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A city on the
right track


Your Local Government On The Web:
Don't Expect A Whole Lot Just Yet
"Visit our web site" has become a staple of corporate advertising. Every large firm and many a small company has gone to the Internet to tout their business.
Government has followed. States, cities and counties all have web pages on the Internet. School systems, hospitals and chambers of commerce have joined the parade, developing pages aimed at promoting themselves.
Local government is no exception. Commerce has a web site. The Commerce and Banks County school systems have web pages, BJC Medical Center is on the web, and the local chambers of commerce have developed web pages on the Internet.
But it's still a new medium for promotion, and the web pages reflect a struggle to find and keep pertinent information on the site. Most of the emphasis appears to be aimed at visitors from afar, while little information of interest to the current resident is available. Pages appear to be seldom updated; local residents cannot use the Internet to get an agenda for a public meeting, to find out zoning issues on the table, or to get details on recently passed ordinances, for example.
Often the information is outdated, like the Commerce city web site, which contains a calendar that ends in April 1999. Sometimes information is just wrong; the Banks County web page claims the county has a median annual household income of more than $42,000.
Following is a completely subjective review of four local web sites.
The city of Commerce web site inspires the question: why bother? As of July 1, the quarter calendar ran from February through April, and very little of that. A citizen could not find, for example, meeting dates, much less agendas, for the DDA, city council, library board, planning commission, civic center and tourism authority ­ all groups that manage aspects of the city.
The "Economic Development" site boasts of the 114-acre industrial park, but does not mention it is virtually full; the page suggests wrongly that taxes are higher inside the city limits than outside (the reverse is true); and the advertisement of "meticulously restored downtown buildings" is quite a stretch.
The good news, according to Jan Nelson, executive director of the DDA, is that the web page will soon be re-built.
"Currently, nobody is updating it, because it is being shifted over to the city (from the DDA)," she reports. The page was created by a consulting firm, and Nelson said she cannot update the information. That is expected to change in the near future.
The best thing that can be said about the Commerce web site is that it can be built upon.
The web site of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce is also in transition, hopefully for the better. It has a weak home page which as of July 1 contained a copy of the resolution passed by the chamber's board of directors supporting a referendum on a special purpose local option sales tax, even though the referendum has not been called, the use of the money has not been decided and the distribution has not been determined.
The visitor can click on areas for county contacts, economy, history, recreation and schools. Therein is the largest problem.
The County Contacts page is just a list of phone numbers, including those for the chamber, BJC Medical Center, the health department, the county recreation department, the county courthouse and each of the cities ­ except Talmo.
There is a separate page for "Water & Sewer," which, strangely, leads off with solid waste disposal. Information on water and sewer capacities is outdated or missing. The list of public utility phone numbers is ill-organized, suggesting that water and sewer service is available only from the Jackson County Water & Sewerage Authority, and the section on law enforcement notes that while the sheriff's department offers full-time protection, Commerce, Jefferson, Arcade, Braselton, Hoschton and Maysville "provide police protection on a more limited scale." With 16 uniformed officers under his command, Commerce Police Chief George Grimes might take exception.
The county history section is complete, but the "economy" section is very limited, listing population, building permits and taxable sales, though the latter stops at 1995.
The section on recreation is devoted mostly to Pro Cheer Training Center, which suggests cheerleading is the premiere recreational activity in Jackson County. The only "current facilities" listed are Lamar Murphy Park and the Gordon Street Regional Evening School. Maybe in the upgrade, the web site will mention the county recreation program and the Commerce recreation program, Hurricane Shoals Park, public pools in Jefferson and Commerce, Deer Trail Country Club, Eagle Greens at Sandy Creek....
