COVINGTON, Ga. - Just over a year ago, 367 days to be exact, Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes made history when he became the first African-American to be sworn in to the post. His historic election and his efforts to move the county forward during his first year on the job have combined make him The Covington News’ inaugural Newsmaker of the Year.
“The first year has been an amazing year,” he said. “A lot of things have happened. A lot of progress has been made.
“It’s been everything I thought it would be.”
Sitting in his office overlooking the square in Newton County’s Historic Courthouse two weeks before Christmas, Banes said he had one immediate priority upon taking office.
“When I first came in, I had one main task I was trying to achieve. That was to bring unity to the board. I knew if I could get unity on the board, we could get some things done,” he said.
“I think we have a great board. Every commissioner brings their own unique identity to the board and because of that we have a great board. What you see in public is kind of what you see behind closed doors in our executive sessions. They get together and they talk it out.
“Fussing and fighting, that’s something that has not happened and I’m thankful for that. I guess that’s one way to stay off the news and stay out of the paper. I’m excited about this board that we have.”
“If I sit here and spend all my time trying to pick through the things the past administration did, then I won’t be a successful chairman and we won’t be a successful board. In order for us to be successful or gain success, we must make our own road and we must try to move Newton County forward the best way we possibly can."Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes
Banes cites the number of 5-0 board decisions as evidence commissioners are working together toward moving the county forward. That and the fact that he hasn’t had to use his veto power over any legislation passed in 2017. The county’s form of government that took effect Jan. 1 gives him that authority.
“It’s very important. That shows the level of togetherness the board has reached,” he said. “You’re never going to get everybody to agree all the time, 100 percent. Everybody has got their own philosophies. But I’ve never had to use the veto.
“The board gets together, they put their heads together and come up with ideas and come up with decisions.”
When they took office in January, one of many daunting issues facing commissioners was a $40 million lawsuit over a proposed regional landfill in the county. Banes said settling the lawsuit was important for the county and its citizens.
“It’s behind us now, but when we came into office, it was kind of a hot topic, the lawsuit, a $40 million lawsuit that was settled for $10 million,” he said. ”The fact that we’ll never have a regional landfill in Newton County, I think, is great for the citizens. It’s not only great for the citizens, but great for our infrastructure- our roads won’t have to take the beating that big trucks often bring.”
Another issue roiling the county a year ago was the forensic accounting analysis of county finances conducted by the accounting firm Frazier & Deeter.
The analysis concluded “a series of actions were taken by individuals in various different positions within Newton County government which caused financial harm and damage to the taxpayers of Newton County, Georgia.”
The results of the analysis are still a point of contention for some in the county who believe criminal charges are appropriate for some of those involved and that restitution should be made to taxpayers.
Banes said the audit has been turned over to the proper authorities.
“The forensic audit, from my understanding, the investigation has been done on it and it’s been turned over to the proper people,” he said. “I support whatever comes out of it.
“If charges are filed, I support it. If they are not filed, I support that. The proper steps have already been taken and I support whatever happens from those steps.”
He continued, “But you know, I just want to say it’s a new time, it’s a new season. If we continue to live in the past, we’ll never move forward.
“If I sit here and spend all my time trying to pick through the things the past administration did, then I won’t be a successful chairman and we won’t be a successful board. In order for us to be successful or gain success, we must make our own road and we must try to move Newton County forward the best way we possibly can.
“There are a lot of things that happened in the past. I read the paper just like everybody else,” he said. ”If something is pushed across my desk and it says ‘we need to do this,’ I’ll do it. But from my understanding, everything that has been done has been turned over to the proper authorities so we’ll wait to see what happens.”
Banes said policy changes will ensure that irregularities of the past will not be repeated.
He is proud that the county was able to continue to have emergency medical services without paying Piedmont Newton Hospital a $1.2 million subsidy.
“I’m proud that we were able to save the county a tremendous amount of money with EMS. The county doesn’t have to give the subsidy to EMS anymore, so that’s $1.2 million we don’t have to spend. I know the citizens will be happy about that. We’re saving money and they’re still getting care.”
Banes’ leadership was tested over the summer when the debate about what to do with Confederate monuments affecting the rest of the South came to Newton County.
