For the last nine months I have been on a journey of exploration of Newton County and its residents. I set out to discover how Newton County 15 years into the 21st century differs from the rural county of my youth situated in the years just after the middle of the twentieth century. The Newton County of my earliest political awareness in 1960 had a population of just 20,000 people, most of whom had been born in Newton County.
Today the population of our county exceeds 100,000 residents, comprised in large part by people not born in Newton County. The population, traffic and school enrollment statistics paint a picture of two distinct Newton Counties — the densely populated one west of the Yellow River where minority immigrants to the county settled in medium density subdivisions developed during the boom years of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and the sparsely populated one east of the Alcovy River made up large of tracts of raw land that were in my youth operating farms and the estate lots developed in recent years from those fallow tracts. Located In between lies Covington, the commercial and institutional center of the county which is best described as a growing small town of about 13,000 residents which is experiencing something of a renaissance.
But as is almost always the case, there is much more to the story of Newton County than just the raw statistical data. Behind each of those unique little data points is a family of real people, and they, much more than the lines on a chart or last year’s election returns, hold the truth of where Newton County stands today and what its future can hold.
It was a curiosity about those people that led me to begin my metaphorical journey. And so I have visited with individuals, new and old to Newton County, attended town hall meetings in the east and the west, participated in discussion groups on specific and general issues, sought out the opinions of the elected and the electors and listened to the citizen comments at numerous government meetings in an effort to discover who these citizens of Newton County are and what are they concerned about.
I, like most of the people I talked with, have accepted the premise that there is some fundamental difference in the make-up of the two Newton Counties. What I discovered is that the premise is at best only a misperception. Almost everyone I met and heard, whether in the east or the west, shared the same values, expected the same thing from government and had the same aspirations for their children.
First and foremost, the people of Newton County, irrespective of where they were born or the size lot or house in which they reside, share the same values of family, community, country and church. Whether they congregate in the established downtown churches of Covington, the old country churches of rural Newton County or store front churches scattered across Newton County, people worship their God and share the same values of right and wrong.
They all expect government to be responsive and effective. They are all frustrated with the dysfunction, acrimony, partisanship and inaction of local government to deal with the issues they see as evident. Most believe that government has a cost, and if that cost is shared equitably and the funds for that cost expended efficiently and wisely, almost all are willing contribute in the form of taxes.
All want to be secure in their persons and property, their children to receive a quality education which trains them to compete for and perform living wage jobs, the roads they travel to be passable and safe, the air they breathe and the water they drink to be clean, the trash to be disposed of in a safe and effective manner, and, in general, for the government they fund to function.
As a life-long black citizen from Highway 162 noted in a citizen comment section on the structure of government, they want the person they vote for to be responsive and responsible, and they expect that elections have consequences. The voters expect the people they elect to serve in the job to which they are elected with the powers and obligations the job had when the people voted. They sense it is undemocratic for a board to alter the powers of the elected chairman simply because they don’t agree with the chair. In our system of government, the voters select the person for the job, and do not build the job around the person. If the occupant of the job is ineffective or makes poor political decisions, the voters will judge that official in the next election.
All the people I listened to shared very similar aspirations, which can best be summed up as their universal desire that their children and grandchildren have the opportunity for a better life than they did. They want job opportunities that offer a living wage, a sense of self accomplishment and the possibility for advancement. Almost everyone values shopping, dining and entertainment options as much as the size lot they occupy. And those amenities such as recreational facilities, a civic center and passive parks are high on their list of requirements when talking about quality of life.
Our citizens, from the east or the west, want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, starting with a neighborhood and progressing to a community and ultimately a county. Yes, we have to introduce the old timers and the immigrants and assimilate the new residents into our community. But clearly, the answer is neither to abandon west Newton County nor to build a wall around east Newton County. For in the end, I suspect we will realize, as the founders of our country did, that we can all hang together or the east and west can hang separately, but for Newton County to avoid the pitfalls which have trapped other counties that have gone through the developmental pattern we are entering, we must become one Newton County again.
— Phil Johnson