Jackson County Opinions...

MAY 12, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
May 12, 2004

Revelations Will Help Recruit More Terrorists
If the intent of the United States in invading Iraq was to make America safer from terrorism, it has failed.
Nothing Osama bin Laden could have said or done could serve better to recruit terrorists to his or similar groups than the photos showing American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners.
It’s not like anti-American zealots needed any inspiration, but the conduct of the U.S. military has reaffirmed in the minds of much of the Middle East all of the exaggerated claims about our intent in Iraq. Apathy has turned to rage, mere dislike was converted to loathing and who knows how many young Arab men and women previously content to sit on the sidelines have been converted from spectators to terrorists.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush knew long before the stories were released of serious allegations that U.S. soldiers were mistreating Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, both combatants and civilians. What Rumsfeld first termed “isolated incidents” appear now not so isolated, and are so widespread that the Pentagon and White House are bracing for more. The deaths of 25 prisoners are being called homicides.
The president has expressed outrage. Voters have expressed outrage. I too am outraged. Maybe we had no chance to win friends in the Middle East after the invasion, but these pictures remove any hope we might have had.
What makes the abuse surprising is that it should have been foreseen and the vast majority of it prevented. Those in the business of war know from history the temptations of captors to mistreat their prisoners, particularly those of different races and cultures; thus the need for training and close supervision. Even without training, every soldier knows that what we’ve seen pictured is wrong, illegal and immoral.
War brings out the best and the worst in people. It produces bravery and gallantry – and cowardice and cruelty. With the emotional backdrop of war, it seems inevitable that some of the captors who have power over prisoners will abuse that power.
The American abuses take on a different perspective when compared to those perpetrated by the regime of Saddam Hussein, but it is arguable as one writer put it, that the infamous Abu Ghraib prison is little different now than it was under Hussein – it’s just under new management.
How now do we express outrage at the treatment of prisoners by Iraqi insurgents? The proof is there that we’re no better. Any hope of holding the high moral ground in a situation where there is little has been dashed.
Now, all we can do is punish the offenders and try to convince the world that these were just a “few bad apples.”
The images are reminiscent of photos from the Holocaust and from the lynchings of American blacks depicted in the photo exhibit “Without Sanctuary,” now at Jackson State University. The smiling faces of the perpetrators is the same in each.
We were supposed to be the good guys in Iraq, eliminating torture and bringing in democracy. The rest of the world looks at these pictures and finds that hard(er) to believe. Worse yet, we’ve given a huge boost to those recruiting new terrorists, and we’ll have to deal with them for years to come.


Editorial
The Commerce News
May 12, 2004

Don’t Let Budget Pass Without Public Input
Looking at a 24 percent increase in the city budget that promises both utility rate increases and a property tax increase, Commerce officials have to do some explaining to the taxpayers.
The budget contains a couple of major must-do items: the completion of the new wastewater treatment plant ($4.6 million) and the relocation of natural gas lines along U.S. 441 from the bypass all the way to Athens ($4.2 million), but that does not explain all of the budget growth.
The city is investing in infrastructure, including a couple of major projects – getting sewer to the Bana Road industrial site, $1.8 million, and rebuilding a major downtown electrical circuit, $619,000 – and a host of smaller projects related to infrastructure, but those expenditures often do not resonate with voters who don’t see concrete benefits coming out of rebuilt electrical services and extended water lines and they don’t care about the gas line relocation and the wastewater plant.
What voters will understand is that their property taxes and utility rates have gone up. What the city council needs do is show the benefits of these expenditures. The Progress Road/Bana Road sewer extension, for example, is the city’s investment to secure major industry that could help balance the tax digest and keep property taxes from soaring.
The city will hold three public hearings on the budget, but if past experience is an indicator, no one will attend to see why the budget is where it is. That is the time citizens can be informed and have input. Be assured, if the city government knew 15-20 citizens would attend each hearing, officials would be sure to consider more carefully the budget and the rate and tax increases needed to support it.
Watch for those hearing dates, attend, and learn why the budget is up. You may get educated and you may inspire some cutbacks. After all, it’s your money.


Deficit Hangs Over A Recovering Economy
Even as the economy warms up, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan last week warned that a growing federal deficit will have huge future repercussions for the economy.
The Bush administration has estimated that the deficit for this year will hit $521 billion – 4.25 percent of the economy. That figure, coming just before the baby boomer generation begins to retire, suggests that the United States will have huge difficulties meeting the federal legislated obligations of Social Security and Medicare.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Greenspan agreed.
Like an undisciplined teenager with a limitless credit card, the Bush administration went on a spending spree and mortgaged the country’s fiscal future to fund tax cuts and the war in Iraq. Rather than ask the country to pay the cost of America’s business, the Bush administration chose the buy now, pay later approach as though the bill would never come due.
Greenspan warns that the bill will come due and that it will cause huge problems.
There are only two ways to balance the budget – cut spending or increase taxes, exactly the opposite of what Bush has done.
Neither Bush nor Democratic challenger John Kerry has offered insight on how they will handle this issue, but in an election campaign, neither is likely to suggest either approach. Just because the politicians are afraid to address the problem, however, does not make it any less dangerous. Today, the economy seems to be regaining strength, but an economy built on massive debt is living on borrowed time. That time is running out.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
May 12, 2004

