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Staff Editorials

What’s in a name?

Shakespeare may have glossed over the importance of naming when he said a rose would be just as sweet regardless of what it’s called.

To which we would ask the bard, could a Peace Park be any less descriptive of what you would find there?

We have two Peace Parks in this county and neither resembles a place where hippies might hang out with strange music.

For those not familiar with our Peace Parks, the first Peace Park was the official name of that sculpture display at the north end of downtown, now a bare area but still called Peace Park. The second Peace Park is in Roper Park, created by the Rotary Club with permanent musical instruments and a peace monument, so the name makes sense – kind of, but there is surely a better descriptor?

And by better, we mean something unique and expressing a local pride in this community.

In fact, we would suggest that the powers-that-be, governments in cities and the county, planning boards, school board, citizens and civic groups put a little thought into some appropriate monikers.

For those concerned with larger trends, we don’t have anything prominent in the county named for a Confederate general, as Pickens was mostly a bystander in the Civil War. 

So this suggestion is not an attempt to rewrite history at all. In fact, it’s a suggestion to put some history on our maps – but local history.

Consider our naming shortcomings: • The courthouse on Main Street is just the courthouse.

• The overlook on Burnt Mountain is the overlook.

• The county headquarters on East Church Street, is called “the Admin building.” 

• The county detention center is just the jail, not to be confused with the earlier jail, which is now the “Old Jail.” The recycling center and public works are recycling center and public works buildings.

• Our campuses are simply the high school, middle school and Jr. high. Elementary schools at least have the place names of Hill City, Tate and Harmony.

There are a few notable exceptions. D.B. Carroll, famed coach/principal, has a street named for him – perhaps it’s time for a Don Enis or Kimsey Wood campus or gym.

Former Jasper council members CC Pritchard, Hazel Mosley and a few others have streets named in their honor but those were done in one spurt of new roads.

The Doris Wigington Park is a good example of naming, along with the Roper Park and Lee Newton Park. Surely, John Weaver’s long tenure as mayor earns him a street or building or park? Several  former law men might warrant a jail named in their honor.

Our desire to see some heritage on our buildings and streets isn’t without peril. Current events shows that poorly chosen place names can create a whole bunch of problems. We’d point to the community center, which is in Roper Park. But the community center houses the recreation department and thusly is often called the Rec. center. Officially it is named for former Commissioner Robert Jones. It was a surprise tribute to him, which he did not ask for but did get unfairly blamed for  the sign out front. 

So maybe it’s better to go forward with only people safely in the history books? Henry T. Fitzsimmons (first founder of a marble works here) and Col. Sam Tate are surprisingly not recognized anywhere with a local building or road, though Tate’s family member Steve is. 

Going on a wild naming binge would  lead to unsuitable choices. This isn’t a rush job. A good start would be to see some committees formed to look at the prospects so we don’t wind up with a third Peace Park.

Where are those audits?

In two separate cases last year our county government pledged audits of government departments. 

In the spring, in the magistrate court, the county government/ criminal investigators called for a full “forensic” audit of the court’s operation in light of financial charges against the chief magistrate. This audit has not been started, but is expected – perhaps it will still be of some value if finally done.

Regardless of how the trial of the former chief magistrate for financial crimes goes, the investigation revealed shocking examples of lax oversight of the county credit card.

When you have resort hotel stays and personal purchases show up on credit card bills there was clearly a problem, and the public has the right to know that the county has closed whatever loophole permitted that spending to go unabated for at least the past two years.

Every year the county pays for an outside audit of all their finances and gets an annual glowing report, but if month after month of irregular purchases go undetected, one questions the usefulness and integrity of the yearly checks? Those audits will be defended as not designed to look at items like credit card purchases, which leads us to question what good are they at all? We certainly won’t rely on them as any indicator of good stewardship any longer. Heck, the suspicious items - mattresses, toys, clothing - stood out like a sore thumb when an average citizen filed an open records request.

We were hoping the forensic audit promised by the county would shed some light on how the thousands in questionable purchases slipped by month after month. And we wonder whether other parts of the court operation may have been similarly pillaged?

In April, 2020 the Progress reported that a full forensic audit of the magistrate court had been ordered by the county government. At that point the county attorney said the audit had gone no where due to COVID restrictions on auditors travelling here for face-to-face interactions. Let’s hope it really is still in the works.

In August 2020 the board of commissioners announced their intention to have a basic audit of the tax commissioner’s office completed so the new head of that department (which is charged with collecting all property taxes, car tag payments and more) could get a fresh start after numerous complaints arose about his predecessor who had resigned suddenly.