The issue of the statue on the Covington square honoring Newton County’s Civil War dead has been raised at almost every meeting for two months by a citizen during the public comments portion of commission meetings. In August, that same citizen called for commissioners to place a vote on removing the monument on their agenda.
That call came just over 72 hours after violent protests over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one woman dead. As more citizens spoke both for and against the statue, the debate became contentious.
That night, as Banes explained the process for getting something on a BOC agenda he said, “I want everybody to really understand this. Ever since this has been going on, I want to tell you what the chairman does. I get up and I come over here and walk around the square and pray.
“Newton County is not going to be place where blacks and whites are against each other. It’s just not.
“We’re not going to divide this county. We’re not going to divide this community,” he said. “This is not Virginia. It’s not. And it’s not going to be Virginia. I don’t care who likes it or don’t like it, it’s not going to be Virginia.”
Four months later, Banes remains committed to holding the county together
“I’m going to do everything I can to keep the community together,” he said. “I think that’s the reason I was elected – to lead the community and keep this community together. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to not let this community get divided. I’m going to keep praying around the square.”
Banes said he thinks the county will be dealing with the issue of the statue in the New Year.
“I think it’s an issue that seems like it’s going to be plaguing our county for 2018. But I’m going to stand in unity with the commissioners, whatever they decide to do. Like I stated before, if I get three votes to put it on the agenda, I’m going to put it on the agenda. If I get three votes not to put it on the agenda, then I won’t.
“But I’m going to let the commissioners lead the way with that. I think the chairman’s office should stay neutral and hear both sides. When one side seems to speak louder with three votes, then I’ll listen and I’ll act on it. But I’m going to do everything I can to keep the community together. And I’m going to keep praying because it seems to be working.”
When The News interviewed Banes in February for the special “Faces of Newton” publication, he talked about building or rebuilding relationships with other county leaders. He says now those relationships are strong.
“When I came into office, I didn’t really know which relationships were damaged. I just started meeting people. I heard a lot of stories about a lot of things that had happened in the course of meeting different people.
”I think the relationship- building part has been great. We have a great working relationship with the mayors - the mayor of Covington, the mayors of Porterdale, Oxford, Newborn and Mansfield.
“Once a month, I meet with the mayors at Newton County Tomorrow. We have a great working relationship. And we’ve built a friendship, not only a working relationship, but we’ve been able to build a friendship.”
Banes talked about building relationships with other county leaders.
“Not only the mayors, but leaders throughout the community. It’s been great. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.
“I truly believe that the only way a county can be successful is that the make-up of the county is successful. That’s different cities in the county, as well as the school system. It’s been good so far.
“We’ve got a lot of reaching out to do to build other relationships with the business leaders in the community.”
Banes first year has also been marked by the county’s efforts to partner with the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce and other organizations to help citizens as they work to get better qualified for some of the many career opportunities available in Newton County.
One such initiative was partnering with the chamber, the Newton County School System and the City of Covington among others for the LEAP (Logistics Education and Pathways) Newton pilot Program through Georgia Tech that trained citizens in Newton, Walton, Rockdale, Jasper, DeKalb and Morgan counties for careers in supply chain management.
“These are things that seem important to me,” he said. “Even at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. We’ve been able to establish a relationship with them and it’s working well. They’ve got new programs over there and the county supports them, the cities support them. It’s been good.
“Like I said, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Banes also talked about efforts to improve morale among county workers. Among the initiatives was recognizing the county’s “Department of the Month” at commission meetings and holding an employee recognition ceremony honoring county employees for their years of service.
“The morale of the employees is great. I go into different offices and people are loving their jobs,” he said. “They’re glad to be here. Employees are smiling and laughing with each other. It’s a fun place to be.”
Late in the interview, The News asked Banes if there had been any downside or disappointments during his first year.
“I don’t think we had any controversy, or anything like that,” he said. “I will tell you this, I’m not the type of person who addresses things in the paper. That’s a little outside of my character.
“I will say that we do have issues that we must address. We’ve got to make sure we keep the county first in everything we do. We want to make sure we keep the county’s name in good standing. But we do have issues that we must address, that will be addressed in 2018.
As his first year on the job draws to a close Banes said he’s glad he ran.
“I’m glad I was encouraged to run. I’m glad the citizens got out and voted and supported me.
“Now, I want to focus on making sure we lead Newton County in the right direction for the future.”