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Staff Editorials

Get involved with local government to help shape future of county

Normally we use this space to criticize or encourage governments to take action or simply point out a problem.

This week we are turning our view towards the public, where the public is failing government.

Simply put, too few people take time to get involved until something is at a crisis level – as in the ongoing school board fiasco, regular zoning issues, event venue turmoil, or when tax bills come out.

The public is unengaged when it’s regular business at the county admin building, city halls, or the school board.

When there is controversy, people express strong opinion on the smallest minute detail of what a governing authority may legally do, show keen interest in how property value is assessed or budgets are made, and offer expert commentary on how SPLOST dollars may be spent.

But when it’s time to serve on a board or offer public input on a comprehensive plan or volunteer for an event there’s an eerie silence.

Our recently-elected commission chair has discussed opening the door to more public involvement by creating a standard application for citizens to throw their names into the pool of interested parties for committee/authority assignments.

Several counties already do this blanket call, where any citizen can offer their credentials and signal a willingness to serve. If the county government follows through, it will be a great step of drawing more people into the public arena, and, at the least, demonstrate a willingness to see some fresh blood circulating in the different committees here.

And that expansive attitude is needed. Most committees, such as board of tax assessors, planning commission, and development authority have the same handful of people they have had for years.

The Jasper City Council’s committees are mostly just their council members. 

The schools, through parent groups, do somewhat better.

Anyone thinking the members of the various authorities use their connections to maintain power and will fight to hold their positions is in for a surprise. More often than not, these different commission members/volunteers keep their posts because no one else has stepped up. Many grudgingly agree to continue serving as there is no replacement when their term expires.

It’s hard for the average citizen to know what committee seats up are up for appointment and how to let someone know you are interested. With a standard application, that we hope county government will have available soon, that changes. The question then becomes will anyone apply?

To borrow/change a famous saying, “Ask not what your county can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.”

One quick starting point for getting involved is the commissioners are pushing their meeting time back from 5:30 to 6 p.m. to accommodate working folks. From covering meetings over the past decades and administrations, we will attest few members of the public turn out for routine meetings, regardless of the time it is held. 

As we wrote in an earlier editorial, 32,000 heads are better than the same handful of people who serve on all the committees and who also show up frequently as volunteers with the non-profits. 

With a growing population, it’s time to see some new faces and some new opportunities to get these people involved in local government.

Let’s trust in the vaccine

The COVID 19 vaccine certainly did come quickly, but don't mistake that for reckless haste. Consider it an example of what teamwork between science and government can do to meet a clearly defined goal. The ridiculous amounts of funding thrown at the problem didn't hurt either. 

Throngs of people showed up Monday morning to receive some of the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for specified groups among the general public available in Pickens County.

As the number of cases here continue their skyrocket and deaths stand at 18, the vaccine couldn’t come fast enough. Since the Georgia Department of Public Health began keeping records last year, across our state there have been 648,694 confirmed cases, 45,177 hospitalizations, and 10,444 confirmed deaths. In Pickens, there have been 1,795 confirmed cases among our 32,000 residents. There have been 20 deaths here and 123 hospitalizations. In the U.S. there have been 22.7 million cases and more than 376,000 deaths.

Thanks in a large part due to heavy funding for research, two COVID-19 vaccines have cleared the Food and Drug Administration and are making their way to the most vulnerable citizens. The vaccines, one developed by Pfizer and another by Moderna, have been found to be more than 94 percent effective. Of course, misinformation can rear its ugly head, sowing seeds of doubt based on something someone heard on YouTube and passed along with the same credence of legitimate studies.

Thoughtful, critical thinking about what we put into our bodies is always encouraged but don’t let rumors and misinformation deter you. It is ironic that people who will consume packaged foods all day long without ever questioning the safety of meat-packing plants are now suddenly acting like zealous vegans over what they put into their bodies. If McDonalds can deliver 1 billion hamburgers a day safely, surely Big pharma can deliver the goods safely when they are on center stage.

Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and author of the book Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start and Why They Don't Go Away, says we should not be worried about the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. According to Larson says there are many steps on the process of development and large amounts of funding made the COVID-19 vaccine possible to start quicker. “We’ve shortened some of the administrative processes,” she told NPR in a recent interview. “We have new technologies, but the steps involving safety have not been shortened. They have not been compromised. And no vaccine will be delivered to the public before it really has enough confidence. And most importantly on the safety, no company wants a bad vaccine. No government wants a bad vaccine. No individual wants a bad vaccine. It’s not in anyone’s interest.”