An audit of what happened in the past term may seem like water under the bridge at this point, except for the fact that in December our county marshal said he would finally be able to collect past due permit fees on mobile homes. The marshal said that for much of 2019, they couldn’t go after delinquent mobile home owners as the prior tax commissioner had used a software program with so many problems that the marshal didn’t feel comfortable pursuing cases. The billing was so inaccurate that writing a citation with them “would make us all look foolish,” the marshal reported to commissioners. 

The marshal commended the current office-holder for straightening the mess out.

So, that problem is fixed, but are there others? When the board of commissioners holds a special meeting to address the situation and calls for an audit, the public rightly expects it to be carried out and released at some point – even if it is just to give an all clear.

We would suggest that our new commission chair put assessing the state of those audits high on his priority list. 

The sheriff’s office, where Commission Chair Kris Stancil came from, wanted the court audit back last year to see how widespread the problem was. Well now that Mr. Stancil is on the job, it’s high time they got it.

In both instances, the public has a right to know that problems have been corrected. The audits should proceed with haste and transparency.

Press 1 for frustration, Press 2 to abandon hope

For better and worse, the “new normal” as some people call life in the 2020s frowns upon face-to-face interaction.

On the better side, a lot of businesses have raised their game substantially at home delivery, automated ordering and seeing that you never have to leave the house. Unfortunately, this has really hampered the mom-and-pop shops that are the lifeblood of small towns. If Amazon was killing small town retail before, these uncertain times shifted the deck even more in Goliath’s favor.

But one of the worse,  most annoying, aspects of the new normal, is the rush to make all communication as impersonal as possible and the fact that it doesn’t work, especially not for anyone who wants to talk with someone.

Companies, both big and small, have jettisoned the receptionist and secretary for the infinite number of automated phone options.

Our calls are not that important if the companies don’t have anyone to answer them. Machines stink at customer service.

This has been particularly frustrating for many people seeking COVID tests/vaccinations to be met with the computer voice and no answers. But, at least the health departments have the excuse of being overwhelmed when a suddenly small staff sees almost every adult in the community calling at once.

There is no excuse for the routine companies who also force us to endure the dreaded recorded message: Press 1 for billing. Press 2 for technical support. Press 3 for a helicopter ride to Mars. (Ok that one was  made up but by the time we get to three or four we’ve already forgotten what we were calling about.)

Other recordings tell us: Please listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed (as though we had them memorized before);

Please continue to hold while we retrieve your... (and our employees sit around, drink coffee and share TikTok videos of people falling down);

Press one for billing and payments (and these seem to get answered more promptly than other calls);

And worse of them all are the systems that dictate you speak slowly, apparently with no accent, so a computer can assist you. 

And when you try to speak your request, things can get hairy. A nice-sounding lady-computer will tell you: “I’m sorry I didn’t quite get that.” Or, even worse: “Go to our website or use the mobile app to check on your request.”

While bodily-threats to a person are illegal, what about threatening well-being of a computer who can’t understand the north Georgian dialect?

In his final interview in office, Commission Chair Rob Jones said he always maintained human receptionists. He recognized it was old-fashioned, but he thought it was tax money well spent to give the public a human voice. We concur wholeheartedly.

Here at the Progress we also believe in old-fashioned phone answering. When you call here, you’ll always get a person - or you won’t get anything at all since we don’t have voicemail. It keeps things simple. And for a small business, we recognize that our bread-and-butter is our readers and advertisers and we hope they know we’ll always answer when they call. 

Our wish for days to return to a non-pandemic will be fulfilled at some point, but it doesn’t seem likely that more, especially bigger, businesses will turn again to humans to answer phones, but we can hope, after all retro is now recognized as a style. 

 

On Marjorie Taylor Greene and Freedom of Speech

By Dan Pool

Editor

Marjorie Taylor Greene, who represents the western part of Pickens County as part of her 14th District, was stripped of her committee assignments last week for statements she made (most prior to being elected) and also, of course, due to the usual political fighting in Washington.

I won’t comment on the politics, but would like to offer a few thoughts on the freedom of speech issues at play here.

People often call for protection under the First Amendment to voice whatever statement they want. And generally they have it. Go say whatever you want from the courthouse lawn; post whatever you want on your own website or in a printed pamphlet like the Founding Fathers; no one will likely stop you. 

But as Rep. Greene found out, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from any responsibility for what you say.

According to numerous online news reports, she faced backlash for her more outlandish claims on social media and in online videos including the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr. was “another of those Clinton murders.” She liked a comment calling for another member of Congress to be shot in the head. [Note: she didn’t make the statement but she gave a positive nod to someone else’s call for a bullet in the head.] In another instance she indicated that the Parkland school shooting was a planned scheme to endanger the Second Amendment.

