Jackson County Opinions...

February 27, 2002

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
February 27, 2002

Let Wal-Mart House County Government
So intense has been the opposition to the proposal to relocate county government offices to Dry Pond that a lot of other proposals are being floated.
Now that the topic’s come out from behind the closed doors, it’s amazing to see the creative thinking, the new ideas and the thinking outside the box related on the issue.
Naturally, the first proposal is by the Jefferson Area Merchants’ Association, which desperately wants to keep the courthouse in Jefferson so their downtown won’t become a ghost town like Commerce.
The Jefferson proposal is to saw off the top of the current courthouse, build five floors on top of the second story, then reinstall the roof. It will be difficult to match the exterior of the old and new parts, but proponents of the plan say vinyl siding is getting better every day. A major shortcoming of the Jefferson plan is that it calls for a 14-floor parking garage at the site of the old Crawford W. Long motel.
Other plans include the following:
•The Nicholson plan is to build a complex out of double-wide mobile homes, which would be placed on the current location of a salvage yard. The Nicholson Council has agreed to allow Jefferson to annex the site retroactively by grandfathering.
•The Commerce government has quietly worked out a plan to move all county facilities into the Commerce Civic Center, offering a 10 percent discount on daily rental fees for a five-year contract. However, because a number of functions are already booked for the civic center, there will be some new county holidays during the first two years.
Perhaps the most innovative plan is the one submitted by Rep. Jeannette Jamieson of Banks County. She’ll introduce legislation so Banks County can annex Jackson County, after which a new county seat would be built at Banks Crossing.
Some details have yet to be worked out, but the idea is to expand the Super Wal-Mart to include “Sam’s County Government Complex,” which would hold the judicial and administrative offices of the new combined government.
Officials in both Banks and Jackson counties had some initial reservations, but were soon won over. Wal-Mart, having already taken over 60 percent of the retail market in America, is anxious to move into government and was willing to bend over backwards to make it possible.
The complex would be open 24 hours a day, offering the same quality customer service and short waiting lines for which Wal-Mart is famous. Consumers would like finally doing business with a discount government, saving big bucks on everything from DUI fines to firearms permits. Imagine being able to buy diapers, groceries, auto tags and building permits under one roof.
One area yet to be resolved is the proposed Sam’s Club Jail & Correctional Institute. There is little doubt that Wal-Mart could incarcerate prisoners much more cheaply than either Banks or Jackson county, but several local DUI schools have threatened legal action if Community Service workers are made to serve their time by working for Wal-Mart.
The other plans, even Sammy Thomason’s, have some merit. But Wal-Mart clearly has the best deal.

The Jackson Herald
February 27, 2002

Courthouse: What’s to be done?
In this space last week, we outlined why we believe the proposed site for a new county courthouse on Darnell Road should be rejected.
Specifically, the site lacks good road access, and to build road access will require millions of dollars; the site is too large at 157 acres; the site is too remote and wouldn’t give the high profile such public facilities deserve; the proposed site is away from the county’s main growth areas; and the proposal presented by the board of commissioners does not address the most immediate space needs of our county government.
When outlining their proposal, BOC chairman Harold Fletcher said the site plans were just ideas and that the board hadn’t made any final decision. We’re not sure that’s the truth since several members of the board appear wedded to this site no matter what the public reaction may be.
But since we outlined reasons for opposing the proposed site, we feel obligated to outline what course of action we believe should now be taken on this important issue.
There’s no doubt that the county needs additional space for its government functions. The argument isn’t over “if” the county needs space, but rather over “how” and “where” that space should be provided.
We have no particular site in mind. We don’t care if it’s in the immediate downtown Jefferson area, or in a location with more land.
What we are concerned about is that whatever site is chosen should have good road access already in place, not vaguely promised for sometime in the distant future. The site should also be convenient to a majority of county citizens and should be in a high-profile location that reflects on the county and its citizens.
In addition, the proposal should address the most immediate needs of our county government’s existing space problems. With that in mind, the first facility that should be built is a new judicial center that would get all the various courts and related functions together in one building. Specifically, the storage of court records and other important county documents should be addressed as the top priority. The current system is just a mess.
After a new judicial center is in place, the county should then focus on the needs of other administrative offices. There are a variety of options available for this, but discussion on those ideas should be postponed until the judicial needs are addressed.
One of the key problems with the current proposal is the way the entire effort was handled. To avoid tainting the site selection process with secret political deals, we believe the BOC should distance itself from that by hiring a professional consultant to evaluate several site alternatives for the county. That was done several years ago and if the BOC doesn’t like that information, it should hire it’s own consultant to study the matter.
The BOC should dump the current proposed courthouse site and begin the process all over again. But this time, they should do it in a professional manner that is apart from individual board politics and it should focus on the most immediate needs of our county.
That’s the only way the public will ever support a new courthouse.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
February 27, 2002

