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We need to focus on leadership
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Dear editor,

The television news, local press coverage and social media dialogue of the recent months is telling in its portrayal of the culture of our county government and the way our citizens perceive their government. While only one in a series of contentious issues to confront our Board of Commissioners, the county attorney issue is perhaps the one most likely to personify the timidity of the existing local government to deal logically and decisively with the challenges it faces.

The Covington News, in an editorial on the subject some weeks back, was spot on in its conclusion. The problems surrounding the county attorney are really about the unwillingness of the Newton County Board of Commissioners to confront the challenges as they arise, analyze the issues not as personality issues but as factual situations and then make the hard decisions that the analysis demands.

Clearly there is something amiss with our legal expenditures in particular and with our procurement of professional services in general. While the focus has been directed at Tommy Craig, and Lord knows he has allowed himself to become the center of the storm and an absolute distraction on all the matters confronting the county, the issue of the county attorney and his billing practices is merely a symptom of the true problem consuming our county government. And his refusal to address his billing practices when called into question by the public and an aggressive and vociferous press has only made his fees appear more problematic.

Government is not a contest between the will of those governing and the governed, and the view that all those who oppose the actions of the elected officials “just don’t understand” is dangerous and destructive to democracy. Yet one only has to listen to the comments of some of the county officials to sense their feeling of righteous indignation that their decisions would be questioned by a frustrated public. This Board, however, is not the first to have adopted such a position in the face of citizen opposition.

And their actions are even more revealing as they seek to minimize the public discourse on the issues coming before them by doing small but telling things such as moving the public comment time to the end of the meeting. A lot of the public comments that we do hear in the Board meetings may be perceived by the commissioners as redundant, irrelevant and without much saving grace, but that is not the point. And yes we should insist that our public comments like all our communications be couched in civility. But the public comment time is a valve which allows the public anger, frustration and discord a voice to vent. To position the public comment time after the decision has been made is to suggest to the citizens that their opinion is not worthy of consideration.

Those who think that the only people voicing concern about the tremendously important issues such as the 2050 Plan, the Bear Creek Reservoir, the landfill, governmental integrity, transparency or costs of legal services are a few disgruntled radicals are simply not listening. There is enormous frustration with the methodology and lack of direction of county government which transcends political party, ideology, race, income and area of residency. I have not seen such a broad dissatisfaction with the mechanics of government in my many years of watching local government.

County officials strain and claw to keep from raising the millage rate a quarter of a mil at the expense of county employees and public safety workers who are not even making a living wage, penalizing them with furlough days and frozen pay while demanding almost no accountability of an ever increasing budget for legal representation. Worse, they refuse to seriously explore alternatives to the current hourly fee outside counsel model. When questioned they simply answer in platitudes about the knowledge and professionalism of the county attorney. Of course he is capable. That has never been in question.

The question is: Can county government seek a different model for purchasing its legal services? The answer is not to just find a cheaper county attorney. Nor does the answer have to be an ‘either/or’ decision. It could be a mixed model of an in-house, salaried attorney for routine matters, and Tommy Craig on more complex matters. I don’t know what would work best because I haven’t researched it, put it on paper and analyzed the results; but neither has the Board of Commissioners. And accountability demands they seriously engage in such an investigation and then act to institute the indicated changes now. That does not mean appoint a citizens committee and then ignore its findings. Inaction in the face of a system which is not functioning properly is not an acceptable alternative.

The problems facing our county government are difficult issues. We long ago solved most of the simple ones. Our current challenges are dynamic, far reaching and more complex than we have faced in the past. Our Board of Commissioners must move past partisan or ideological mantra, personalities, and simple ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ responses. We need to worry less about power and focus a lot more on leadership.

Phil Johnston