Most bizarrely, in a Facebook post now deleted, in 2018 she stated  based on “some research I’ve done” the California wildfires may have been started by a space device controlled by a wealthy Jewish European family.

Last week, before the vote to remove her from committees, Greene backtracked, saying she regrets, “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true.” She then threw in the blanket apology, “I believe in God with all my heart, and I’m so grateful to be humbled to be reminded that I’m a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross to forgive me for my sins. And this is something that I absolutely rejoice in today to tell you all, and I think it’s important for all of us to remember none of us are perfect,” according to Rollcall.com.

Ms. Greene was certainly within her rights to voice opinions and can certainly continue to be a vocal backer of whatever she believes. The difference here is when you allege something to be a fact, the Clintons had JFK, Jr. killed, that lasers started the wildfires, you may be called to cite sources and offer proof. 

Greene was defended to some extent by congressional leader Kevin McCarthy, who said, “If this is the new standard, I look forward to continuing out the standards.”

Right on, we say. Please do. Yes, let’s continue making people responsible for what they say. 

The idea that you can put out whatever you want with total immunity from any consequence was never part of freedom of speech.

The First Amendment lets you say things that are correct, or that you have solid reasons for believing to be accurate. Outright lies, or wild conjecture have never been covered, especially when it harms something or someone.

And as they used to teach, “falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech.”

Today that might be need to be updated, “liking calls for a bullet in the head can lead to consequences.”

That Greene now regrets some of her previous statements is commendable. She still has two years on her term and she may yet turn out to be a great representative for this area.

This certainly wasn’t how she wanted to get started, but we think it sets a good lesson that many of us may need to be reminded. 

Three-to-two is no way to run a school system

Following the school board’s sacking of Superintendent Rick Townsend, not technically terminated but having his contract “modified,” there has been an outpouring of frustration against some members.

Critics want a recall, which is  more complicated than it should be and not likely to go anywhere. But the public’s anger is clear and justified. We agree completely that a change is needed but exactly what needs to change is a much harder question.

Ironically, it is this voting in and out of board members that led to the musical chairs in the school’s high-paid, top post. Starting with the first appointed superintendent, Kimsey Wood in the 1990s, through Rick Townsend now, no superintendent has worked out their full final contract for Pickens schools. That track record says a lot and it’s not good.

Lee Shiver in 2005, Carlton Wilson, 2019 and now Townsend in 2021, were either terminated or forced aside in Townsend’s case. Others have left in advance of impending board turnover. 

The last three hirings/firings show the mayhem a three-to-two board split produces. Carlton Wilson was hired in 2017 by a three-to-two vote; Wilson was fired two years later by a three-to-two margin, after the board changed. And now Townsend has fallen victim to three votes.

A change in the health or residency of just one board member and moving trucks could be needed again at the central office.

Central to the widespread frustration is the board’s silence. With no official comment, the public is left to form their own theories.

Board members will incorrectly claim they would like to discuss it further but are restricted because it’s personnel and in executive session. Hogwash, we say. 

We editorialized before, and we’ll state again, there is no gag order on any elected official because they went into executive session – First Amendment rights take precedent. There is no law restricting an elected official who wants to explain their vote on any topic. In fact, openness and transparency is encouraged. Officials may need to show some digression but explaining to your constituents what you are doing is a bedrock of a democracy.

As for personnel, once people start working for tax dollars, they forego some privacy and in this case, when the decision could cost taxpayers into the six figures, silence should not be an option.

We never heard why three members of the board wanted to oust Wilson in 2019 and now we don’t know of any reason that Townsend is seeing his employment “modified.”

This is a complete dereliction of the duty by the board members.

Anger at them appears justified. But would changing some board members resolve the revolving door or speed it up? 

A better approach is for the public to demand answers. Why were these two superintendents, both of whom have staunch supporters, relieved of their duties? Neither Wilson nor Townsend were given official negative reviews prior to the actions. There is no known blemish on their superintendent work records.

An old saying on public transparency springs to mind, “a little sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Interim-Superintendent Tony Young is by all accounts a solid choice to lead the system. He’s completely qualified, served as assistant superintendent, a graduate of the local schools and impressive universities. We urge the board (all the members) to settle on him until there is a bona fide and public reason that a change has to be made. 

We haven’t seen any evidence that the turmoil at the top affects student performance. The local graduation rate is the highest among similar systems and we do well in all statewide rankings. 

But, the turmoil is expensive. Paying people to walk away is fine for professional sports teams, not for local school systems.

It’s time for some answers from the board.