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Marcello Banes, Harold Cooper present awards at State of the County
state of county 1
Chairman Marcello Banes, Chairman's Medal winner Pastor Clara Lett and county manager Harold Cooper. - photo by Phillip B. Hubbard

In the latter portion of Tuesday’s State of the County program, awards were presented to local individuals inside the Porter Performing Arts Center. Award presentations were led by Newton County Board of Commissioners chairman Marcello Banes and county manager Harold Cooper. 

The top honor of the day — the Chairman’s Medal — was given to Pastor Clara Lett.

Lett was “overwhelmed” and “thankful” with receiving this recognition. 

“I’m gonna make a statement, as always I’ve stated many times. This is my county, I love my county and I will never bring shame to my county. I thank this community for the support of all of those the ministry, the shelter, those that have found themselves without housing,” Lett said. “I praise God for you that you take your time and just a phone call and all the prayers that I don’t even know who prayed but I know they did pray. Where we are still yet standing after 25 years of the homeless shelter. I wanna thank Chairman Banes and I want to thank the manager Cooper and all of you… Sheriff Brown… all of you that have supported… the commissioners that have supported and the city of Covington there are those who have the heart for a homeless ministry. 

“I don’t know nothing else to do but serve. Thank you.”

Laura Bertram was announced as the Community Partner award recipient by Banes, too. 

“We want to recognize someone who don’t never stop,” Banes said. “They’re like the Energizer Bunny — they go and they go and they go.”

Upon the award presentation, Bertram shared what the honor meant to her. 

“I’m honored, but I need to say that it’s really not me. Chairman Banes was the first strategic planner who actually invited people who really care about the voice of the people who are often not heard,” Bertram said. “And that includes Pastor Lett, Housing Authority, all sorts of people. And because of that, you know about the work that’s being done in Newton County and we’re just honored to be part with you.”

The Volunteer of the Year award was given by Banes to Chandra Tuggle Mitchell and Felicia Tuggle Harris.

Banes highlighted this as a “special award.”

“We’re going to give this award to those who volunteer their time all the time. They don’t get paid for it, they just…whatever event is announced, they show up at,” Banes said. “And they don’t come by themselves, they come as a team.”

Harris was overcome with emotion when her and Mitchell’s names were announced. 

“I’m never speechless, but today I am very speechless. It’s not about Shaundra and I, it’s about God’s grace,” Harris said. “I thank my parents for instilling what they have instilled in both of us. 

“Again, I say thank you to Newton County. Yes, what we do is because God has shown his grace upon us and we thank you and we will continue to do for Newton County and may God bless each of you. Thank you so much.”

Prior to Banes’ presentation of awards, Cooper recognized five individuals with Unsung Hero awards. 

First, the Administrative Services Workforce Unsung Hero award was given to James Chad McKenzie. 

McKenzie, who has worked with Newton County for 23 years, was labeled as a “Swiss Army Knife in his unit” by the county manager. 

Less than a month after his retirement from the county, Doug Kitchens was awarded the 2024 Unsung Hero award in Government Relations. Kitchens began his career with Newton County in 1981. 

“I’ve been here 10 months and he’s always greeted me with a smile and kind words,” Cooper said.

Next was the 2024 Human Services Workforce Unsung Hero award that went to Angela Mantle. 

“She is meticulous about her work and she’s always trying to assist others,” Cooper said. “There’s never a bad day for her. You can ask her to do anything and she’ll step up to the cause.”

The 2024 Infrastructure Unsung Hero award was presented to Ariel Arredondo. He has been with Newton County for 17 years and, in January 2024, was awarded the 2023 Solid Waste Worker of the Year for Landfill Operations by the Georgia Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America. 

Cooper remarked on what makes Arredondo stand out. 

“If you’ve ever met this gentleman, he, too, is a pleasant, pleasant individual. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad day,” Cooper said. “And he’s constantly, constantly on the grind when it comes to solid waste.” 

Lastly, James Franklin was the recipient of the 2024 Public Safety Unsung Hero award. Franklin has been with Newton County since 2003. 

Cooper highlighted Franklin’s impact on the local community.

“He has touched over 18,000 community members’ lives by way of fire service education and prevention,” Cooper said. “He also has the patience of Job, because I’ve seen him in action at Porterdale, I believe, Elementary School. And he had about 28 elementary school students all around him as he tried to educate them about fire safety.”