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Epilogue

11/07/2013

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Results are in, and we could close with one hard fact:  his 346 votes beats my 274 votes.  But, the philosopher in me searches not for the meaning of life, but for meaning in life.  And, the writer in me compels me to share those thoughts -- if for no other reason than to make them clearer to myself.

This race was not about me or Chris Smith.  I said from the start, this was a referendum on the future of our community.  When I said in my video "my opponent represents those who want to keep things just as they are," that was the crux of the issue.  As evidence, I offer this comment posted online yesterday to the Covington News under the username wwstick:
The "New vision" for Covington and Newton County by the, as one activist calls them Carpetbagers, [sic] is not what the citizens want. It is a truth at this point as noted by the results of this election, that citizens want a hands off policy on our community.  If you 'carpetbaggers' dont [sic]like what we have there are about 6000 other counties they can move to and try to change. As Gene Wilder so eloquently stated in the movie "The Frisco Kid", "I'll tell you what I think is the best thing. I'll take San Francisco. You take the rest of America. And if you ever come back to this place again, I don't think you're going to get off so easy. Now get the h*** out of here!".
I could argue 274 voters want something more than the status quo.  And, wwstick could counter 346 voters do not.  In the days when leaders were statesmen, the victor represented all the people.  But, in the slash-and-burn world of 21st century American politics, it's winner take all and loser take a hike.

But, I'm not interested in arguing with Mr. (or Ms.) wwstick.  I'm interested in sharing these observations.

If yours is among the 346 votes cast for Chris Smith -- and you truly believe his vision and approach are best for Covington -- then good for you and good for democracy.  I disagree with you, but you voted the way you believed, and I honor that.

But, if you sided with him for reasons other than the merits of his experience, vision, and approach relative to mine, your vote is still taken as a mandate by those who will forever fight anything that smacks of change or progress in Newton County.  It's hard to choose, when you know a candidate personally or you've been friends with his family.  But, we should recognize these choices have consequences far beyond familial or social relationships.

Regardless of the reason, Chris Smith didn't articulate a platform, refused to engage in a forum on the issues, and would not answer written questions from the newspaper.  Losing was always a possibility for me, and I came into this race ready and willing to see my qualifications, vision, and platform rejected.  What I was never ready for was seeing an electorate embrace a campaign offering none of these for inspection.

Of course, the greatest enablers are the 2,592 active registered voters (81%) who couldn't be bothered to weigh in at all.  With their silence, they've given tacit approval to those like wwstick who just want the rest of us to "get the h*** out of here."

Chances are most people reading this blog either voted for me or were not eligible to vote here.  I can also fully understand if anyone else reads this as sour grapes on my part.  It's not, I promise you.  But, I understand if you think so.

I'm concerned what this outcome means for our community because -- despite what wwstick and others believe -- I care about its past, its present, and its future.  I believe in the democratic principles that I have an equal right to seek change in the actions of my elected officials and a duty to offer myself for service.  The idea that stepping up to run for office is somehow a personal affront to the other candidate or an offense against a segment of the population is a perverse notion of what our democratic process is about.  It's sad and it's scary.

To my friends and supporters, I appreciate the encouragement to keep my head high and not give up.  I hear talk about trying again.  But the simple fact is that I already did all that I could.  Many courageous folks stood with me, but it was not yet enough in this time and this place.  It's going to take much more than one man and one campaign to change a mindset like the one articulated in the comment above.

As unpleasant as it is for those of us who strive for balance and an open mind, the battle lines are drawn.  And, those who support the status quo aren't giving up without a nasty fight.  It is today as it's always been.  Niccolo Machiavelli described it best when he wrote The Prince in the early 1500s:
"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order."
I'm proud of what we stood for and how we approached it.  I'm grateful and honored by all who stood with me.  You were anything but lukewarm.  But, it's going to require many more of us who are willing to undertake difficult journeys "doubtful of success" and "dangerous to handle."  The belief it should not be so does not erase the fact that it is.

I was willing to take this journey.  I'm proud of the campaign we put forth and the dignity and enthusiasm displayed by so many of you.  But, for now, I'm tired.  It's time for a break.
 
 
"You're at that critical point.  Make that last push."
Six years ago, when my wife Kim campaigned successfully to become Covington's Mayor, we ordered take-out Chinese food about a week before the election.  After dinner, we were amazed when her fortune cookie offered up this advice:  "You're at that critical point.  Make that last push."  She was pushing hard already, but it was an omen and an encouragement to keep executing the plan.

