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Posted: June 28, 2012 9:07 p.m.

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Mansfield women on a mission

"Do not ask the Lord to guide your footsteps if you're not willing to move your feet." These sage and thought-provoking words are part of the mission statement of the Mansfield Women's Club. Three women - Teri Skelton, Veronica Sandberg and Rhonda Frix - formed the group in January intent on charitable service and making a difference in a sleepy little town where time appears frozen. In the way that history is chronicled in a small town, they're all relative newcomers to their Mansfield addresses, say 12-15 years or so.

Now the group is up to 15 members, including some lifelong Mansfield residents, and they're working to forge consensus on a work plan. Early on, the women devoted their efforts to assisting a family dealing with cancer and another whose home had burned down. Some are interested in downtown beautification, including enforcement of ordinances; some want to help the elderly with home repairs; some see the purpose as getting more people involved in community-building projects, for example, a fall festival. Some ideas have gotten almost predictable pushback from a few officeholders who like things just as they are and appear to fear challenge or changed to the way things have always been done. Mansfield isn't the only place where it happens.

The little town was incorporated in 1903, covers 1.1 square miles and has a woman mayor Estona Middlebrooks and a population of 371, virtually unchanged since the 2000 census. It calls itself "Newton County's Front Porch," and its vision statement on the town's website says its goal is "to remain a rural community with an increased tree canopy while preserving and rehabilitating its Central Business District and maintaining existing residential development patterns that define the community." Its best days were when cotton was king. Its long-time and most community-minded business is Beaver Manufacturing Company that earlier this year donated almost 14 acres within the city limits for "green space, trails, education and enjoyment."

As a 15-year resident of Mansfield and a stay-at-home mom with two daughters, Teri Skelton is president of the Mansfield Women's Club and one of the town's biggest fans. "I want Mansfield to put its best foot forward and for everyone who drives into town to think it's pretty and well cared for," she said. "We've got a great school, and I just love my neighbors."

It was the Skeltons' neighbor Todd Hilton, pastor at Mansfield United Methodist Church, who suggested that the club host a candidates' forum for Newton County sheriff and District 1 commission candidates that took place Tuesday evening at the local community center. Skelton was gratified at the turnout of about 50 interested citizens, and club members set a festive table of refreshments. The candidates were given time to introduce themselves and their platforms, then took questions submitted by the audience. It was an auspicious public debut for women with charity and goodwill in their hearts, qualities not often seen in politics these days.

District 1 commission candidates John Strauss and John Douglas will face off in the Republican primary, with sheriff candidates Phillip Bradford and Bill Watterston also opposing each other in that primary. Sheriff Ezell Brown has no Democratic primary opposition. The tenor of the evening was calm and respectful. The candidates in both races appeared to have done their research and put forth fairly succinct statements from their platforms.

The District 1 commission race pits Douglas, a practiced politician who's spent 30 years in public service in one position or another, against political newcomer John Strauss Jr., son of Newton County's first District Attorney, the esteemed John Strauss, now deceased. They both oppose plans for Mort Ewing's Ag center, Douglas saying it should be a private investment and Strauss saying "not at this time." Their opinions diverge on the T-SPLOST vote. In the state senate, Douglas voted for the bill establishing the measure but now will vote against it. Strauss calls the T-SPLOST project list in Newton County essential, a moneymaker for the county and a job creator for Northeast Georgia.

Sheriff Brown outs his 39 years of continuous service in the sheriff's department, 31 as a supervisor. He created a Crime Suppression Unit that works in the community to dislodge criminal conduct at the source. Responsible for the jail, Brown put in place a program whose goal is to prepare offenders for a positive return to society. Watterston, an accredited arson inspector, wants more fiscal responsibility at the sheriff's department and more deputies on patrol. Bradford is blunt in saying the drug problem will never be totally cured in Newton County, but with some experience investigating and prosecuting federal drug cases with the Drug Enforcement Agency, he wants to make sure drug dealers have a hard time doing business in Newton County.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.


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