The best advice longtime local attorney Don Ballard ever got came from an unusual source, and he's never veered from it. It became his personal, professional and political mantra that he follows to this day. Back in 1952, Ballard set up his law practice in partnership with the late Col. C. C. King in downtown Covington. Col. King was the father of beloved local historian, Charles C. "Charlie" King Jr., now 97.
Not long afterwards, Ballard won a seat in the state House of Representatives, in a district that included Newton, Rockdale, Morgan, Jasper and Putnam Counties. "I had been there only a couple of years, maybe, when Charlie's wife Sallie took me aside. She told me it looked like I was up there just trying to make everybody happy. She said that's not the way to get things done. ‘You've got to just tell the truth and go do what you think is best, not keep trying to please everybody,' she told me. And that's what I've tried to do since then, always tell the truth," Ballard says.
It was Ballard who authored legislation that created five district seats on both the Newton County Board of Education and Board of Commissioners.
Previously, the school superintendent was an elected position, and the county elected a sole commissioner responsible for roads, bridges and tax collections. In truth, Ballard recounts, the county was effectively "run" for some 40 years before then by County Clerk of Courts Otis Nixon, now long deceased. "The people just wanted more say in how the county and the schools, in particular, were being run, not to say the people in charge
weren't doing a good job," Ballard says.
"We got some good commissioners and some good board of education members from the beginning, and things got done," he recalls. "Everybody was working for the good of the county. Nobody had any personal agendas, and we made progress. We had good leaders, and we got used to trusting them to take care of the county's business."
Now the truth-teller in Ballard makes him question how well some of the current district commissioners are serving the interests of the county at-large. "I don't like cliques and clique-voting, and there's been too much of that going on," he says. "Three-member decisions seem to be made before they (the five district commissioners) ever show up for a meeting, and it makes me wonder where the power's really coming from."
The old truth-teller in Ballard continues: "The only thing that's going to change things is the people of this county. Until the people want something different, nothing's going to change. We've gotten to be very complacent, and that's not a good thing." Neither is the apparent personal animosity that seems to permeate the workings of local government, Ballard believes. "I just don't understand it. Used to be if you had a disagreement with somebody, you'd go discuss it one-to-one and try to resolve it before anything was said in public. You just didn't attack somebody in public without first trying to resolve the issue personally."
A fearless Ballard once faced down then-governor Jimmy Carter over the bill that created the Newton/Walton judicial circuit from parts of the West Walton and Stone Mountain circuits. "He was re-organizing state government. I agreed with him about the Department of Human Resources, but I disagreed with what he wanted to do with the Department of Education, so I voted against it. I got word that Carter was holding the (Newton/Walton judicial circuit) bill because of that, and soon I got a call to come meet with him. He wanted his bill to be reconsidered, but I told him how I felt, and then he told me his side. We agreed to disagree, and then he pulled my bill out of a stack of bills and signed it on the spot."
Ballard served in the House of Representatives, then the State Senate under seven governors beginning with Marvin Griffin and "waged war" often with the famously autocratic Speaker of the House Tom Murphy.
The infamous Lester Maddox "had a finger in everything that went on," while the more elegant Carl Sanders was an easy-going governor "who didn't stir up a whole lot but he ran a tight ship and made sure he took care of his friends."
Ballard left office in 1982 when he decided it wasn't "fun," anymore. "It used to be you could get things done and still have some fun and enjoy the process," he recalls. That's not true today, he believes, saying partisan politics has a sometimes-negative impact on good government that serves the needs of all the people, not special interests.
"The county would be better served by non-partisan elections like the school board and city councils. That doesn't mean there wouldn't be districts. I believe we're coming to that, but it's always up to the people."
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.