With 10 days to go before this year's City Council election, this is my critical point.  And, the push is on.  I don't know if I'll order Chinese food or not, but I don't need a fortune cookie to tell me to keep working hard.  I have all the inspiration I need just talking with supporters who believe in our campaign and are working just as hard as I am to win the day and realize the vision.

It's a team sport, and I appreciate every one of you.  Let's keep working, team.  If you haven't voted yet, vote.  If you have voted, get your friends and neighbors to the polls.  If someone's undecided, call me and let me talk to them.  Show them our video or hand them my bio and platform.


The goal line is in sight, let's push it over the line.

 
 
Despite limited press coverage of this fall's City Council election, some behind the scenes unpleasantness bubbled up this week in the pages of the Covington News in an editorial by the paper and a letter to the editor.

I'm not going to comment on anyone's actions or any specific incident.  But, I've heard from quite a few individuals who have been put into uncomfortable situations during the campaign.  My overriding concern is that these situations create unnecessary divisions in the community and discourage people from getting involved in public service.  Some refer to it as "small town politics," but I don't accept any of this as how it has to be.

I ran for local elected office because I believe in the power and importance of community.  I know we can accomplish great things simply by listening to one another, supporting each other, and pulling together towards common causes.  In their initial story on both candidates, the Covington News asked:  "Why specifically are you running for a seat on the Covington City Council, as opposed to any other office?"  My answer then was:

"Politics has gotten off track in our society.  The notion of  'government of the people, by the people, for the people' seems lost in our time. I believe local municipal and county governments are our best hope for recapturing that ideal of an inclusive, participatory form of self-governing where everyone can and should be involved. When people feel cut off or disconnected from their government, that‘s not healthy. I want to bridge that gap by emphasizing local government as an extension of the community itself."

Those were not hollow words for a soundbite in the paper.  That is the essence of what I believe, and it's why I want to send a short, simple message to several groups of people:
  1. If you've taken a visible stand supporting my candidacy, you have my deep gratitude and sincere thanks for your willingness to get involved.  Your backing means the world to me, and I know it's not always without personal consequences for you.  Ours is not a campaign against a person; we are running for a purpose, a vision, and a belief in what we can achieve as a community.  In the long run, that will be understood by most.
  2. If you're backing me quietly, I understand and appreciate your support just as much.  If you believe in the vision and priorities we share, don't let the personal politics distract you.
  3. If you're supporting Chris Smith -- visibly or quietly -- I want you to know I totally respect your stance and bear no ill will what so ever.  The greatest threat to our society is not differences of opinion, it's apathy.  I applaud you for getting involved.   This is a community; in the long run, we will put differences behind us and work towards the much greater shared interests that bind us.  If I am elected, I will listen to you and involve you just as much as anyone else.
No matter who you are -- or who you're pulling for -- we ultimately have to pull together.
 
 
Closing the October 7 Covington City Council meeting, Mayor Ronnie Johnston read briefly from a Georgia Municipal Association blog post titled "The Attitudes to Succeed in a Small Town."  In addition to advising small business owners in a small town how to survive and prosper, that blog provides a road map for towns themselves to survive.

Listening to the Mayor highlight five important elements for success, I was struck by how much they align with the key focus areas of my platform:

  1. Embrace Change and Be Flexible.  As I have said in my campaign video and platform, nothing stands still. Yesterday's accomplishments brought us to today, but they cannot carry us to tomorrow.  I embrace opportunities with an open mind because my business experience has proven that is the only way to survive.
  2. Embrace Technology.  You're reading this blog on my website, which you may have found through my Facebook posts, in a google search ad, or from watching my YouTube video.  My opponent has none of these.  That doesn't make him a bad person, but we need city leaders who are connected in the 21st century.
  3. Embrace Your Community.  As I wrote in a previous post, it starts with showing up.  You have to be there, and then you have to work to make a difference.  From my non-profit board memberships, to the volunteer activities and community events Kim and I enjoy, we embrace our community everyday.  People are the strength of this community; pulling together, we can do anything.
  4. Embrace the Youth.  Again, I stress this in my video and my platform.  A sustainable future for Covington absolutely requires that we build the kind of community where young people can live, work, play, and raise a family.  If we truly love Covington, then we have to build the Covington that suits not just ourselves -- but also the generations that will fill our shoes.  This is why creating quality of life choices is a top priority.
  5. Focus on Businesses that Serve Out of Town Customers.  Every local business deserves our full support.  But, tourism truly is our most viable way forward in the current economy.  I've seen this first hand for over six years serving on the Tourism Advisory Committee at the Chamber of Commerce.  Our historic homes, movie and television legacy, events, and small town charm draw visitors here in large numbers over great distances.  They spend money in our hotels, restaurants, and shops that stays here in our local community to benefit everyone.  When I put economic development at the top of my priority list, this is what I'm talking about.  We have to leverage these strengths to create a broader economic development plan with lasting impact.
From day one of the campaign, I've been clear about my vision, priorities, and plans for our town.  It's nice to see such validation in the views shared by the Georgia Municipal Association.  I'm also glad to see our Mayor touching on these points as well.
 
