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No game plan
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Dear editor,
Watching the chaotic response of the county as it careens from crisis to crisis, I am reminded of a basketball coach who watches as the game appears to be slipping away as the result of a series of missed opportunities. If for nothing more than to steady the frayed nerves of his players and refocus them on their game plan, he will call a time out and gather his team around him. That is what Newton County desperately needs right now – a short time out to refocus our thoughts on our overall game plan.

The problem is Newton County has no overall game plan, and that is what we must have before we can effectively see how the disparate issues we face fit into where we want to end up. This is what is referred to as the vision, and we as a county seem to have lost whatever vision we might have had in the past leaving us to deal with challenges on an ad hoc basis without regard to the whole.

My vision for Newton County is a community with a plan for a host of different housing opportunities to meet a diverse variety of lifestyles (farms, estate lots, compact communities, townhouses and apartments), featuring a wide range of amenities, including shopping, dining, entertainment, recreational, spiritual, educational, healthcare and cultural opportunities, interconnected with safe and efficient transportation options, supported by living wage employment opportunities and governed by thoughtful, inclusive, efficient and transparent municipal and county governments.
Others may have a different vision, but we as a county should have a broad based and inclusive conversation among all of us to articulate exactly what the Newton County of our children and grandchildren will look like. Only then can we make rational decisions on the myriad of seemingly unconnected issues we face.

Someone recently challenged me that we should “think big.” The simplistic wisdom of that statement immediately grabbed my attention. We are not bound to accept the simplest solution, but as citizens of Newton County we are responsible to seek the best solution. Our mandate is not to avoid problems by kicking the can down the road or handing off the issues to those we are told are smarter than us. Our place in the history of Newton County demands we meet our challenges so that those who follow us can build upon the foundation we have laid.

No, this is not the easiest path. Yes, it requires time, hard work, thoughtful reflection and an open mind. In the end, however, the time we spend on formulating our vision, constructing a plan and then assuring that all the challenges which arise are settled in a manner consistent with that vision will be time well spent.
An example of how individual issues must be considered in the context of our vision for Newton County is the Green Hill P3 proposal to lease our Newton County landfill to a private company and enter into a generation long management contract with them to significantly expand landfill operations by importing solid waste from outside Newton County.

As I consider the possible visions which Newton County might decide upon, in none of them can I envision how a privately operated regional landfill adjacent to one of our three rivers processing tens of thousands of tons of solid waste per month from all over north Georgia trucked into our county over one of our primary arterial roads comports with any vision.

And yet we are considering such a plan. In fact, we have appointed a citizens committee to make a recommendation on that proposal. We have employed a facilitator to guide the committee through the review of the Green Hill proposal, but we have not employed technical resources to advise them. All the while the community is being torn asunder and the Board’s reputation tarnished as this subject lingers on.

This is an opportune time for the Board of Commissioners to call that time out. Gather the district commissioners and the citizens committee in a circle and poll the participants to determine if they all agree that this specific Green Hill P3 plan is not consistent with any vision we might have for Newton County.

Get this toxic and divisive issue off the table so that other options for dealing with our solid waste collection and disposal challenge can be considered. There is far more productive work the citizens committee could be performing than reviewing the Green Hill P3 proposal. County-wide curbside pickup, user fees, incentivized recycling or perhaps some combination of those would put a band aid on the issue while “bigger” more permanent solutions are explored including new technologies for solid waste disposal or a new county management model.

For the last year the County has been bombarded with one contentious issue after another and none have been finally resolved – only postponed. A level of distrust of local government exists today like none I have witnessed in over forty years of watching local politics. Our county government is widely viewed as ineffectual, unresponsive and non-transparent. It is as though a siege mentality has infected part of our Board and they have circled the wagons.

It is unjust to blame all of the problems we face today in county government on this Board or this Chairman. We have elected a series of county administrations which have ignored the gathering storm clouds of coming problems or postponed facing them until the next administration. Today these long delayed challenges are upon us.

Rather than staggering from crisis to crisis, the Board would be well advised to call a time out, gather its composure and get on a road together to articulate a vision for Newton County and in the context of that vision begin to work on the challenges it faces. A good place to start would be to act decisively and quickly to take the Green Hill P3 proposal off the table and pursue a more fruitful path to dealing with our solid waste challenges.

Phil Johnson