Jackson County Opinions...

JUNE 23, 2004

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
June 23, 2004

At Least The Local Elections End In Summer
Back when the Democrats ruled Georgia, I naively looked forward to the time when there would be a legitimate two-party system for electing local officials in Georgia.
It’s a reminder to be careful what you ask for – you may get it.
As the Republicans gained influence and hit parity in Georgia, we got that two-party system in local elections. It stunk like a four-day old road kill, stretching the local election season from April through November.
This election, we’re back to a one-party system, although instead of everyone registering as Democrats like they did 15 years ago, anyone seriously interested in winning registers as a Republican. That’s regrettable, but worth the price to shorten the local election season back to April through July, with a chance of a runoff that we won’t dwell upon.
We already have a long and bitter national presidential campaign to look forward to, with snippets of Congressional election efforts to add humor and to keep the rhetorical bar low. Another three-plus months of intense local campaigns would be like adding a plague of rats to a severe drought, so, there is a good side to the Republican takeover of Georgia politics – aside from the fact that most of those new Republicans are former Democrats.
The best advice in preparing to vote is to ignore anything a candidate says or any ad he publishes or broadcasts during the campaign. Make your decision based on what you already know about the candidate. Your memory, however faulty, is bound to be a lot more accurate than the “record” candidates will quote when they’re working the political shell game to either elicit your vote or demean the opposition.
The typical political campaign statement contains as much truth as a National Enquirer series on Elvis’ abduction by aliens but is not nearly as interesting or well-written.
Of course, local candidates are amateurs. The guys running for higher office have learned to lie with more flair and have paid staff to think up new and intriguing fabrications. How do you think they got in the position of running for president? Public service?
At the local level, candidates don’t have the money or the imagination to take distortion to its highest level. A few newspaper ads, a web site and an election-eve broadside by direct mail are standard fare. (I have to admit to a certain anticipation about what the candidates will claim in their mass mail-outs sent out after it is too late for their opponents to respond. I’m pretty sure, based on his website – thetruthbedamned.com – that Harold Fletcher is going to announce an endorsement from Jesus.) With $200 million plus in his war chest, President Bush can afford to hire the entire Fox News Team to write for him. Oh yeah, they’re already doing that for free. Fletcher can’t even count on WJJC.
As annoying as the local campaign may be, it could be worse. All of the local political races should be decided this summer, leaving fall for us to digest the presidential campaign.
All of the the local campaign lies and fabrications this year will come from Republicans. The Democrats would never stoop to such levels. There aren’t any Democrats left.

The Commerce News
June 23
, 2004

Public Participation Essential To Government
It was interesting that a large number of Commerce residents appeared before the city council last Monday as the council discussed (briefly) its upcoming budget. The presence of a crowd can make all the difference in the world.
For example, Ward 2 Councilman Donald Wilson, who has had little to say during previous budget discussion, suddenly became the people’s advocate, trying to save a dollar here and in a blatant but vain attempt to show the audience that he is a wise and discerning steward of the public’s funds.
The chief benefit of having public participation in government meetings of any kind is that a crowd makes leaders more careful and reminds them that people will be affected by their decisions. It’s easy for elected officials to take the voters for granted when few ever appear at a meeting to watch what happens.
Public participation can only help citizens become better informed as well and more understanding of the challenges, problems and mandates under which government must operate. When voters realize the choices their council members, commissioners and school board members face, they will realize that there are sound reasons for most of what government does and for the fees and taxes governments impose.
There is a difference between attending a meeting to voice complaints and turning out to learn about government. To gain understanding, voters must enter such meetings with open minds. They have every right to demand answers to questions, but it is their responsibility to recognize that government probably has a good reason for what it does. For example, the Commerce City Council proposes to spend $3-$4 million to move a natural gas line along U.S. 441. Why? Because it is being forced to by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which is widening the highway. While one voter suggested that the city just refuse, predicting that the DOT would not dare cut the line, that is not a responsible position to take. Even if the DOT did not sever the line, the city needs DOT cooperation to get road resurfacing, for utility crossing permits, maintenance of traffic signals, and it would be utterly foolish to imperil the working relationship with one of the state’s most powerful agencies.
There is a tendency toward cynicism among voters that suggests that all public budgets are bloated with waste and all public officials are inept and/or corrupt. That attitude comes from voters and taxpayers too lazy or ignorant to try to understand the complex issues confronting local government. The operation of a city, county or school system is no simple thing; it requires the balancing of competing interests with limited funds and often with irrevocable requirements handed down from above.
All governments perform better when under scrutiny. That is one of the roles of the press, but it is a job better suited to interested citizens whose presence reminds officials of the public interest. Public participation also results in wiser, more informed citizens who are better able to make good choices when elections are held.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
June 23, 2004

