Jackson County Opinions...

December 6, 2000



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
December 6, 2000

Without Zoning, Nicholson Has Decided Its Future
Nicholson is emulating Arcade. At least the Arcade of a year or two years ago.
Arcade is growing up, however, and Nicholson is not. Arcade residents realized that they were at the mercy of the next person to buy property and put up a shoddy development. They implemented zoning.
Arcade is on the road to improvement. Nicholson is passing it traveling gleefully in the opposite direction. New mayor Ronnie Maxwell has galvanized the sizable anti-zoning sentiment and promises to bring two like thinkers into office when the special elections are held in March.
The community is sharply divided over the issue of land use, with the anti-zoning sentiment apparently stronger. It is fair to characterize the election of Maxwell as an endorsement of the anti-zoning sentiment. In this republic, majority generally (except in some presidential elections) rules. For now, there will be no zoning ordinance in Nicholson.
That will protect Nicholson's status as the community that will take anything the surrounding communities reject. You don't need a building permit to throw up a house or a restaurant or build a rock quarry in Nicholson, and you can put that rock quarry in your back yard and to hell with your neighbors.
You can build mobile home parks with unpaved roads, then leave the city to clean up the mess. If you have the room in your yard, you can collect junked school buses or rent it out as a depository for construction debris or open a condom stand.
All of this is condoned in the name of property rights, as if what happens on one piece of property does not affect the rights of the owner of the adjacent tract.
How would you like to awaken one morning and find that the previously agricultural tract next to you is being turned into a junk yard? It happened last month in Nicholson.
Those who oppose zoning see themselves as standing up for their right to do with their property as they please. A few of them are making good money on renting mobile homes or building trailer parks, but most of them just want to keep their options open. In the long run, that means Nicholson will be the preferred area for quick and shoddy development. It will not be considered for the well-planned developments of stick-built houses that are moving into virtually every other community, because few people will want to invest in a community where there is no protection against abuse. By turning its back on zoning, Nicholson is solidifying its future as a large low-income community.
There is a lot to be said for being able to do what you want with your land without government interference. All it takes is a drive around the county, however, to find that there are a lot of things you would not want built next door. The value of property in a nice residential neighborhood is protected, in part, by the fact that someone can't open a taco stand or put five rental trailers in the back yard.
If that's what Nicholson wants, it's certainly headed in the right direction. If the voters really mean it, they'll add two anti-zoning councilmen in March. One thing's for sure; it will be an interesting new year.



Editorial
The Jackson Herald
December 6, 2000

New board should open meetings
It's no secret that the five members-elect to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners have been meeting to discuss the upcoming transition in county government. Early on, those meeting were said to have been mostly about information gathering for the new board members.
But it's obvious that the incoming board has now made a transition from simply gathering information to discussing very specific actions it wishes to take. Consider these three major issues the board-elect has discussed:
· The new board has requested that the current BOC hire an interim county manager, someone picked by the incoming board. Indications are that some on the new board want to hire former Clarke County administrator Al Crace for the interim job in an effort to give Crace a "leg-up" for the position in the longterm.
· At the recommendation of the incoming board, Ricky Sanders was hired as the interim director of the county recreation department. Although some 20 people have applied for the position, Sanders undoubtedly now has the inside track for it.
· This week, the new board asked that the current board enact a moratorium on all county industrial rezonings.
All three of these actions are major decision in county government, yet the public has virtually no information as to why these actions have been requested or taken.
For that reason, we believe it is time the new board of commissioners announces the time and place of all of its future meetings and open those meetings to the public.
The tone this new board sets early in its administration will be very important to its long-term success. Jackson County citizens voted overwhelmingly to create a new five-member board of commissioners and to elect four of those members by districts. Much of the impetus for that change in government was a feeling that the current structure of the county government had lost touch with those it represents.
So it is imperative that this new board not send the message that the public isn't welcome to its discussions. Perhaps more than any other BOC in county history, this new board of commissioners will have to have the trust of the county's citizens to be effective. This group of men will chart a new course for Jackson County and the decisions they make will impact citizens for years, perhaps decades, to come.
While the new board was meeting to simply gather information, there was little reason for it to have announced and open meetings. But now that it has begun to discuss and recommend specific actions to be taken, it is time for its meetings to be open for public review.
This board may not yet officially be in office, but that does not diminish its moral responsibility to the citizens of Jackson County.
The real measure of an open government isn't that it holds public meetings because it has to, but rather that it is open because it believes in the public's right to be informed.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
December 6, 2000

