Jackson County Opinions...

OCTOBER 16, 2002



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
October 16, 2002

Enforcement Should Start At
The Bottom Level
New York mayor Rudy Giuliani found that by prosecuting petty crimes, crime of all kinds would decline. In Commerce, the local police department is demonstrating that the enforcement of minor laws results in more prosecution for major offenses.
Reading the arrest reports every week, I am amazed by the number of DUI and drug cases made as the result of a traffic stop for a minor violation. Countless drug cases have been made because an officer pulled a car over for a seat belt violation; many a drunk driver was discovered after a vehicle was pulled over for having an expired tag or a broken taillight.
Police Chief John Gaissert's effort may ultimately prove that in Commerce, like New York City, enforcement of minor offenses leads to a reduction in all offenses.
Commerce drivers don't like being ticketed for making the illegal U-turn between Broad and Elm Streets where Central Avenue crosses over, but the police department's attention to enforcement of all laws will bear fruit. That enforcement will be critical if the proposed new downtown parking ordinance is put into place. In the past, people seeking to dodge the two-hour ban erased the chalk marks on tires or moved their cars from one spot to another as the two-hour deadline approached. The proposed ordinance will make it illegal for such people to park in certain areas to start with and will slap a $50 fine on those who seek to circumvent the time limit.
It has worked well in Madison. With good enforcement, it could work here.
It is not the number of laws we have on the books, but the equal enforcement of those laws that make society better. Actually, Giuliani's New York cops tended to enforce his "zero tolerance" concept more in minority neighborhoods, so while the policy was effective, the city is paying a $50 million settlement as the result of a class action discrimination lawsuit.
If the parking ordinance is enforced, downtown workers will realize that they must park off-street and after an initial period of grumbling, the problem will be resolved. If only it were that simple with other crimes.
Drug addicts and thieves will continue to do drugs and steal, but when criminals realize that the cost of doing business here has gone up, they'll move on to some less restrictive place. Likewise, the good old boys who keep driving after their licenses are suspended will eventually catch on that the police have caught on. If there are fewer minor incidents, there will be fewer cases of minor incidents escalating into really serious crimes.
People will bend or break the rules if they are allowed. The only way to maintain an orderly society is to enforce them vigorously and without discrimination.
Giuliani's policy, though not implemented evenly, resulted in a huge reduction in crime. The Commerce Police Department can accomplish the same thing in this small town over the course of three or four years.
When you get pulled over for a broken taillight, remember it’s just part of good police work.


Editorial
The Jackson Herald
October 16, 2002

Collins just a BOC whipping boy
Water authority chairman Elton Collins is just a whipping boy. He had it right last week when he outlined for his board why county leaders raked him over the coals at a commissioners meeting two weeks ago. Some of the commissioners are angry at their own chairman, Harold Fletcher, but rather than confront him directly, they beat up on Collins to send Fletcher their message.
At issue was an old complaint by some BOC members that the water authority had misspent SPLOST funds when it agreed to make note payments on Bear Creek on behalf of the BOC. The authority did that at the request of Fletcher, whom Collins believed was speaking on behalf of the entire board.
But it turns out that Fletcher was not speaking for the entire board. Some BOC members disagreed with that plan and took their feelings out on Collins at a recent meeting.
But Collins isn’t the one they should speak with. It is Fletcher they should call to task for having misrepresented the wishes of the board.
Politics, however, won’t let them do that. For the sake of appearances, and for the protection of their own pet projects, BOC members seldom use a public forum to criticize one of their own. Rather, they find outside scapegoats, like Collins, to take the heat in a round-about way to send each other a message.
We have said it before, and we repeat it again: The Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority has done a good job for Jackson County and has, to our knowledge, spent the taxpayers’ money wisely. Collins, in particular, has two decades of public service to Jackson County and has always acted in what he believes to be the best interest of county citizens. His record of strong leadership speaks for itself. This board has earned the respect of county citizens.
What’s lacking in this picture, however, is respect from the BOC of Collins and the water authority. In fact, some BOC members would like to just abolish the authority and take control of water and sewer decisions itself.
That would be a huge, huge mistake.
We’ll stack the track record of Collins and his board against the dismal record of the current BOC any day of the week.
The former has a record of strong public service; the latter has a record of inflated egos and fiscal mismanagement.

Budget cuts will be problematic
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has instructed its staff to cut $1.2 million from next year’s proposed budget.
That should prove to be an interesting exercise. There are only three options, one of which the BOC has ruled out:
1. Layoff staff members and cut services.
2. Dip into the county’s reserve funds.
3. Raise the millage rate.
The board has ruled out doing the latter, at least for this year. It could dip into reserve funds, but that would be a fodder for more criticism. This administration was highly critical of its predecessors for dipping into reserves to cut the county’s tax rate. For it to now do the same thing would prove beyond a doubt that all the previous carping was just politics, not policy.
That leaves cutting staff. Here again, the BOC is in a quandary. Over the past 12 months, it has added staff and employee expenses at an alarming rate. Many of those positions were high-paying jobs. In fact, the county now has nine employees making over $50,000 per year, not including several elected department heads whose salary is controlled by the state and who also earn over $50,000 per year.
At the same time, the BOC has canned all raises for other county employees this year, except for those already agreed to earlier, such as for sheriff department deputies.
So to cut staff would be to layoff those high-paying jobs it most recently created, or to let go other long-time staff members who do the real work for all the “executives” now in county employ.
‘Tis a quandary. But excuse us if we don’t shed too many tears for our leaders’ dilemma.
It was the BOC which dug this financial hole with undisciplined spending habits. It created a large administrative bureaucracy and added thousands of dollars in expense to the county budget.
Now it’s time to pay for that fiscal irresponsibility.
Frankly, we don’t care if they get rid of all the bureaucrats, just as long as they don’t attempt to dig themselves out of this hole on the backs of county taxpayers.

