The Bible tells us that joy cometh in the morning. That may be true but the morning of Oct. 15 in Walker County was surely an exception after an amoeba-like display of governance by some members of the county commission the night before.
Thanks to coverage from the Walker County Messenger over the past few months, county residents were paying attention to the saga surrounding a rezone request in Rossville, which came before the board for a final vote. Perhaps eager to prove their servile devotion to dear leader over their constituents, commissioners Askew and Stultz voted to approve the rezone, splitting the board 2-2. Then, displaying a schoolgirl giddiness, Chairman Whitfield (who long ago dropped any pretense he actually cared about the wishes of constituents) cast the tie-breaking vote for approval.
The vote on the Hutcheson rezone was the first time in the short 10-month history of the new form of Walker County government that two commissioners opposed and two commissioners supported an item on the agenda, which forced the chair to vote. The overwhelming majority of votes by this board of commissioners have been unanimous approvals. There has seldom been a single dissenting vote. To anyone who remembers the founding father’s worry over the tyranny of majorities, the record of the new Walker board is worrisome as well.
Is this the way citizens intended the new board to operate? Why did we change forms of government in the first place?
As commissioner, Whitfield never tires of casting as much blame on past administrations as possible. Citizens should know well the reason for a change in the form of government. After years of secrecy, cronyism and financial mismanagement, citizens demanded accountability, transparency and prudent good governance. That was the hope and the charge for this first board of commissioners.
So how are they doing? Not great. You might even say terrible. Here is just a sampling of the record:
Despite having received the 2020 audit this spring, Chairman Whitfield still has not presented it to the board or the public but has submitted it to the state and submitted financial documents using the audited data to the Georgia DCA. The county says it’s waiting on the auditor to include information on the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) before presenting the audit.
For the previous three years Walker County failed to disclose the amount of foregone tax revenue due to tax incentives and tax abatements as required by the governmental accounting standards board. Walker County Schools did disclose their forgone tax revenue, which was more than $1 million in each of the past three years. The board has done nothing to rectify this failure or provide for future compliance.
Do we have an ethics ordinance? No, despite two of the four commissioners signing a pledge to enact one if elected. Commissioner Whitfield was given the opportunity to sign it and declined.
A spectacularly inept open records-related incident is worthy of note. The county refused to provide text messages as they still do not have a system in place for text message record retention.
Check out this blast from the past, courtesy of supine Commissioner Askew’s campaign website:
“If elected as a commissioner to this new board, I feel that it’s imperative for this first board to have complete transparency and cooperation with the existing leadership to build the trust needed for us all to work together as a team. The more information we have at the beginning, the more positive affect we can have as a board.” (http://markaskewdistrict2.com/issues/)
Ten and a half months after taking office there have been no ordinances or policies put in place to:
♦ Develop a strategic plan or set strategic goals
♦ Develop a plan for long-term infrastructure needs
♦ Require cost/benefit analysis as part of capital planning
♦ Evaluate and measure performance and efficiency of major programs or departments
♦ Provide greater (or even basic) financial transparency to the public
♦ Establish a debt management policy
♦ Establish an asset management and replacement plan
♦ Require annual compliance review of development authority tax incentive agreements
This is a short list that could have been pages long. Part of the reason why these things are important is the need for transparency today, but they are equally important because once in place, policies such as these will serve to ensure the public is never again caught unaware and in the dark as so many felt during past administrations.
It is to be expected that implementing new policy takes time, but what is telling about this board of commissioners is the fact that there has been no consideration or mere mention of the listed proposals or of any transparency policies or ordinances at all.
The failures of transparency are not limited to legislative failure. Even the oft-touted open-door policies and promised better engagement with citizens has been lacking. No example is more glaring than the weekly county government hour provided by UCTV. This is a valuable resource for citizen engagement that has unfortunately been used by the chairman as a source of aggrandizement when he bothers to show up and totally wasted when he doesn’t. When did you last see your district commissioner answering questions for an hour on television?
Finally, campaign promises of new digital engagement opportunities for citizens have yet to materialize as well.
Is this the way citizens wanted a board of commissioners to operate? Is this the way the board of commissioners should continue? Do changes need to be made? Do the commissioners have an actual vision for the county, and if so, why is it not articulated well and a strategic plan created to achieve it?
Joy cometh in the morning the Bible tells us. I have faith in that. Faith in this board based on the last 10 months? Not so much.