Jackson County Opinions...

SEPTEMBER 18, 2002

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 18, 2002

God Bless Florida For Managing Election Screw-Up
First of all, let me issue this disclaimer. I am from Florida, but I can count and have voted for more than 30 years without difficulty (of course, mostly in Georgia).
If Georgia ranks 50th among the states in scores on the Scholastic Aptitude test, well, at least we do elections right. I'd rather have the circumstances swapped (better schools in exchange for muffed elections and the number one college football team in the nation), but you have to play the hand you're dealt.
Two years ago, Florida voters could not figure out the extremely complicated paper ballot, which was a version of "punch here if you like George Bush and punch here if you like Al Gore." Florida spent more than $30 million over the next two years to incorporate enough technology in the system to make it foolproof.
The truth is, nothing is foolproof because fools are so ingenious. Florida's election system was very simple, but officials managed to blow it just the same.
When Janet Reno showed up to vote in Dade County, the polling place did not open at 7 a.m. as required. Somebody had not figured out that the computerized voting machines needed a warm-up period.
In other counties, the high-tech system resulted in low-tech problems. Like not enough extension cords. And though Gov. Jeb Bush (website: geowbush'sbrother.org) ordered the polls to stay open until 9:00 p.m. to compensate for massive delays, poll workers in Broward County went home at 7:00. Even here in Georgia we'd heard that Florida's polling places would be open an extra two hours; somehow they did not get the word.
According to an account broadcast on National Public Radio, the results from 18 precincts in Dade County, where Reno was pulling 69 percent of the vote, remain unaccounted for. As the commentator suggested, while Reno fumes and threatens to sue, Elian Gonzalez must be cackling.
Like Georgia, Florida is an equal opportunity state, politically, which is to say neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have cornered the market on incompetence. Naturally, the Democrats are blaming the Republicans, and the GOP counters to observe that many of the problem counties are controlled by Democrats. Tut-tut.
The hanging chad is a thing of the past, but it appears that Florida on election night will for some time yet be more entertaining to watch than "Most Dangerous Police Chases" or "Dinner and a Movie." More important than its entertainment value, however, is that it makes Georgia look better by comparison.
We used to have South Carolina to belittle in regard to SAT scores, but it has surpassed us. Thank God for Florida during elections. SAT scores are announced and lamented but they fade into the background in a week. Florida's election fiasco has the potential to embarrass that state for months. And when people finally stop talking about the problems, the 2004 presidential election will put it back on the front page.
Florida should be wary of “election reform,” however. Look what happened after Georgia instituted education reform. The situation can get worse – and probably will. Heh-heh.

The Jackson Herald
September 18, 2002

Quad cities a lesson in politics
The development of the Quad-Cities Planning Commission is a paradox. It speaks both to what is good, and what is bad, about local government.
Readers will recall this group came about because of action by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to emasculate municipal influence in the county zoning and planning process. The move, a series of rule changes on the county planning board, was aimed primarily at the City of Jefferson, which is viewed by some BOC members as having too much political power in the county.
But the backlash to that action has been harsh. Indeed, while the BOC intended to slap Jefferson, it instead created a great deal of support for the town and forced together four political groups that otherwise might not have ever cooperated.
But this split has greatly troubled other leaders in the county, especially in the business community. For the most part, business leaders want stability and to have that, local political leaders have to work together. When local political groups are divided, it creates instability and brings to question a host of other issues.
What has come out of this, however, could be good for the county in the long run. With the rise of the Quad Cities group, the county’s main development corridor along Hwy. 129 from North to South is under one planning agency. Likewise, the main East-West route along I-85 in the center of the county is under this same umbrella. Done correctly, this group could bring a tremendous amount of investment to Jackson County.
In the political sphere, this new alliance is a major challenge to the power of the BOC. Some of the members of the new group got pressure from BOC members to not join, an indication that members of that board do indeed fear a political challenge.
Time will tell if this group will be successful, or just another layer of government. But one thing is clear — the balance of power is shifting in Jackson County. Unless it is willing to work with other governments on the basis of mutual respect, the BOC will marginalize itself and spend most of its energy suppressing a rebellion rather than making progress.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
September 18, 2002

