lawyers being elected as legislators. Although attorneys make up only a small part of the overall legislative body, they hold a disproportionate number of the key leadership positions.
But even of deeper concern are the hidden agendas lawyer-legislators often bring to the General Assembly. Few lawyer-legislators will support a bill that could hurt a private legal client.
Such was the case last Monday when Rep. Tolbert attempted to gut a bill that grew out of last year's fight between the Jackson County government and a private sewer firm, Water Wise, Inc. Concerned about the condemnation powers that would be given Water Wise, the county government successfully moved to block the firm's entrance into the county. Not only that, but county leaders prevailed upon Sen. Eddie Madden to introduce legislation that would require local government approval of private firms that seek to install water or sewer lines.
Of course, Rep. Tolbert has had numerous conflicts of interest related to the Water Wise ordeal. Those who've followed that controversy recall that for a while, his law firm attempted to represent both the City of Pendergrass and Water Wise in a maneuver to get a state EPD permit for a sewage facility. Readers might also recall the role two of Tolbert's relatives played in that, and subsequent efforts to do the firm's bidding at the expense of the public interest.
But even with all of that sordid history, we're still amazed that Rep. Tolbert would go to the well of the state House of Representatives in a blatant attempt to represent a private client's interest. It was not Jackson County's interest he spoke for, but rather he was speaking for Water Wise, Inc.
Not only did he attempt to gut the legislation for Water Wise, he played coy when a legislator asked him if he represented the company, saying only that his "law firm" represented Water Wise.
It may have been coy and cute, but it was hardly the full truth. Rep. Tolbert has been a key part of the various Water Wise moves, a fact he states in a Feb. 22 court filing.
Water Wise didn't elect Rep. Tolbert - the people of his district did. If he goes to the well of the House for any reason, it should be to represent those voters, not a private legal client.
What makes last week's action even more puzzling, however, is that Rep. Tolbert had to know that his motion to gut the bill would be defeated. Having lost the earlier battles in the Water Wise maneuvers, why would Rep. Tolbert put himself in the position of another sure defeat?
We can admire individual loyalty even when the odds are great. But if Rep. Tolbert wishes to commit political hari-kari in the well of the Georgia House of Representatives, we want it to be over the interests of the citizens in Jackson County, not over some perverted sense of obligation to a legal client.
Rep. Tolbert needs to get his priorities in order: He can either serve those who elected him, or he can serve the clients of his law firm. But in the Georgia House of Representatives, he cannot serve both.

The Commerce News
March 22, 2000

'Parent Involvement' Taken To Extremes
Parent involvement in a school is usually a good thing, but one Commerce parent doesn't know when to stop. Ever since her son was denied a letter for wrestling at Commerce High School, Jenny Harrison has been on a pseudo-quixotic quest.
She clearly thinks her son was wronged, and it is certainly within her rights as a mother to try to get a wrong righted. But at the March meeting of the Commerce Board of Education, this mom vaguely suggested that an unnamed Commerce High School staff member illegally cashed a check made to the high school on her son's behalf. That is an accusation of what amounts to embezzlement.
This is a serious allegation, because it strikes at the integrity of the staff member and the school system. If a crime has been committed, there is a remedy much more direct than the Commerce Board of Education. Mrs. Harrison should go to the Commerce Police Department. For someone who clearly thinks the board of education is corrupt or prejudiced, going to the police seems like a logical way to make sure the truth comes out.
The parent has been critical of the board of education for not investigating, but she herself has apparently done nothing to ascertain why a check written to the school might be endorsed (and cashed) for legitimate reasons. Prior to the March 13 meeting, she had not sought an explanation from the school system administration or the high school administration. Waving a paper before the school board is little more than a publicity stunt.
Perhaps most telling is that all the furor is over an athletic issue. Mom is upset because her son did not get a letter for participating in a sport, and she can't get beyond it. This is not an issue that would affect a child's educational career, have a bearing on his getting into a college or improve his résumé, but getting that letter and an apology from the board of education has become her goal in life.
The issue is less about an athletic letter than about a mother who cannot accept anything less than getting her own way. It's a sad parody of parental interest.

A Good Influence
Commerce Library Board Chairman Don Fischer is calling it quits. He told his fellow board members he was tired of arguing over budgets and that he feared his presence might have a negative effect on the library. His resignation is effective May 1.
As the board's chief advocate of fiscal restraint, Fischer's presence does sometimes generate more argument when it comes to spending the public's money. So, perhaps board meetings have become more lively and less unanimous.
That may be Fischer's true gift to the board and the city. A long-time businessman, Fischer's background is in an arena where budgets must be justified, costs must be weighed against benefits and institutional processes must be followed. His presence on the board, not to mention as its chairman, forces the board to defend and better articulate members' ideas for spending money Fischer never forgets belongs to the taxpayers.
Far from being a "negative" to the library, Fischer is a positive influence. He brings a business person's viewpoint to the board and, in the conducting of meetings, is the member who can be counted on to keep the discussion on track.
The library board is unique. Most of its members are appointed because of their known love of the library, books and reading, and they can be counted on to promote the library and its goals. Fischer's business experience brings a measure of balance that serves well both the library and the city.
It's apparently been a frustrating job, but as Fischer bows out, it should be with the knowledge that he has had a positive influence on the Commerce Public Library.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
March 22, 2000

