Perversions in Walker County
Take a moment to consider two situations from 2021. What is the impression with which you are left?
This post also appears on NorthwestGeorgiaNews.com and in the Walker County Messenger/Catoosa News upcoming print edition.
In the fall of 2020, there was great anticipation, celebration, and hope for a new direction for Walker County when its first board of commissioners was elected since the 1930s. Years of mistrust, mismanagement, and lack of transparency and accountability led to the change from a Sole Commissioner to shared responsibility by a board. Starting one year ago, Walker County citizens would have a voice in the destiny of the community we call home. That was the fervent hope of all. I offer two examples from last year for consideration of our experiment.
In August I learned that Shannon Whitfield, in the final months of 2020, had illegally rezoned a parcel across from Ridgeland High School, enabling a federally-subsidized apartment development to move forward despite passionate opposition from residents and a recommendation for denial from the Planning Commission. Public outcry arose that citizens were denied due process, and several newspapers and media outlets reported on the incident until the conclusion.
The county government then committed to restarting the rezoning process. In the lead-up to the two public hearings and a subsequent vote at the second hearing, county government employees and Chairman Whitfield devoted a great deal of time and energy to public engagement. While the district commissioners remained tight lipped on where they stood, not so for the chairman. Just days before the meeting of the Planning Commission for the first hearing, the county made the stunning move to organize (in coordination with the developer) a special presentation by the developer at the Civic Center to inform residents about the project. Every commissioner was in attendance, and the event was live-streamed on the official county Facebook page. Of note is the fact that citizen requests for live-streaming of government meetings, such as the Planning Commission and Development Authority, had repeatedly been denied. Following the event, Whitfield then appeared for more than an hour on UCTV's Night Talk with Judy O'Neal to promote the development and field questions from the public.
A unanimous vote by the Planning Commission rejected the rezone request, as it conflicted with the future land use map. At the final public hearing, the Board of Commissioners decided to approve the rezone request despite clear public opposition and the recommendation of the Planning Commission. With their no votes, Commissioners Blakemore and Hart defended their values of conservatism, liberty, and the rights and will of the people. Commissioners Askew and Stultz voted to approve, and Chairmen Whitfield joined them in breaking the tie. Askew and Stultz tried to provide various reasons for their vote. One reason given was an opinion from outside counsel that the county would be sued if the rezone was denied. When citizens asked to see the opinion, Chairman Whitfield’s office denied the open records request.
A silver lining to this story is the fact that the government stepped up and engaged the public better than ever before in Walker County.
During the spring of last year, the county announced the formation of a steering committee to help update the Joint Comprehensive Plan, which is the long-term vision for future growth and development of the county and its communities. The plan is not simply a guide but has real force and implications. The Planning Commission looks to the plan for guidance when considering requests. It should be a reflection of the opinions of a large and diverse group of citizens. The plan includes elements that are specific to each city and the county overall. There is a section with work programs or projects. Projects are included for each city and the county. The list of projects for the county contains more than 30 items with an estimated cost of more than $72 million. However, some projects like phase 2 of the McLemore Water Project lack an estimate.
Are you asking yourself what projects are on the list? How they were identified or what criteria had to be met for a project to be selected? If so, you are in the company of many, even members of the steering committee. Did anyone ask you about how such a staggering sum would be allocated over the next five years? If not, you are part of a great majority. Few efforts were made to engage the public in the process of drafting the comprehensive plan, and it might be argued that the lack of public engagement and government's failure to expend effort to solicit citizen input was intentional. The highlight of public outreach was an opt-in survey with no weighting or design. Posted on the county website and county Facebook page, it generated 638 responses. In a county with 70,397 residents, only .9% of opinions were considered. This comprised the public participation portion of the plan.
At this point I ask each reader of this article to set aside your personal feelings for any of the county commissioners and dispassionately and honestly compare the level of public engagement and government activity in the two scenarios. What is the impression with which you are left? Does it seem like there has been a perversion of governance in Walker County when all the instruments and tools of government can be mustered for a developer and a rezoning with near universal public opposition but barely a finger lifted to solicit opinions and encourage engagement from the public as to the vision and destiny of their community, not to mention their tax dollars?
In several columns last year (Links below), I wrote about transparency, accountability, and engagement. I was often critical of the board, but I have always offered my critiques in constructive attempts to call for the board to remember why citizens voted to change to a board in the first place. Some have complained about these critiques, but not a single commissioner or reader has refuted anything contained in them, much less proved anything to be false or even distorted. Given the lack of engagement on the comprehensive plan, this is not a surprise - especially when it is noted that the board has not held any countywide town halls or even a virtual Q&A session. Furthermore, the weekly hour for Walker County government provided by Judy O'Neal's UCTV to field calls from the public is routinely a rerun and never anyone other than Chairman Whitfield. The hour is provided as a public service by UCTV and can be seen on Comcast channel 265 and streams live on the station Facebook page Wednesday night at 8PM.
Pierce: Walker County Board of Commissioners Not Living up to Expectation
Elliot Pierce: Is there a lack of transparency in Walker County Government?
It is worth remembering in today's tumultuous times that the Declaration of Independence said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”
I place emphasis on the phrase in bold because it is the most important phrase in the declaration. The object of government is first and principally to secure the rights of the individual. Government is formed for this purpose and draws its power only from the consent of the governed. The discontent which has roiled all parts of the nation and is only increasing is, in my view, the process of citizens from both parties waking up to the failures of government at every level and taking the first steps toward withdrawing their consent.
Do you feel that the Walker County Board of Commissioners put the task of securing your rights in the top of their minds when they have expanded the size and scope of local government and ignored or evaded public engagement? Is it easier to do business or build a home in the county? Is government in Walker County limited as the founders intended and how many citizens would like? Did you know that Chairman Whitfield STILL has not presented the 2020 audit to the public or even the district commissioners? Are you aware that Walker County Water and Sewerage approved a $45 million plan with a $5 million investment from the Board of Commissioners and faces a looming court decision which could result in a judgement of more than $25 million? And finally. did you have any say in the plan for your community's future? Was your voice heard? .
These and a great many other questions are important and demand answers as part of a civil, respectful engagement with the public. Much of the discord we see and hear in civic life today is because governments and the individuals elected to represent citizens have forgotten or too long neglected the first principles at the foundation of our political system. Those in government need to re-discover them—soon, lest more citizens wake and rediscover the uniquely American act of withdrawing consent first.
**One final point must be made. The failure to solicit significant input or engage with a broad swath of the public was not in any way the fault of the staff at the the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission who were tasked by the county to update the plan. They were professional and dedicated from start to finish. Had the county government given them instruction to do more in any element of the plan or expressed a desire for a thorough update I have no doubt they would have performed the task with distinction.
Absolutely on-target. Now bears the monumental question: WHAT is it going to take to change the Commissioners and Whitfield from being a burden on the taxpayers and citizens to being SERVANTS of the people??? Will it take a prolonged verbal assault? Lawsuits? Elections? or will it take the county going bankrupt while Whitfield continues to rule the county with an iron fist like some Third World dictator???? I thought the creation of a County Commission was supposed to bring down our County Dictator form of government, yet we still appear to have a dictator at the helm and a commission that bows to his demands.
Reminds me of pre-World War II Germany and Adolf Hitler's rise to power.