In its section on schools, the chamber web page offers little more. It provides the name and phone number of each school in the county and each library, though it offers a "Library of Nicholson" at 677-3167, which is a Homer number. The page provides a link to Commerce Middle School, which offers almost no information, another to West Jackson Middle School, which is also useless, and a third link to Maysville Elementary School, which is reasonably comprehensive.
While the chamber's web site is very lacking, the organization recognizes the problem and is attempting to deal with it. The chamber has a contract with a company to sell ads on the web page, but the staff is on its own to develop the page itself. Part of the problem, says administrative assistant Elizabeth McDonald, is finding the time.
The Banks County Chamber of Commerce has one of the best local web pages. Each page has a photo of some landmark or event pertinent to the page. The home page lists important people and their addresses and phone numbers, plus sub-categories of things to do, lodging, calendar of events, history/historical points, community overview, government, an attractive map, other links and a means by which to e-mail the county.
The page on lodging lists all motels, campgrounds and a bed and breakfast, along with phone and fax numbers. The "things to do" section is a bit limited, but is well done. The 12-month calendar is excellent, although dominated by events at the Atlanta Dragway. The links cover Alltel, Days Inn, Gainesville College, the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism, Georgia Power, Jackson EMC, Lanier Tech, Mt. Vernon Mills, Ramada Inn, Regions Bank, Banks County High School and Tanger Factory Stores. The government page even lists meeting times and dates for the county commissioners, industrial development authority and planning commission.
BJC Medical Center's web page, still under construction, is also one of the stronger web sites for a local public agency, but with a $24 million budget, the facility should be able to afford the expertise to put together a first class web page.
The page is still under construction, and on my computer took forever to download. It lists the entire staff and provides notification of all job openings (there are plenty). Perhaps the most interesting section, "Stories," is still under construction. We can assume these will be stories from grateful patients past and present rather than humorous anecdotes about operations that went bad.
The Commerce School System web site is still under construction, according to Assistant Superintendent Dennis McWilliams. It will contain the school calendar, athletic schedules, information on standardized test scores, photos from each school, biographies of school board members and more, McWilliams promises.
Now to brag, er, report, on our own web page. The web page for MainStreet News is very comprehensive, thanks to Scott Buffington. There one can access each of the organization's four newspapers, get the most important news stories, and read the opinions, buy classified ads, check the local weather forecast and contact a host of state and federal representatives.
You will find a world of links to e-mail any of your legislators, state or national, explore their voting records, and look at more than 30 sites for statistics, opinions, news, a phone directory and even an on-line Bible.
The major shortcoming of the page is that it archives the editorials and columns. Frankly, it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to find out what my column was about Feb. 15, 1998. They might, however, want to follow the progress of construction of the Bear Creek reservoir, keep updated on zoning issues, look back over past county commission or city council meetings, or follow high-profile criminal cases. Some of those stories are available. More could be. Still, with no objectivity at all, it's a fine web page.
Overall, the use of the web page by public institutions is in its infancy. As the use of the web grows, the web pages will provide more useful information and less fluff aimed at making the institution look good. The web pages will offer important, up-to-date information about not just what the outside world might want to know, but also about what the local residents who depend on these institutions need to know. If the Weather Channel can provide continuous updates on the weather for the entire world, school boards, cities and counties can provide up-to-date information about meeting agendas, board decisions, test scores, tax matters and other issues important to the people who, ultimately, fund the web pages.
Keep checking these pages or and we'll keep you posted on how your tax dollars are being put to use on the web.

