V I E W P O I N T S
One of the hardest personal lessons I’ve learned in a long and sinful life is that what people say behind your back is none of your business. That sounds like just a catchy platitude but if I’d subscribed to it earlier, perhaps combining it with that one about eavesdroppers hearing no good of themselves, I’d have spared myself years of heartbreak. Let ‘em talk! It means you’re interesting, right?
And one of the handiest tricks I’ve learned about news gathering is that 98 percent of it is paying attention. People are always coming up with conspiracy theories about the way the world works, convoluted motivations and wheels within wheels. And it’s true one does sometimes yearn to press one’s ear to the door during one of those long “executive,” or closed-door sessions our local officials go in for so much, returning in some cases to approve thousands of dollars in payments to their near relations.
But for the most part I’ve found it’s just not that complicated. If you can manage to stay awake during public meetings you will keep pretty much on top of things without even asking questions. And if you do clarify a few points, leaf through the handouts, maybe acquaint yourself with the history, you often end up becoming the local expert on any given issue.
I think that’s why I’ve been so angry at the Trenton City Commission this week. It’s gone and upset both my personal and working-life tenets! The commission has done something mean and unworthy of itself, and it has managed to do so entirely behind closed doors.
To wit, the part-time mayor and part-time commissioners have assassinated the full-time office, and probably ultimately the full-time officeholder, of the Trenton city clerk, Lucretia Houts. And they’ve done it without one on-the-record discussion. Cynics are always telling me all the important business of local gummint is done on the sly. They have now been proven right.
Last November, the commission quietly slipped onto its consent agenda a resolution asking the Georgia Legislature to amend the Trenton city charter to make the clerk’s job an appointed rather than elected one. I had been sitting in on the commission’s meetings since February 2016 and this was the first I’d heard of it.
And there has been no mention of it at any subsequent (open) meeting. Nor was there at Monday’s regular July meeting, but the mayor announced qualifying dates and fees for the two commission seats up for election this November. I thought: Usually, there are three.
So I suspected the worst, and the next day I confirmed it; Looking up online what the Georgia Lej had been doing, I found that the measure to torpedo Ms. Houts had passed May 9. Which of course the commission had been careful not to mention at the June or July meetings.
I’m pretty sure what the mayor and commissioners did is a flagrant and particularly grotesque violation of the so-called Sunshine Laws, rules that require governments large and small to work openly, so that the public can see how its money is being spent and how its elected officials are behaving. But I’m not a lawyer, I can’t afford to hire one, and anyway my major objection is not so much the illegality of the move as its basic nastiness.
I think that’s why the mayor and commissioners were so careful not to say anything about it at public meetings. They knew it was wrong.
It’s not entirely unexpected, though. Even years ago, working for the print newspaper in town that is now largely a formality, I had heard resentful rumblings from the then-city commissioners about the clerk. No one supervised her, they complained. She could do whatever she liked. She was answerable only to the voters, who (it plainly irked them) kept reelecting her term after term.
What I heard then, and what I perceive now, is the commission’s frustration at its inability to boss around somebody called a “clerk.” They’re “commissioners,” right? Or even “mayors.” That should make them more important than somebody whose job includes taking the minutes at their meetings, shouldn’t it?
I’ve had jobs myself where I’ve personally experienced this need of others to make themselves feel more important by making me feel less. Hell, most of them. It’s human nature I reckon. But my favorite example was when I was working front office in a printing company and the guys in the back misspelled the word “trailer” on one huge job and the client company’s name on another. I could spell for the Olympics but nobody asked me--I was just what they called the “sekkertary.”
For that matter, since I’ve been on my own at The Planet, one or another of the Trenton city officials always seems to be telling me how insignificant I am. I’m “just a blogger,” one told me. The Planet is not really a newspaper but “just a Facebook page,” a commissioner said. The city attorney simply ignores my phone calls.
Nevertheless, The Planet persists. My life has not been such that I’ve built up much of an ego, and anyway when officials insult me I can tell I have anyway irritated them, which is one of a journalist’s chief joys.
So let minor dignitaries puff themselves up by kicking the metaphorical dog; but the city clerk matter is a different kettle of fish. This time, the commission’s need to assert itself is doing somebody out of a job she needs, and to which she has been returned multiple terms by the city’s voters.
Since this happened, I’ve been thinking about something Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley told me once about his job. Before Dade adopted its current form of government, the county was run first by an elected sole commissioner, then by a board of commissioners who hired a county manager to run Dade’s day-to-day operations.
Some people thought the sole commissioner had too much power but at least he was elected. The big kvetching happened under the county manager system. Here, explained Boss Rumley, you had a guy running around “acting like king of the county” and the voters resented that because they’d had no choice about who was crowned.
So Dade changed to its current form of government, where the voters directly elect the official in charge of the day-to-day running of the county, and though you’ll still hear bitching--that’s human nature, too, I guess--the county seems to tick along pretty smoothly on the whole.
Probably it was the same principle that led Trenton to make its city clerk job an elected position in the charter as it stood: Trenton needed one full-timer at City Hall, and since this person would be effectively running the town it made sense the voters should choose her. But Trenton was a small town and it didn’t glorify the position with the name “manager” and that’s where the trouble started. And where the trouble is ending is with this spiteful cabal by the jealous mayor and commissioners to show the clerk who’s boss.
Or maybe it’s not the end. Maybe Ms. Houts will lawyer up and give the Trenton commission and city attorney--an out-of-town guy in LaFayette, by the way--a run for their money. Is it legal for part-time elected officials, or any elected officials, to band together to eliminate the job of another elected official? And is it legal for them to have decided to change the charter entirely in backroom discussions?
(And if a civil suit does happen, Dear Reader, I hope you can think of a little not-really-a-newspaper at the center of the universe that will keep you apprised of the gory details.)
Or maybe somebody will even get around to amending the Trenton charter so the town’s power structure makes more sense, and its officials are not so prone to plots and backbiting.
Meanwhile, The Planet will keep attending public meetings and reporting faithfully what’s in ‘em--or, in cases like this one, what is not.