The lesson of Fletcher & Britt
The allegations of 74 counts of ethics violations by county commission chairman Harold Fletcher is turning into a mess of trouble for him at the worst possible time. In the middle of an election, Fletcher is having to explain to voters why he’s facing so many ethics complaints.
He says they’re minor oversights. Maybe. Maybe not. But in choosing to fight the charges rather than pay a $7,000 fine, he’s opened the door to further investigation. That could be bad if an aggressive investigator starts poking around.
What is perhaps more questionable in the long run than the 74 counts are reports that he misrepresented the status of the $60 million Toyota/M.A.C.I. project by telling people it isn’t happening and that Concord Road, a key part of the project, won’t be built.
I’ve been hearing this kind of talk for months. One person I contacted a year ago quoted Fletcher as saying Concord Road wasn’t going to be built because it was a “Waddell road,” a plan conceived by his political nemesis, former county commission chairman Jerry Waddell.
A second person contacted me several months ago with a similar story and said that Fletcher indicated he was interested in their land around the Toyota site.
Now a third person has come forward to publicly say that Waddell tried to lead him to believe the Toyota project was “on hold.” Ronald Peavey of Buford wrote a letter to the state ethics commission about his 2002 conversation with Fletcher at which Fletcher reportedly repeated a similar line about Concord Road being a “Waddell road” and that it would not get built.
And there is Peavey’s description of the conversation where Fletcher and another man, Peavey believes to be Fletcher’s brother, said that the land north of I-85 around the Toyota project wouldn’t get built up until all the land on the south side of I-85 was full.
Guess where Fletcher owns land?
What is his game in all this? Why would he indicate to someone that the Toyota deal was on hold, when in reality it is ongoing? Why would he say that Concord Road wouldn’t be built when in fact, it will be built?
I can’t answer any of that, but those are not the kind of questions a candidate wants asked during an election season. None of his actions may prove to be a violation of state ethics laws, but the lingering questions do contribute to the ethical dark cloud that already hangs heavy over the Jackson County BOC.
The Fletcher problems come on the heels of the Stacey Britt water fiasco where that county commissioner was caught with an illegal water meter on a line that had not yet been approved for use.
Britt is no doubt laughing off the matter. Wasn’t his fault. He reportedly blames the water authority.
But if anyone else had been caught stealing water, they would have been charged with a theft. But because Britt is a county commissioner, he’s being handled with kid gloves. A requested GBI probe is unlikely to ever materialize unless it gets a push by district attorney Tim Madison.
The truth is, both Fletcher and Britt are under this cloud because they have let their private real estate interests blind them to their public obligations.
That should not be a surprise. Jackson County is in the middle of a growth boom. For those like Fletcher and Britt who deal in real estate, there’s money to be made. A lucky few will get rich off the boom.
That’s fine for a private citizen. But it’s not fine for public officials. No public official should be able to affect decisions that may directly, or indirectly, enhance their own personal real estate dealings, or use inside information to identify opportunities.
The problem is that we never really know when a public official who is involved in real estate is acting in the public interest, or in their own private interest. That’s why there has been such a hue and cry about the BOC’s attempts to take over the county water authority.
Think about it: The BOC controls all zoning in unincorporated Jackson County. They have attempted to wrest control over economic development projects looking at Jackson County. And they have attempted to get control over the water authority so that they can control where and when water and sewer lines are put into the ground.
That’s a lot of power concentrated into one group of five men. But it’s dangerous power when two of those five, like Fletcher and Britt, are so heavily involved in real estate dealings.
So are Fletcher or Britt guilty of such conflicts-of-interest? Who knows, given that land deals can easily be hidden by using multiple corporate names, or by using third-parties who give back an unofficial “finder’s fee.”
Whatever the outcome of the pending investigations into Britt and Fletcher, one thing has become clear: In the future, Jackson County does not need to elect people to public office who have a major interest in on-going real estate deals. There is just too much opportunity for ethical questions when the two mix.
If someone wants to make money off buying and selling property, more power to them.
But those individuals have no business holding public office where there will always be questions about their motives. A public official cannot serve two master: His own interest and the public interest.
That’s the lesson Fletcher and Britt have taught us.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
May 12
, 2004

No more land!
We’ve begun to hear rumblings that the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is quietly considering the purchase of a tract of land for a new jail site.
The board is reportedly doing that despite already having purchased 160 acres for the new courthouse site, which was supposed to have included enough land for a new jail.
For this board to now buy any additional land for a new jail would be one of the most inept and ill-advised moves in the history of this BOC. Surely there are a few acres amid that 160 that could hold a jail.
Many readers will remember that it was this BOC which rejected an offer of a free 25-acre tract north of Jefferson for the new courthouse site. The reason that land was rejected, according to the BOC at the time, was that the owner didn’t want a jail with the courthouse to affect other surrounding land he owned. The BOC said it wanted to be able to have the courthouse and jail close together, so it rejected the offer of free land.
Of course, that was just a smoke screen. The real reason that land was rejected was because the decision had already been made to buy that 160 acres on Darnell Road.
If the BOC now pursues buying more land in addition to that 160 acres, we believe there will be a taxpayer revolt in the county. Local citizens already pay some of the highest taxes in the state.
Enough is enough is enough. No more land needs to be purchased for county government facilities.

City wise to table annexation
The City of Jefferson was wise this week to delay annexing a small tract of land that includes part of the new Jackson County courthouse.
There is a major issue here, which is who really owns that land and who can legally speak for the annexation?
On paper, the land is owned by the Association of County Commissioners Georgia. That is how the controversial lease-purchase deal between the county and the ACCG was structured.
But that financing scheme is involved in serious litigation and is awaiting a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. What if the Supreme Court nullifies that lease-purchase document?
Thus, the real ownership of the property is in legal limbo. Until that is settled, no action should be taken to annex that property.
Jefferson leaders were correct to recognize that and to table any action on the matter until all those issues become clear.


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