Jackson County Opinions...

APRIL 16, 2003

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
April 16, 2003

Virtue In Listing Accomplishments Of City, BOE
One proposal to come out of the retreat of the Commerce Board of Education and Commerce City Council in late March was the need to promote the good things about Commerce.
We report those things every week, sometimes on the front page, but mostly on the inside, since that's where the bulk of the news is printed. The good news is in the school news section, in sports and in the pages dedicated to what we call "hard news."
Detractors of newspapers often say in one form or another that we promote the "negative," because that's what sells newspapers.
To that, I say, we report the news, whether it is good or bad. What makes something "news" is its impact on individuals of the community; its relevance, interest or importance.
But it is true that motorists never slow down to gawk at smooth-flowing traffic. Things attract more attention when they're not going as expected than when they do. When's the last time you saw front-page coverage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of a space shuttle launch? You get the idea.
That being said, our newspapers publish a lot more of the good news than the bad. In the course of covering any group, there is progressive action duly reported, then forgotten by everyone because it was routine.
An example is the recent reduction of ISO ratings for Commerce and the East Jackson Fire District. Every homeowner in the city benefitted, and those in the 77 percent of the fire district within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant got a huge savings on fire insurance premiums. The story ran on Page 1, but at the end of the year, no one but a fireman will look back over 2003 and call it one of the top stories, regardless of all the effort to make it happen and the benefits.
Within a week or two, work should begin on the construction of $600,000 worth of sidewalks. That's significant, but not something you'll get excited about.
Commerce's Electric Department has quietly rebuilt numerous circuits, providing much better electrical service. At my house, that meant replacing one light bulb every two months instead of four or five a month, but the work goes generally unrecognized by the public.
A proposal was made at the retreat that the city and schools publish an annual report in newspaper format reminding the public of the year's accomplishments. It would be a vehicle to remind the public that there really is progress.
To be successful, such a report must focus on actual accomplishments, not propaganda. The city, for example, would be unwise to boast of its Streetscape, which has been completed for years, and the school system should resist the temptation to dwell excessively on the virtues of its smallness.
Both groups should be able to document many tangible bits of progress, the accumulative result of which could be very considerable.
There are good things happening. An annual accounting of them might make it easier for citizens to know that their city and school system consistently seek and make improvements that, though not earth-shaking, add up impressively.

The Jackson Herald
April 16, 2003

Let public vote, or face revolt
Jackson Commissioner Stacey Britt is right — the county government should put its plans for a new courthouse on hold until there is more support for a plan.
Last week, Britt made a motion to that effect, which was seconded by commissioner Tony Beatty. The move failed, but it did lead to some discussion. Both men expressed frustration with the controversial project and the lack of public support.
Indeed, the courthouse has become the lightning-rod issue for the county commissioners. While that board has made several other large mistakes — a failed attempt to take over the water authority, for example — it is the handling of the courthouse project which has become the main focus of public outcry.
The reason for that backlash is two-fold: First, the public resents the heavy-handed manner in which the issue was pursued; second, the public resents not having a vote on the largest single expenditure and debt in the county’s history.
We believe the other three county commissioners would be wise to heed Britt’s and Beatty’s advice to step back and take a deep breath before proceeding with this project.
As we see it, county leaders have the following four choices:
1. Proceed with the current plans to borrow $25-$40 million of debt without public approval and continue to face public wrath and perhaps serious litigation;
2. Compromise by putting the current plans on hold and call a bond referendum to let the public decide if the project should proceed as proposed;
3. Compromise by putting the current plans on hold and wait until the 2004 SPLOST to let the public decide if the project should be done as proposed;
4. Drop the entire project and start the process over again at a later date.
We realize that some on the county commission have voiced the opinion that there isn’t as much opposition as we claim. “It’s just the newspapers,” they say.
But if that’s the case, then why not compromise and let the public vote on these plans via a bond referendum? We believe the public has the right to vote on a project of this magnitude and a debt this large.
It’s not too late. The county commissioners could put its current efforts on ice and call a bond referendum later this year, or a SLOST vote next year, on the proposed courthouse debt and settle it once and for all. If the public votes to approve the debt and project as proposed, we’ll be satisfied.
But if the county commissioners fail to allow such a vote, if they proceed unabated with their current plans, then we believe the public has no option left but to revolt in the courts. For a local government to incur so much debt without voter approval is equivalent to taxation without representation.
To us, the choice is clear: Compromise now and let the public vote, or face revolt.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
April 16, 2003