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Column
By Kerri Graffius
The Jackson Herald
October 16, 2002

Otis Victrum touched an entire community
The tragic death of Otis Victrum Monday morning leaves a void in the lives of those who knew him. He was a remarkable man, one who touched many people over the course of his 40-plus years in public service.
I first got to know him while a high school student during his education tenure at Jefferson High School in the early 1970s. But even then, he’d had a long career in education as principal of Banks County Elementary School from 1957 to 1967. For a year after that, he worked for the state department of education, then following the integration of Jackson County schools, began working in the Jefferson School System in 1968.
It may not seem like a big deal today, but back in that era of school integration, tensions ran high in many communities when black students and teachers were merged into what had previously been all-white schools. But in Jackson County, educators like Otis Victrum made that transition far less traumatic than it might have otherwise been.
After leaving Jefferson schools in 1976, Mr. Victrum became director of the Alto Education Center, then finished his education career as principal at a Hall County elementary school.
But while he’d been in education 33 years, he wasn’t through with service in Jackson County. He’d always had an interest in law enforcement and in 1987, became a deputy in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. Ironically, he was working for a former student, Sheriff Stan Evans, who was a JHS student in the early 1970s during Mr. Victrum’s tenure there.
During a 1988 interview, Mr. Victrum hinted that he might have political aspirations in the future. While he never did run for a public office, in 1990 he entered one of the most interesting, and perhaps tumultuous periods of his life when he decided to put his name in the ring for the position of Jefferson Police Chief.
It was a messy process as several councilmembers lined up against him. While not opposing Mr. Victrum, then Mayor Byrd Bruce supported the standing chief, a man who had earned a bad reputation for pulling his gun out of his holster on law-abiding citizens.
The controversy over that chief led to an election defeat of one councilman and the balance shifted. By March 1990, the council voted 3-2 to hire Mr. Victrum, Jefferson’s first (and so far only) black police chief.
Bruce was gracious in his welcome of Chief Victrum to the position and over the coming months and years, the two men would become even closer.
One large reason the two former adversaries became close was from the mutual experience of being arrested together later in 1990. A disgruntled policeman went to a neighboring county and had a warrant signed for the arrest of his boss, Chief Victrum, and Mayor Bruce. The policeman alleged the two, along with a former police chief, were covering up an incident involving the former chief’s grandson.
It was all bunk. I know because on the morning after that incident, Chief Victrum told me about it. It’s hard to cover up something when the police chief tells a local reporter about it within 15 hours. Eventually, the charges were tossed as unfounded and the disgruntled policeman left town. But Mayor Bruce and Chief Victrum would never forget that shared experience and later laughed about it while drinking coffee in the mayor’s restaurant.
It was also during this time that Mr. Victrum broke another barrier in becoming the first black member of the Jefferson Rotary Club. He had been proposed for membership to the civic organization way back in the 1970s, but the racial feelings at that time were still too sensitive and his membership proposal was never approved. He was proud to have seen that corrected some 20 years later.
After a couple years as police chief, Chief Victrum retired again, this time to work part-time for the sheriff’s department.
And he still went to Bruce’s restaurant to drink coffee with the former mayor. That is where he died Monday morning, pinned between two cars in the parking lot, a sad and perhaps ironic end to a remarkable life.
In 1988, Mr. Victrum had this to say about life, reflecting, I believe, on his own experience:

“One of my favorite sayings is that there’s only two places in life that are important. The first is the place you’ve been. You should never forget where you came from because there are so many valuable memories and lessons you’ve learned through your experiences. The second is the place you’re going. Where you are now doesn’t matter.”

Otis Victrum may have never held an elective office, but he came closer than anyone I know to helping this community see beyond race during an era when the color of one’s skin was a dominate part of our culture and politics.
He did that not just by breaking barriers himself, but also by quietly helping a community understand that it didn’t matter where we had been in our past, or where we were at the time, only that we should focus on where we were going.
We are a better community for having been touched by the life of Otis Victrum.
And I am proud to say he was my friend.

***

A huge “thank you” to all who gave my family so much support during the recent surgery of my 7-year-old son, Clark. Your cards, calls, emails and prayers mean a great deal to us and helped us “stay the course” through this difficult time.
Clark is home and doing very well now. He’s back in school for a part of each day and so far, his surgery has proven to be successful.
Words cannot express our gratitude for your support and love.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
October 16, 2002

Technical School Would
Be Welcome Addition
The Commerce government is negotiating with Wal-Mart to lease the old Commerce store building to house a satellite campus of Lanier Tech. The city has received a verbal commitment that Lanier Tech will locate such a campus here if the city can find space for it.
This is a fantastic opportunity for Commerce and the people who live nearby. The theory is that once such a satellite facility has sufficient numbers of students, the state will build a permanent satellite campus of the technical school.
Having that kind of facility here would do wonders for the Commerce area's attempts at economic development. Companies could enroll prospective employees in customized training programs without their having to leave the county, and having that kind of resource nearby appeals to business and industry. In addition, having 200-500 students coming into town every day will provide opportunities for all kinds of retail businesses to make money from the increased traffic.
The major benefit, however, is having an excellent educational facility here. For high school graduates not headed to college – which covers most high school graduates in the area – having a technical school close by makes continuing their education a lot more likely. The labor force of the future will require training beyond what our high schools offer and having that training available right here stands to improve the quality of workers. To the students, that means better jobs, better pay and better lifestyles, right here at home.


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