A situation vexing Newton County citizens for years erupted on metro Atlanta airwaves this week when television station 11 Alive aired stories of an ongoing investigation into payments made to county attorney Tommy Craig. Unanimously reappointed this month by the Board of Commissioners amid a public outcry of opposition, Craig was paid a reported $1.1 million by the county in 2014. He was also the center of much controversy last year when citizens questioned the reported $21.6 million spent to date on a reservoir project championed and managed by Craig. Still not permitted by the state, the reservoir may not be needed at all, according to a 2009 consultant’s report that Craig never disclosed to commissioners. Then, there’s also the matter of millions of dollars of federal tax liens against him.
As a Newton County resident since 2005, I’ve been among those questioning Craig’s annual reappointment, the extreme amounts of money paid each year, and the considerable degree to which the Chairman and Board of Commissioners have repeatedly deferred to the County Attorney’s office on basic matters of governance that really are not legal affairs. Until recently, that sentiment had nothing to do with qualifications or integrity; it’s simply my belief no one should remain in an appointed position with a local government for a lifetime. His most recent reappointment marks the start of Craig’s 39th year as county attorney.
That this situation had to be aired by an investigative report on a local TV station is unfortunate. It reflects badly on a county where many good people work hard every day to make great things happen. But, the system of government has failed us, and those who should represent the interests of the public are not doing so.
But, more is wrong than that. And, we the people must learn some lessons as well.
As promos for the 11 Alive story hit social media on Wednesday, the common first response from locals was “Huh!? What’s going on?” Eventually they asked, “How did this happen?” Then, at some point, dialog turned to the familiar blanket condemnation of government as the root of all evil.
And, there’s the problem.
Our prevailing attitude towards local government and community affairs is indifference and blissful ignorance. I’m not condemning anyone for that. It’s a natural response in a busy world with careers to build, bills to pay, children to raise, and parents to care for. Since moving to the county seat of Covington in 2005, my wife and I have been very involved. In a small town where participation is easy, we went from attending public meetings and serving on non-profit boards to my wife being elected to a four-year term as Mayor from 2008-2011. With our new-found engagement and awareness, we grew frustrated with those who remained on the sidelines — unaware and uninvolved. But, we also have to be honest. In 22 previous years of marriage, we lived all over in six different communities – never once getting involved in civic matters. It’s just that we had our awakening in our mid 40s in this particular town, and we sure could have used the help to get more done.
Unfortunately, when events like the Tommy Craig situation jolt citizens awake, the next attitude is the opposite extreme. If government fails us in situations like these, then government must always be evil. And, all elected officials must be crooks. We chalk it up to that, which is a convenient alibi for earlier indifference. It’s our shrugging shoulders, upturned palms excuse for not becoming engaged. “Whatcha gonna do?”
But, when the public paints all public servants with the broad brush of corruption or ineptitude, those citizens abdicate a vital role. Neither disinterest nor disdain will make a difference. What’s missing is discretion.
Five commissioners voted to reappoint Craig two weeks ago. And, that’s a serious problem. But, if the only backlash is to “vote all the bums out,” then nothing will be gained. Discretion is choosing wisely. It’s taking the time to get engaged and educated enough to really answer that question of “how did this happen?” It’s putting forth the effort to get to know the people representing you, the issues they’re confronting, and the tough choices to be made. It’s forming your own view – but with an informed grasp of the real issues. It’s finding those in elected office who truly are striving to serve the public and asking them “how can I help?”
Apathy or anger, neither serves us well. It takes more work than that.
And, another thing: partisan politics doesn’t help. Too often, those who do engage distinguish heroes and villains or find the “right” side of the issue by blindly following the party line. We care about the things that make the other side look bad.
It’s intriguing and encouraging to see the voices speaking out for change in Newton County cut across the political spectrum. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have found a common cause. Among the groups most vocal now are the Newton Conservative Liberty Alliance and the Newton County Republican Party. I’m an avowed Independent and consider myself a moderate, but that puts me left of center in this county and certainly with the groups above. Yet, on this current situation, we share common principles, and I’m very grateful for their efforts. I’ve seen passionate Democrats and Republicans working together to bring this issue to light, and that gives me hope for better days.
This is a story about Newton County, but it’s a pattern often repeated. Where ever you live, there are those working diligently to build a better community. They need you to care, and they need you to believe you can make a difference. To make that difference, you’re going to have to go deeper than the surface to understand the issues and to really get to know the people. You’re going to find yourself working with “strange bedfellows” as they say. And, that’s a good thing.
Whatcha gonna do?
Image: Newton County Courthouse Covington, Ga by J. Stephen Conn via flickr and used a Creative Commons license.