About that photo....
When you sit in an editor’s chair, you expect to catch some flak from time to time. It goes with the territory.
But the response to a recent page one photo in this newspaper was not what I expected. People either loved it or hated it and those with the latter view have not hesitated to let me know their feelings.
For those who may have missed it, the photo was a of a group of fifth grade students participating in a manners class at Jefferson Elementary School. The students attended a formal dance in Athens, during which photos were made by a photographer from this newspaper.
The photo in question, however, showed the students in an ironic, unposed, candid moment that did not reflect the “perfectly polished” program in which they were participating.
I thought it was a good photo and decided to run it on the front page. The point of the photo was the irony of the situation and to show that kids will be kids, even when dressed up in formal “adult” situations.
Unfortunately, some found the photo upsetting and didn’t see the irony. In letters to the editor this week, I’m accused of “bullying” the students just to sell newspapers and of stooping low to “belittle a child.” One letter writer said I must have some “hidden agenda” for running the photo.
Frankly, I’m astounded at such a reaction. So let me set the record straight: I’m a big supporter of the Perfectly Polished program these children are involved in. When the program first began, I penned an editorial supporting the idea which ran on this page. Nothing has changed my mind about that. Indeed, I plan to enroll my eldest son in the program next year when he enters the fifth grade.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20 and where I made a mistake was in running that single photo without publishing other photos to show the entire scope of the event. That one moment of irony caught on film did not reflect the entire evening and I should have made sure other photos ran so that readers would have gotten a more balanced view. I’m correcting that failure this week by running several other pictures from that dance.
But I must admit, I’m surprised at the tone of some of these letters, especially from those writers who know me personally. For anyone to think that this newspaper, or myself, would intentionally bully or seek to belittle children is, well, unfathomable.
To such thoughts, I can only say look at the record. Each week, this newspaper runs a number of photos of local children receiving awards, playing sports and participating in school events. Over the course of a year, that amounts to several hundred photos that all portray local children in positive situations. We have never sought to hold children up to ridicule and that certainly was not the intent of the Perfectly Polished photo.
From a personal standpoint, I’m a parent too and many of the children involved in the Perfectly Polished program and in the photo are friends of my own children. I would never seek to “bully” or “belittle” these children. I’m distressed that anyone would think otherwise.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with issues related to newspaper photographs. A few years ago, a mom threatened to have her husband beat me up when I declined to run her daughter’s high school homecoming queen photo on the front page of a sister newspaper to The Herald. Many years ago, a sports photo I made that showed a high school girl’s belly button during a basketball game caught flak. (That was long before today’s fashion of belly button displays in everyday clothing.) And we do heavily edit prom photos each year from local high schools. Believe me, parents would be outraged if they saw their children in some of the prom photos that are discarded.
As a parent, I know that we are all proud of our children’s accomplishments and of the programs they’re involved in. But I also think we need to be able to chuckle at ourselves and at the humorous situations our children find themselves in. Years ago, there was even a television program built on that idea, hosted by Art Linkletter with the slogan, “Kids Say the Darndest Things!”
I don’t think that show held children up to ridicule, or attempted to belittle them, although we all laughed sometimes at what was being said.
Children will be children and that was the only point of the Perfectly Polished photo. There were no hidden agendas, no attempt to bully children in order to sell newspapers and certainly no malice toward belittling the children.
The photograph ran only as a candid, ironic view about childhood and the humorous way children sometimes bridge their world of being a child as they step toward adulthood.
To those who viewed the photo in any other context, I apologize.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
April 16, 2003

Hopefully, Cleanup Urge Not Passing Fancy
Let's hope that the Commerce City Council's urge to clean up the city lasts longer than a spring cleaning. The council discussed several issues Monday night that are deserving of their attention – and some official action.
They include:
•streamlining the city's cleanliness of premises ordinance to expedite cleanup, particularly with repeat offenders.
•enforcement of the city's ordinance banning junked cars.
•finding a way to cite people who continually put out at the roadsides materials the city trash pickup service does not accept.
•enforcement of its sign ordinance, particularly the aspects dealing with signs placed in the public right of way.
Over the years, this city government has taken several actions aimed at reducing clutter, removing junk and basic maintenance of yards and property. Each of them works to some degree, but none of them are being enforced sufficiently to accomplish the stated goal.
The cleanliness of premises ordinance, for example, requires only that property be maintained so as not to be a hazard, but its enforcement is ponderous. Months can pass between the time action is initiated and the results are achieved, and often it is the same offenders who cause problems over and over.
The junked car ordinance constitutes a different problem. There is no one agency or person in city government responsible for checking the abandoned cars, citing the owners and getting them removed or licensed and insured. It is an example of an "unfunded mandate" the city placed upon itself – an ordinance with no funds to back it up.
Such a situation suggests that the city council is not that concerned with junk car removal, but comments from council members Monday night indicate otherwise. If the council follows up on its discussion Monday night with some means of enforcing the ordinance, voters will know that the city's concern was more than an urge to do some spring cleaning.
It is a simple matter to enforce. Police officers can write citations, just as they do for other minor offenses that occur on the roads, such as driving with an expired tag or with a cracked taillight. On the other hand, does the city council want to have officers investigating junked cars at the expense of their work on traffic control and public safety?
One option might be to see if the Jackson County marshals, who are reportedly enforcing a county ban on junked cars, are available to do the same in Commerce.
The control of illegal dumping along the city streets is a similar situation and if the city finds a solution to the problem of junked cars, the same solution will work with people who dump furniture, tires and other prohibited materials out by the curb.
As for the sign ordinance, the problem is not really with the companies who buy permits for directional signs. Their compliance has been good. But city residents holding yard or garage sales and companies hawking everything from "affordable insurance" to work-at-home schemes abuse the public rights of way and illegally tack their signs onto utility poles.
Again, the issue comes down to who will be responsible for enforcement and whether enforcement is a high enough priority that it actually gets done.
The ordinances that affect all of these areas are in place. Now the city council and city management has to decide just how serious they are about the city's cleanliness and appearance. If this is not just the urge for a little spring cleaning, Commerce will allocate whatever resources are necessary to enforce the ordinances it felt compelled to enact.

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