Taking a hiatus
A crisis has a way of focusing the mind. That is true both in an individual sense and in the collective. The terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 focused the minds of Americans like few events in recent history. Who will ever forget where they were and how they heard about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?
New clarity comes to the fore in a crisis. Perspectives shift and what we earlier considered important may suddenly appear pale. We focus on the moment as other things become just noise in the background.
And so it is that for the next few weeks, this column will take a hiatus as I focus my attention on a family medical crisis involving my youngest son.
This column has long been anchored to political events, especially those of local importance. While there have been a few off-beat writings over the years, for the most part I have used this space to inform about local politics and sometimes infuriate those involved.
There’s an old newspaper saying that journalism “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Not all columnists are muckrakers, but there is a grain of truth in that saying. If those holding the pen don’t prick the egos of the self-important, then who will?
I suppose I’m a little old-fashioned in this regard. While some in the media today focus on how to “position” their product with focus groups and bland “short summary,” non-controversial writing, I’ve always believed that readers respond best to in-depth reporting and hard-hitting commentary.
That’s especially important in small communities where the various circles of influence often overlap and inbreed. It is easier in a small community than a large town for the circles of influence to be bound too tight. That is not to say that those who wield power all share the same bed, but with fewer players in the game, small communities often lack for a strong dissenting voice.
We have all seen recently how institutions digress when no one among the leadership dares question the status quo. They didn’t do it at Enron and the other companies now being probed, and sadly, it isn’t often done within political institutions either.
It is a rare public official who will walk to the beat of his own drummer in the face of unrelenting pressure from his peers. It is far easier to acquiesce than it is challenge what may be invalid data or bad decisions.
And so in smaller communities, it often falls to the local newspaper to be the dissenting voice. That isn’t always popular, especially with those who value institutional harmony. But I’ve always found that exchanging truth for tranquillity was a bad trade.
All of the issues that float in and out of this page are important to the citizens of this community. Sometimes, it is only years later that we realize the total impact of local leaders’ decisions, good or bad. Those of us who write here hope we can sometimes give a perspective that will tilt the outcome to the positive rather than the negative.
In over 20 years of working full-time at this newspaper, I have never lacked for fodder in this space, grist for the grinding of columns. Jackson County politics is a columnist’s nirvana, a place where political forces and counter forces are in perpetual motion against each other.
But providing weekly commentary on those issues does, in a sense, put me on the public stage next to them. It took a while for me to be comfortable with that. Although it is the issue itself which is most important, it is easy for that to get intertwined with the personalities of those who speak Yea or Nay about it.
For someone who always thought ideas were more important than people, it was difficult for me to accept that the two are not, in reality, separate. Good leaders sometimes get caught up with a bad idea, and occasionally bad leaders come forward with a good idea.
In a similar way, how a reader views the ideas I express here has a lot to do with how they view me. And because I’ve been doing this quite a long time, regular readers sense they know me even if we have never met.
It is said that those who write for a living often reveal more of themselves than they realize. I suppose that is true and I’ve always had the nightmare that some board psychologist would analyze my columns and tell me more about myself than I really wanted to know.
But once I understood that people view me through the prism of my work, I grew to accept it as a part of the job. People I’ve never met call, write and sometimes stop by just to chat about some local issue that I’ve written about. That is one way that I take the pulse of the public on key issues and it is valuable in helping me think through the tough questions. Honest reactions, good or bad, are always appreciated.
In a larger view, this interplay between writer and reader establishes a long-term relationship. We may not be a “family” in the traditional sense, but we are neighbors who share thoughts over the fence once a week.
But for now, my perspective on current events has been altered. Those swirling issues are no less important to our county than before, but relative to that which my son faces, they cannot occupy my energies as they have in the past. His crisis has focused my attention elsewhere.
So for a few weeks, I will not be standing at the backyard fence to share political tidbits with you. My pen will rest while another part of my life gets my full attention. Other writers here at The Herald will fill this space during that time, giving you some different views.
And to those who have sent their prayers and good thoughts to our family, we appreciate your kindness more than you know.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
September 18, 2002

Let Deadbeat Taxpayers
Suffer The Consequences
Taxpayers in Commerce should be delighted to see the city moving aggressively to collect unpaid tax bills. No one likes to pay property taxes, but payment is a lot less distasteful if taxpayers know everyone is paying their fair share.
Unfortunately, some people will never pay their taxes and others will pay them only when forced to. So, every few years, Commerce has to go through the motion of advertising for sale property on which taxes have not been paid. The current effort targets more than $235,000 in delinquent taxes owed from as far back as 1995.
Don't get the impression that all those not paying their taxes are the city's poorer residents. Some are, but deadbeat taxpayers cross all social and economic lines. It is not lack of money that drives people to avoid paying property taxes as much as it is a desire to get out of a moral and legal obligation that is part of citizenship.
If some people get angry because they're being dunned, who cares? Citizens who pay their taxes every year aren't likely to have much sympathy.

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