BOC secrecy comes from ego and fear
It takes a lot of brass and sass to be a public official. Getting elected and serving in office isn’t for the faint-hearted, or the meek and mild. If you don’t have a healthy dose of self-confidence and a thick hide, you need not apply.
But there is a difference between self-confidence and egotism. Unfortunately, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has let the former grow into the latter. The result is a board that individually and collectively has little appreciation for the public it was elected to serve.
Perhaps part of this egocentric board stems from the fact that a majority of its members are self-employed. They aren’t used to answering to anyone but themselves and they aren’t accustomed to the inherent rules and constraints which come with a public office.
This trend has been apparent for a long time with this board, but it has recently exploded out of control. Unhappy with the county planning commission, the board plotted to abolish it and recreate it with their own people late last year. They were upset when a tip from an inside source led this newspaper to do a story in advance of those actions.
The board is also unhappy with the county water authority and would love nothing more than to abolish it and take over making water line decisions themselves. That will be difficult, however, since doing away with the water authority would require legislative action.
Now the board has decided where and how a new courthouse should be built in Jackson County.
They did that without meeting with the established courthouse committee which has been studying the issue for several years and to which this board had named several new members.
They did that without looking at a previous consultant’s report about possible site locations in and around Jefferson.
They did that without any public discussion. Every detail of the plan was discussed and hashed out in secret by this board.
Now they continue this web of secrecy by refusing to release to the public any documents associated with the deal they’ve made.
It takes a lot of ego to blow-off a volunteer group of citizens, discard a consultant’s report, and diss the public by holding secret meetings and refusing to release important documents.
This board has the mistaken belief that the only time it answers to the public is at election time. Board members believe that only they should be in control of all county decisions and that if the public doesn’t like what they’ve done, deal with it at the ballot box.
But that’s just plain wrong. All systems of government, local, state and federal, should have a system of checks and balances. The state and federal governments do this by having three distinct branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial.
Local governments, on the other hand, don’t have such a built-in system of checks and balances. At the local level, the system of checks and balances is more informal and is accomplished through the creation of various citizens’ groups, authorities and special agencies. Most effective local governments are willing to diffuse their power through these groups, a system that isn’t perfect, but one that does establish some level of accountability.
But not this board. Rather than attempting to diffuse power, this board has acted over and over to consolidate power and establish an iron-fisted control over every small aspect of county government.
So controlling is this board that it now requires landowners wishing to cut off a piece of land to give to their children or elderly parents to come before them and request a “hardship” waiver. The result is that Jackson County citizens, men and women who have done nothing wrong, must stand before this self-anointed tribunal and pour out all their family problems in public to claim a “hardship.” It’s a travesty and this board should be ashamed and embarrassed about these hearings. But they are not embarrassed, and that alone speaks volumes about how they view themselves and their role as Lords of Jackson County.
But the masterpiece of this board’s egocentric style is its selection of a courthouse site. Rather than consult professional site planners and solicit public input, this board believes that its five members, and only its members, have the brains to make such an important decision. That a couple of its members, including the chairman, are involved in real estate professionally only enhances this false sense of “we know best.”
Now by denying access to the documents surrounding its decision to purchase 157 acres for a courthouse site, this board has given the public their middle finger. You can almost hear them say, “Hell no!”
But why not? Why not let the public see the details of this deal? If it’s such a good thing, it will stand on its own merits.
Perhaps this secrecy shouldn’t be surprising. The twin companion of ego is fear. The larger the ego, the more fear will exist — fear driven by the thought that someone will pull down the curtain and expose the flaws which egotism attempts to hide.
But this board can’t hide forever behind bravado. The more it strains to be in control, the more fearful it will become of losing control. It is a cycle that feeds on itself until the public rises in anger and reminds those elected to public office who they are really working for.
That day is yet to come. But know this, every time this board slinks into darkness behind closed doors and locked file cabinets, a spotlight will follow.
This board can run, but it cannot hide.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
February 27, 2002

School Board Should Have Known Better
The money isn't significant, but the appearance the Commerce City School System creates by voting to double board of education members' pay in a meeting virtually closed to the public shows poor judgment.
The item was on the agenda for the board's annual retreat last Saturday at Unicoi Lodge near Helen. The board made no effort to hide its intent and it provided the notices required by law for public meetings, but board members were clearly uncomfortable – shocked, perhaps – when a reporter showed up to cover the meeting. A doubling of pay done out of town is hardly the sort of action to inspire confidence in elected officials, whatever the office.
Superintendent of schools Larry White takes full credit for putting the matter on the agenda for the meeting, and concedes that he erred as he sought to get board action on the amendment to the city charter so it could be introduced into the General Assembly this legislative session. There is no reason to doubt White's motive, but not a single board member seemed to think taking action at a meeting that the public could not easily attend was inappropriate. Surely someone should have realized just how secretive it looked. There's no reason why the board couldn't have taken up the matter at a called meeting in Commerce, particularly since the Commerce City Council must approve the charter change at its March 11 meeting.
Also disturbing was the impression that the reason for the per deim increase from $50 to $100 is the Jefferson Board of Education's recent decision to double its pay. If a raise is proposed, it should be based on the merits, not on keeping up with the Joneses.
There is nothing wrong with the school board or the city council going out of town for a retreat or planning session, but when meeting at a distant location, it is not appropriate to act on important issues. For the sake of both openness of government and the appearance of openness, that kind of action should be taken during regular or legally called meetings in town.

Make Jackson Beautiful
Before we can Keep Jackson Beautiful as the new Jackson County program suggests, we need to make it beautiful. Nonetheless, the announcement that Jackson County will finally kick off the Keep Jackson Beautiful program is good news.
The events sponsored by the program, including recycling and cleanup efforts will help raise the awareness, particularly among children, of the need for working to reduce trash, litter and clutter throughout the county.
The process will take time. The rural tradition of leaving old vehicles and farm equipment where they ceased operation, of littering, illegal dumping and the acceptance of clutter will not just disappear. The sooner we get started, the sooner results will be visible. The March 25 kickoff date should be welcomed by all.

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