Medicine has advance by leaps and bounds in the centuries since English doctor Edward Jenner in 1796 was credited for the world’s first vaccine for smallpox when he used material from cowpox pustules to provide protection against smallpox (his subjects were a milkmaid and his gardener’s 9-year-old son). Smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people before Jenner’s discovery. Louise Pasteur’s 1885 rabies vaccine was the next to make an impact on human disease. Vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, and more were developed through the 1930s, according to History of Vaccines.

Somehow it seems safer for us to get a recently-developed vaccine from two of the foremost pharmaceutical companies in the most advanced country in the world than the chances a gardeners’s son and the milkmaid took back in 1796.

Human beings have benefitted from vaccines for more than 200 years. Let’s trust in them now.

Looking backwards and forwards

Janus, the Roman god for which January is named, is called the two-faced god, but not in the false sense. Janus was known for looking both forwards and backwards which is what we try to do every year at this time.

Looking back at 2020
The past year was dominated by a pandemic, so judging the progress or lack thereof in Pickens County must come with a footnote that applies to the whole world – regular plans saw little attention. A year ago, we had several issues we were championing: We encouraged the county to put to good use their $3.7 million in forthcoming SPLOST funds dedicated to the parks. Perhaps the pandemic has forced some rethinking on how people might play/get outside without organized programs. While t-ball, soccer and other sports are the core of county programs, it would seem an opportune time to promote and provide space/facilities that encourage individual or family recreation.
It’s laughable to recall the urgency we pushed local governments to create clear and feasible plans for public venues in January of 2020. During 2019 we had seen a steady stream of petitioners seeking rezonings or variances to allow all manner of gathering spaces, especially for wedding businesses. This sparked fears of rock concerts in farming areas, wrecks caused by guests who had over-consumed trying to navigate our dirt roads, and too much noise late into the night. With the total shut-down of large gatherings, the urgency is not there. But we’d still encourage our county planning commission and economic developer to create a simple one-sheet set of regulations on event venues and festivals. It’ll be needed again one day.
Back in January 2020, we’d tossed out the idea that it was time for the Marble Festival to be replaced with either Marble Festival 2.0 or a new festival altogether. This year we broke the tradition of a yearly festival honoring our white stone, so while all festivals are regrouping, we will double-down on our suggestion. Now is the perfect time for the Chamber of Commerce to roll out a drastically new/improved or completely changed format for our yearly festival. As a reminder, we have personally enjoyed and supported the Marble Festival for the past three decades. Our desire for change comes from the fact that it has undeniably been left in the calcium carbonate dust when compared with festivals devoted to apples, sorghum, bears in squares, moonshine or any other theme.
Looking Ahead for 2021
The perfect symbol heading into 2021 is the small triangle of land at the north end of downtown Jasper. The area, officially called Peace Park, once housed a jumble of rocks intended as an artistic display. They are gone. The area is bare earth and is open – just begging for creative planning. It’s too small to be a business or house much, but it could be a nice entrance into downtown. It’s adjacent to the Old Jail, wooden bridge and the very nice but unappreciated Oglethorpe monument.
The area is ripe with possibility for something tied to our history and heritage. It’s near the city’s new parking lot and the planned public restrooms. The space must be ideal for something small and attractive, but what? That’s where the public needs to chime in.
Get involved and not just with that one property. To every Progress reader and resident of Pickens County, we’d encourage you in 2021 to take part in the community. 
Clearly 30,000 heads are better than a handful of the same people who fill boards and volunteer for non-profits. You can’t complain on Facebook and expect anyone to listen when you never turn out. Whether it’s a non-profit, a government hearing or calling city council members, let’s see the public involved.
There is a constant complaint that government doesn’t listen. We’d disagree on the local level. It’s not that they don’t listen, it’s that rarely is anyone from the public speaking and even more rare for someone to raise their hand and ask if they can help.
You may not be able to change the world, but you’d be surprised what just one energetic volunteer can do locally.