Newspaper a mirror of both good and bad
Opinions are what make the world go around. Differing views on various issues are a natural part of the human experience. No two people see or experience the world in the same way.
That extends to political issues, of course. We all have our own view of politics. That’s why we have elections, to let voters voice those views in an organized manner.
Part of my job is to comment on local issues and politics. What I write is my opinion and readers are free to take it or leave it. Some of you will agree with me. Some of you will disagree. Sometimes, you may do a little of both.
In a letter to the editor several weeks ago, one reader took me to task over my views about our current county government.
That’s fine. I applaud her interest in what’s happening in Jackson County, even if we disagree on some of the issues.
Interestingly, that writer said she didn’t question the truth of what I have been writing, but said she didn’t like reading about it.
I think I understand that sentiment. The truth is, a newspaper is in many respects a mirror of the community it serves. If we do our jobs, we reflect back to our readers both the strengths and the flaws of our community.
But that role has an inherent conflict; a mirror cannot just reflect one or the other. If you look into a mirror, you may see the beauty of a face, but you will also see the warts and the wrinkles.
No one likes to see their own flaws. And the truth is, we often don’t like to see the flaws of our community reflected either. We’d rather it be all beauty and perfect, not flawed and imperfect.
I suppose that a community newspaper could ignore the bad things happening and only report the good.
We could ignore all the crime news and pretend that we don’t have any criminals in Jackson County. But then you wouldn’t know that a neighbor’s home was burglarized or that a child molester lived at the end of the street.
We could ignore school news where test scores weren’t very good, or where budget cuts were being made. But then you wouldn’t know if your child was getting a quality education or why a popular program had been cut.
We could ignore sports news when local teams lose a game. But then you wouldn’t know if they were going to the playoffs or the showers.
We could ignore all deaths in the community and not run any obituaries. But then you wouldn’t know that a beloved Sunday School teacher had passed away and would have no way to express your feelings to the family.
And we could ignore all the political controversies from our local governments. But then you would have no way of knowing if your tax dollars were being used correctly, or if your leaders were leading as you wished.
For my part, I could just write some fluff columns. I could tell you about my dog, or my kids, or where I’ve traveled recently. I could ignore all the major issues taking place in Jackson County today and entertain you rather than inform you.
But I’m not going to do that. That’s not how I view my job. If you want to be entertained, turn on the television. But if you want to know what’s really happening in this community, then these pages are where you need to look.
Indeed, Jackson County does have a lot of controversial political news. A major part of that is due to our having so many government agencies — nine towns, three school systems and a slew of authorities. With all those governments, there’s always some kind of conflict or controversy. And we have growth pressures that by their nature create controversies.
As for my views, I can only express what I see and what I know from a variety of sources. If that is sometimes a mirror that shows our flaws and warts, then so be it.
But to tell the truth, I am also getting tired of some of our local controversies, especially those which surround our county board of commissioners. It seems that everything that group has done in the past three years has been controversial — and it keeps getting worse all the time.
Still, I believe it’s important for readers to know what’s going on — that officials are under investigation, or that agreements with a major industrial prospect have been broken. It’s not “good” news, it’s not the kind of news I’d like to write about, but it’s important news because those things will impact local citizens for years to come.
While I understand why the lady who wrote a letter recently is tired of all the controversies, I will continue to hold up a weekly mirror of Jackson County for our readers to see.
I’d rather local citizens see things as they are, warts and all, than to be handed a “happy face” version that conceals the truth and only shows fluff.
If I did the latter, there’s a mirror I couldn’t face every day — the one I have to look into each morning.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Jackson Herald
June 23
, 2004

School funding a mess
It’s budget time for our local public school systems and we feel sorry for the men and women who are trying to make the numbers work. Indeed, the Jackson County School System may hit the maximum millage rate of 20 mills this year, thanks to continuing cutbacks in state funding.
What a mess. While it might be easy for taxpayers to vent their displeasure toward local school leaders, the truth is that this school financial crisis has been created by state leaders. State funding cuts combined with increasing state mandates has put all local public schools in a financial vise.
Public school finance in Georgia is one of the worst systems we have ever seen. If most taxpayers knew just how unfair the system has become, there would be a revolt in the state.
But most taxpayers don’t realize the depth of the problem because school finances are complex and Byzantine.
For example, do most taxpayers know that the first five mills of local property taxes are sent to the state? And do taxpayers know that those five mills are based on state assessment numbers, meaning that it might actually take six mills in local taxes to make up what the state says should be equal to five mills?
But the funding formula gets worse. The state gives money back to local public schools based on a formula that hurts school systems in many growth areas. The state determines what are “wealthy” school systems and what are “poor” school systems and gives more money per student to the “poor” systems.
All of that creates a massive transfer of tax dollars away from suburban growth communities and moves those funds to inner city or extremely rural school systems where there is actually less growth.
There are a number of other problems with the state’s education funding formula that will only be resolved by litigation. Some 52 school systems have joined together to pursue that option.
In the meantime, we can expect local taxpayers to carry a larger and larger part of local education costs, but with less and less of a voice in how those dollars are spent. State mandates will drive the bus, but we’re expected to pay for it.

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