BOC will probably rock the boat gently
The members-elect of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners owe Al Gore and George W. Bush a big hug. With all the national political turmoil in the news, the public is paying very little attention to the impending change in county government.
In political parlance, that's called "flying below radar." Public officials of every stripe love to fly below radar.
But there are a few people who are taking a close look at the new BOC and who are getting a little nervous - county employees. Many county employees are tuned in to the words and actions of the new board and are looking for any sign of what may come after January 1.
That tension has been building in recent weeks as the board-elect has been meeting to discuss the transition. All that meeting has made some county employees wonder what plans are being made that might affect them.
Compounding that worry has been some loose words from some incoming BOC members who talk about making a lot of changes. That is being viewed by some as code language for heads to roll.
But most county employees needn't worry too much about their jobs just yet. There are two major problems the new BOC will have to deal with before any major employment changes are made.
First, the new board will likely not want a lot of staff turnover in the county government. There's already the loss of some key county leaders who leave a large void to be filled. The departure of David Bohanan as administrative assistant and the resignation of county attorney Lane Fitzpatrick are two major losses to the county. Add to that the inevitable departure of the existing county commissioners and a lot of knowledge is walking out the door.
But the biggest thing protecting county employees is the law itself. The fact is, under the new form of government the county commission itself can no longer hire and fire county employees. That duty rests with the county manager.
There are only three positions the restructured BOC can hire: a county auditor, a county attorney and a county manager. The board can also appoint the members to the various authorities under the county's jurisdiction, but those are not county employees.
According to the new law, the county manager is empowered "To employ and remove all department heads of the county..." The law also gives the county manager "Managerial authority and supervision over the county manager's staff and all department heads..."
This is the key provision in the restructured county government. The new government is an effort to professionalize county administration under a manager. The clear intent of the law is to remove the elected BOC from the day-to-day decision-making and put that authority on the shoulders of the county manager.
I doubt this new board would choose to ignore the law by meddling in the hiring and firing of county employees so soon after taking office. To do that would undermine the credibility of the board before it got off the ground. None of the new board members want to do that.
Still, there is one wrinkle in all of this that county employees may want to pay attention to. While the incoming BOC can't do the hiring and firing, it does have the authority to abolish or combine departments. It could, in essence, get rid of a department head by combining two departments or abolishing a department.
Still, that's unlikely to happen quickly. This new BOC has a lot of items to deal with early in its term without creating more problems and turmoil by some backdoor maneuvering with the departments.
In fact, the members of this new board will likely remember what happened when its predecessors took office in 1993. The new board made wholesale changes in the county's departments and lost a lot of skilled people. That resulted in months of controversy and turmoil that plagued the county for years. In fact, it is only in the last three years that some stability has been seen in county government.
So county employees, don't fret too much about this new board. Despite some posturing and bluster, cool heads will likely prevail in the short term.
This board has so many hot issues to deal with it's unlikely to create more just for fun.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Commerce News
December 6, 2000

Election Demonstrates Need For Review
The post-presidential election process grinds on, subject of course to partisan interpretation at every step and to possible constitutional precedent setting. It is an election that, regardless of the final outcome, will be debated for years.
One result will be the introduction of many "cures" for the system, from abolishment of the Electoral College to plans for uniform design of ballots. But there are at least a couple of steps governments must take, having learned from this situation.
The first is to make sure absentee votes from military personnel are counted. Republicans were sharply critical when the Gore campaign challenged some of those ballots in Florida; they should have been incensed at the state of Florida, which has a law requiring a postmark on an absentee ballot ­ even from military personnel whose mail does not get post-marked.
Most likely, this situation has existed for years. That leads to a strong possibility that Florida has not counted the bulk of its military absentee ballots for years. The only reason the situation came to light this year was because of the closeness of the presidential race, but it seems possible that some other more local race might have been skewed because those ballots were not counted.
Who knows how long this law has been observed in Florida, or if similar laws exist in other states, but the first order of business when Florida's state legislature meets ought to be to change it. Other states should look to their books to make sure similar laws do not exist.
Another area that states and the federal government should assess is the protocol for election recounts. The 2000 election has demonstrated a need for a clearly defined process that can not be tweaked by partisan forces. The idea that a losing candidate can demand and get a recount in counties where the candidate was strong and ignore those where the opposing candidate was strong is patently unfair.
Every election has its incidents of error, fraud and accident. They are parts of a good but imperfect process. The 2000 election points out weaknesses that can be addressed so that next time a presidential race is razor-close, the process for determining the winner will be clearer and easier and all sides will know that all valid ballots will be counted.


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