A thanks to elected officials

Being an elected official isn’t easy. As a media outlet that works closely with these people day-in, day-out, we can see the long hours some of Pickens’ leaders – such as outgoing commission chair Rob Jones – put in. We see them at official government meetings and at a variety of other events all hours of the day. We also understand that Jones and other officials often shoulder the brunt of residents’ complaints, whether those complaints are fair and well-informed or not, and they are often blamed for issues they don’t even have control over. 

Jones, who despite this publication holding his feet to the fire on numerous occasions in stories and editorials, has always had an open door policy with us, has always returned our calls promptly, and has always answered the questions we asked. We know someone in his position gets invited to pretty much every social event imaginable, and in his case he almost always seemed to make it out.

The last year or so has seen a lot of big changes for Pickens’ elected leaders; after 16 years Jones was forced to leave office when our new commission chair Kris Stancil beat him in the primary; longtime Jasper Mayor John Weaver, who we also had a very good working relationship with, did not seek re-election in 2019 and was replaced by current Jasper Mayor Steve Lawrence in January 2020. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank all those who have served our community in the past, as well as those who are coming on board to serve in the future. 

We realize these are paid positions, in some cases full-time salaried positions, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with them, and in instances such as school board or city council the pay is so inconsequential it’s clear they aren’t doing it for the money. School board members make $100 per meeting. Jasper City Council members make $50 per meeting. These groups only have a few meetings a month so it doesn’t add up to much. This amount surely wouldn’t make all the long budget meetings and after-hours calls from angry parents and constituents worth it.  

We’re not arguing that all elected officials should be applauded and that some don’t take advantage of their positions of power. There are bad apples with ulterior, unethical motives, and leaders who make poor decisions that could damage a community. This is precisely why a free press and outspoken and involved public are important - but in instances where elected leaders are in politics to try to make an honest and positive difference they deserve a round of applause for doing what most people aren’t willing to do. 

We’ve enjoyed working with (most of) our past leaders, and look forward to getting to know the new ones. Time will tell if they prove themselves to be good servants for Pickens County residents. 

 

The light in the dark this Christmas

Matthew 2:1-2 – “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

That star, believed to be the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that creates the illusion of one large star, is what many say guided the Magi to Bethlehem to greet the newborn Jesus, Messiah to the people. This is the Star of Bethlehem, or the Christmas Star, and arguably the most iconic and pervasive symbol of Jesus’ birth. We place it atop our Christmas trees, in our nativity scenes, in our school Christmas plays, and on our greeting cards. 

This “great conjunction” of the two largest and slowest-moving planets in our solar system hasn’t occurred in hundreds of years (it was last seen 800 years ago and occurred 400 years ago but couldn’t be seen by the human eye then) – but the phenomenon graced our skies this Monday night, bringing with it a sense of hope and awe not only for Christians, but for humanity at large. No one alive today has witnessed the rare event - and while we could all imagine what it would look like, none of us could be certain. Here in Pickens County, a cloudy morning gave way to a clear evening, making the phenomenon visible low in the southwestern sky just after sunset.

For thousands of years we’ve looked to the stars and planets to make sense of the world – some of our religions and myths are, in part, created by human contemplation of the celestial bodies and their greater meaning in our lives. Monday, people of all walks of life cast their eyes upward, into the heavens, to take in something bigger than themselves; to think about, perhaps, the last people to witness this same event so long ago and to wonder what life might have been like then. It was a unifying experience.

But the Star of Bethlehem didn’t only happen at the height at our Christmas season this year, it happened on the winter solstice, December 21st, the shortest, darkest day. How poetic, and how perfect? This event was needed in 2020 more than most years as we navigate the darkness and challenges created by a pandemic – the fear, the anxiety, the economic hardships, the isolation. We can’t imagine a more beautiful symbol of hope for brighter days ahead, or of a more poignant reminder of the spirit of Jesus, who came to be a lamplighter, a guiding light for everyone.   

John 8:12 - "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." 

Cultures across this planet, stretching back centuries, have their own ways to acknowledge the deep darkness of December and the onset of winter, which brings along with it death, hibernation, and cold - but the good news is that from this point on the Sun will be resurrected after it reaches the lowest point of descent in our skies, and we look forward to the warmth, and the life, it will usher in.

This Christmas remember that without dark, there cannot be light. This year has been so dark for so many individually, and so dark for us collectively, but the darkness never lasts. If we hold to that understanding that it is part of life, only temporal, we can find peace in our hearts knowing light will return.

“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”

  We wish you the merriest of Christmases.