The Commerce News
July 7, 1999

Plan Now To Deal With
Delays At Reservoir

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the completion of the Bear Creek Reservoir and water treatment project is falling behind schedule. The project manager insists that it is still possible that Jackson, Barrow, Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties will get water from the reservoir and treatment plant by July 2001, but that seems like very optimistic thinking.
The chairman of the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority, which owns the project, has met with the project manager's company brass to make sure they understand the importance of this project being completed on time (and, we presume, within budget). Wendall Dawson will no doubt be just one of the authority members (Jackson County Commissioner Pat Bell will be another) who will keep the pressure on to finish the project on time.
Just the same, local government had better begin planning now to deal with any ramifications of a late finish, including making the first $1.7 million payment with limited water sales, inability to serve the Georgia Power plant under construction in Center and continued reliance on Commerce and Athens for water by the Jackson County water system.
Jackson County needs its share of the water July 1, 2001. There is no doubt of the value of the project, and a little delay will be inconvenient but by no means a disaster. Let the authority members be relentless in demanding that the work proceed on schedule, but local government should make preparations to deal with any delays.

Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
July 7, 1999

Getting Harder
To Find A Bit
Of Solitude

Fireworks from Crazy Steven's and Big Zack's in South Carolina crackled all around the little cove on Lake Hartwell, where I sat Sunday evening after sundown, casting a top-water plug. There was little need to fish, little hope of catching anything, but given a body of water that holds fish, I am compelled to cast. It's a disease.
But the boaters and skiers were off the lake, and the damnable Jet Skis were finally gone. (One day I will write about my proposal for legislation to allow shooting of riders of these craft who violate the new state 100-foot limit, but that is another column.) The waves had subsided, a few stars were out, and lights twinkled from houses and docks on the far side of the cove.
I could finally see the attraction of a house on the lake.
There's something about being near water, be it a rushing stream or a quiet pond. We were guests at an annual July Fourth afternoon, supper was over and the kids were blowing things up in the street out front.
"This would be a wonderful place, except for the weekends," I thought. Of course, most lake homes are weekend homes. They are places to go to ski, ride boats and get away from the office. They are houses built for weekend recreation, not solitude. But during the week, even on busy Lake Hartwell, solitude remains possible.
You would not have called the cove a quiet place at 9:30 Sunday night, but even so, it seemed to have a calming effect. Voices wafted over the water, the occasional bottle rocket crackled in the distance. Folks were out there, but hidden behind the trees surrounding the cove, with the vastness of the lake between us. The scene reminded me of camping on the edge of some forgotten lake in Arkansas in 1960 or in the White Mountains some years later.
It is hard to achieve solitude. It is possible, though, to achieve a sense of solitude. That is the second reason I go fishing (the first is to catch me a big un). Most of the time my little boat is the only one on the lake or pond and I get that approximation of solitude even though I can hear traffic on Interstate 85 or U.S. 441. Add a few waterfowl, a belted kingfisher, even a beaver, and a lake or pond, can give you the feeling you're in the middle of nowhere even though hundreds of people are nearby. A heavy fog increases the effect.
People who move from Atlanta into Jackson County probably think they've found solitude, while those of us who've been here a while know we're losing it to growth and development. The fields and woods that caused the county chamber to use the motto "Spacious and Gracious" at one time are disappearing. In fields where soybeans and wheat grew this year, families will live next year. Ranch-style houses are replacing deer stands in our woods.
The growth is mostly welcome because with it comes opportunity. We'll gain new friends, have more places to shop, work and play. Our kids will have more job opportunities locally, and there will be more housing choices than ever.
As for solitude, we'll have to make our own. It may be a quiet room in the house, the garden, a back patio or deck, or, for me, dawn in a farm pond. Maybe even a house on the lake.

Letter to the Editor
The Commerce News
July 7, 1999
Meeting Was An
Exercise In Democracy

When we think of July 4th, Independence Day, we always look for the many dramatic, historic events that have shaped our nation's past and as well we should. But we overlook occasions that vividly celebrate the American spirit - citizens exercising the right to vote, attending city council, county commission, various planning commission meetings and generally being informed on local issues that affect their neighbors and themselves.
We witnessed such an American occasion Monday, June 28, when over 25 local citizens of the Mount Olive Road, Ridgeway Road, Mount Olive Church Road and Ridgeway Church Road community attended the Commerce Planning Commission meeting to demonstrate interest and positive concern about the proposed "Kensington Park" subdivision PUD rezoning request. This was a very positive citizenry, who love their community, realizing without a doubt a need for more and better housing, not resisting growth and progress but only petitioning for planning, orderly and well thought out growth in consideration of all the issues.
I congratulate and give a "'thumbs up" salute to these 25-plus Commerce area citizens for assuming responsibility and exercising their basic right of assembly by attending this important government meeting. The issues relative to this rezoning request could very well set the precedent for future growth plans in the Commerce area. Issues of the number of homes in an area, home size, impact on school system and traffic flow are important and will affect us all now and in the future. The planning panel recommended to the city council approval of the zoning change. Now we expect a proper site plan. Citizen involvement and concern are certainly what Independence Day is all about. Let's all follow the example of the "Concerned 25" - be informed, attend meetings, get involved. As we move into the 21st century the quality of life and opportunity for our community will depend on citizen concern and involvement.
Jim Scott

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