Why is legislature involved in high school sports?
If you thought there was a lot of controversy over the governor's education reform efforts, just take a look at the reclassification of Georgia high schools. Learning may be important, but sports dominates the public's interest.
Maybe it's always been that way. For decades critics have charged that sports gets attention that is out of proportion to the real world. Many reading this column could name local students who are athletic stars, but few of you can name this year's STAR students. You may know how many points your child scored last week, but don't know your child's academic averages in the classroom.
About the worst example of this duel standard I've seen came a few years back when a local student won the chance to compete in the state literary meet. The school refused to pay her expenses for the trip and she had to raise her own funds in order to compete. Had that been the school's football team, however, the money would have come in buckets to pay for a championship game. As a society, we value athletic success far more than academic success.
The fallout of the reclassification move is another example of how we focus on sports over academics. Few people, except those directly affected, understand all the implications of the governor's education reform legislation. Admittedly, it is a complex bill that covers a variety of issues. But the only real interest in that legislation has come from teachers and school administrators - for the most part, parents have been silent during the debate.
That isn't the case with school reclassification. Everyone has an opinion about the move and how it might affect competitive sports.
But why is it that the Georgia Legislature got involved in the issue? Why do legislative leaders care about school sports?
Admittedly, the Georgia High School Association isn't the most open or friendly group. Its leaders carry too much power and wield that power too ruthlessly.
It's also true that some private schools recruit athletes to enhance their school's programs. But then, many public schools also recruit athletes as well, although that is done in a much more subtle way. The playing field is never exactly balanced and it never will be.
Still, high school sports should be off limits in the Georgia General Assembly. If House Speaker Tom Murphy wants to have an impact on public schools in Georgia, he should put his efforts into raising the academic bar.
Of course, this isn't the only athletic issue pending in the Georgia legislature. Also being debated is a "gender equity" effort to force high schools to offer more programs for girls. That may, or may not, be a problem in some schools, but why is it the business of the Georgia General Assembly?
Here's what I fear: For all its problems and faults, high school athletics is a fairly well-run system in the state. If the General Assembly gets involved, those programs may become like the rest of the state's public education efforts, which is to say a mess.
After all, who wants Tom Murphy as a high school football commissioner?
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
March 22, 2000

Life After Wal-Mart In The Downtown
Is there life in Commerce after Wal-Mart?
I slipped out to the new store before work last Thursday, figuring the store would be relatively quiet and I might be able to quickly survey this new monster business.
It's an impressive and beautiful store.
But the question in Commerce is how will it affect business here?
Wal-Mart is cursed among store owners, because its tremendous success put so many small businesses out of business and made it harder for those that are left to make any money. The outlet stores are a minor inconvenience, compared to Wal-Mart.
With a tire and auto center, eye care center and grocery store added, will we see new casualties? One has to wonder how long Commerce Crossing Shopping Center can keep its other tenants without Wal-Mart. There has been talk of Target or K-Mart moving in, but my understanding is that Ingles plans a major expansion into the vacant portion.
Those of us along Broad and Elm streets hope that the absence of Wal-Mart in close proximity will breathe a little life back into the main street. Many people say they will not go to Wal-Mart as often as they used to, but unless they find somewhere more convenient and not too pricey to shop, Wal-Mart will still get the bulk of their business. I've heard others say they dreaded having to go to Banks Crossing to Wal-Mart, but they indicated they would go just the same.
It may now be more convenient for some people to buy jeans at Jay's than to go to Wal-Mart; on the other hand, Banks County residents who used to have to come to Commerce have a closer, attractive alternative. The same can be said for groceries, auto service and eye care. The new store has made life a little more difficult for a number of businesses.
For most of us in the downtown, though, little has changed. We remain largely service-oriented: newspaper, law offices, insurance, and retail people whose niche Wal-Mart has not entered. The results of the recent marketing survey have not changed; to make the downtown a vital place requires one or more good restaurants. Unfortunately, the downtown needs to be a bit more of a vital place before someone is likely to risk opening a good restaurant.
But we do have a few things going for us. We have a marketing study to provide statistical data to back our need for and ability to support restaurants. We have a small business incubation center planned, and the growth around Commerce will help provide the "critical mass" of people needed to draw business to the downtown.
The right restaurant can make a difference, as the Blue Willow Inn has proven. That one business has made Social Circle a destination for many people, and it does not require the sale of alcohol to prosper.
Whether or not our downtown prospers has less to do with overcoming Wal-Mart than with getting the right one or two new businesses. A good downtown restaurant would be a great first step.
There is charm in this old downtown, and life here that even Wal-Mart can't snuff out. We've outlasted Wal-Mart in Commerce, and the downtown will still be here if Wal-Mart ever departs Banks Crossing.

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