Many if not most political observers these days fall into one of two camps: either cynics who by definition believe all people — meaning elected officials — are motivated by selfishness, or skeptics, those who by instinct doubt or question or disagree with generally accepted conclusions, per the American Heritage Dictionary. They distrust government at all levels, as polls regularly show. Voters’ lack of trust in elected officials was cited as one reason last summer’s transportation SPLOST failed in all but two specially created districts, including our own.
One local political observer who is neither a cynic nor a skeptic is Noel Smith, a wiry and gray-bearded denizen of Covington, who doesn’t miss a meeting of either the city council or the Newton County Board of Commissioners. Well, make that at least 90 percent of the meetings, he tallies. Smith is like the U.S. Mail: neither rain nor sleet nor snow keeps him from his appointed rounds. Month in, month out, year in, year out, for a number of years, Smith has been in his regular seat whenever the gavel comes down to open or to close a meeting. He wishes more people would do the same. "The public is sadly misinformed about what goes on in local government," he said, and too easily they believe the hearsay over the facts. "Quite often, I’m in a position to rebut what they’re saying because I was at a particular meeting," but it doesn’t seem to matter to some people. For all that he’s observed, Smith describes himself as an optimist and a nonpartisan, uninterested in taking sides on issues.
He firmly believes something Bill Clinton once said:
"There’s nothing wrong with America that what’s right with America can’t fix." Smith — genuinely, it appears — believes that the people we elect to office have the public’s good at heart and aren’t out to enrich themselves. "I’m not there to criticize, but just to watch the process," he said. "Most people believe all politicians are crooked, but that’s just not so. Another thing the public doesn’t get is that it takes a lot of work to serve in elected office. There’s lots that goes on outside of the regular meetings, and the public doesn’t seem to appreciate that."
Smith retired to Newton County some 22 years ago after 31 years at Southern Railway. He was looking for a calmer, quieter lifestyle and found it here. He enjoys camaraderie and shared meals at Smiley’s often with current and local officials from Sheriff Ezell Brown to retired commissioner Mort Ewing, who was the first to encourage Smith to attend meetings regularly to become better informed about local government. He wants to be clear about one thing: "I’ve never asked for any special treatment for myself. I just enjoy my candid conversations with people in office."
If there’s another local government groupie in town, it would be the always lovely Louise Strickland, who with husband Charles, an attorney, was a Republican in Newton County long before longtime Democrats switched to the Republican Party and being so became "cool." Along with Smith, Strickland shows up for every council and commission meeting on the schedule.
"I just want to know what’s going on and to get it straight from the source," she said. "People ask me why I attend the city council meetings when they are shown on the local cable but I tell them it’s because I want to see the demeanor in a discussion or when there’s a vote." She’s been a fixture at local government meetings "for as long as I can remember."
Although firmly in the Republican camp, Strickland says "some of my best friends are Democrats." She tries to see both sides of issues that come before the two bodies. "Of course, I can’t see behind the scenes, and I know a lot goes on that I don’t have knowledge of." In contrast to Smith, Strickland often sees what she calls "personal agendas" at play during deliberations.
Still, she wonders "why more people don’t attend the meetings" of local government. Like Smith, she often finds herself in a position to rebut misconceptions among people she’s in conversation with because she was there when a certain vote was taken, and she also finds people are too ready to believe the gossip over the facts. Polls actually show that to be true of a growing number of Americans. Facts can inconveniently get in the way of a good rant or rage, and few of us — clearly — put in the time and commitment of people like Strickland and Smith, trying to get the story at the source. They deserve an A+ in civics, don’t you think?
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. *Note: Her new email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.