 
Recently, the Newton Citizen newspaper asked both candidates to answer a series of questions about themselves and their respective campaigns.  In the Sunday, October 13 edition of the Citizen, answers were presented edited for space.  This is the third of three blog posts providing my full answers to the three key questions asked.

What, in your opinion, are the top three quality of life issues that must be addressed by the council and how do you propose to do so?

  1. Insufficient retail/dining choices downtown –Our lack of shopping and dining choices is a quality of life issue that impacts current residents and discourages young professionals with other options from relocating to Covington.  This in turn impacts industry recruitment and retention.  I’ve already noted the keys to addressing this, so I won’t elaborate again here.  But, it comes down to selling our strengths while confronting and improving our weaknesses.
  2. Inadequate green space for passive recreation – Easy access to green space and passive recreation areas like parks, nature preserves, and greenway trails is proven nationally to increase property values, foster economic development, and promote public health.  Yet, the Comprehensive Plan for the Newton County Recreation Commission details the extent to which we fall below established standards for such amenities in a community our size.  This is a weakness we must address for economic and health reasons.  As a council member, I will push to make green space and passive recreation a priority in city plans, in our partnership with other local governments, and in the establishment future SPLOST priorities.
  3. Barriers to Walkability – Americans are driving less.  Miles driven annually per person has declined every year since 2004 and is presently at levels not seen since 1996.  The decline is sharpest among those born between 1983 and 2000, who show a clear preference to live in walkable, live/work/play places that don’t require driving from one activity to another.  Covington has great elements with our centrally located Square flanked by shops and restaurants, with housing extremely close by.  But, our main roadways into and through downtown are poorly built for pedestrians, bicyclists, or golf carts.  Recent pedestrian deaths on Jackson Highway, Washington Street, and US-278 show just how dangerous it is.  As a councilmember, I will work to ensure we keep walkability at the forefront of our plans for downtown and the surrounding community.  I will resurrect and reinforce plans already established for US-278, Pace Street, and Washington Street.  I will emphasize the need for pedestrian planning in all new development projects.
 
 
Recently, the Newton Citizen newspaper asked both candidates to answer a series of questions about themselves and their respective campaigns.  In the Sunday, October 13 edition of the Citizen, answers were presented edited for space.  This is the second of three blog posts providing my full answers to the three key questions asked.

Please identify what you view as the top three challenges for the city of  Covington in the next four years and please be specific about how, if elected, you would take action to address those challenges:

  1. Barriers to retail business recruitment – Growing our commercial sector is crucial from a tax base, employment, and quality of life perspective.  But, with 25% of Covington’s residents living below the poverty level and 65% of students in Newton County schools classified as “economically disadvantaged” per federal guidelines, we have a tough sell to potential investors.  Progress requires a multi-pronged approach.  We can sell our strengths and highlight the unique small-town charm, rich history, and tourism assets of our community.  Tourists bring disposable income to help offset what we lack in buying power.  But, in parallel, we must address the underlying causes of pervasive poverty.  Housing is one key element the city has started to address through public/private partnerships with specialized developers.  This needs to continue with stronger council backing.  Education and skills are another factor, and I will continue to support programs like the career academy.  Transportation also matters, in that jobs and other life essentials are not always within reach of those without reliable transportation.  In our planning, I will stress the importance of live/work/plan development that puts more employment options within walking distance.
  2. Overcoming the loss of experienced leadership – While not necessarily related, the retirement of City Manager Steve Horton was the first in a series of departures creating openings in key leadership positions across the city.  The Finance Director, Utilities Director, Transportation Director, and Main Street Program Director positions have all been vacated in the last year.  While not city employees, turnover of several key positions at the Chamber of Commerce has also impacted efforts to recruit and retain business for the city.  As a councilmember, I will encourage the City Manager to establish development programs and succession planning to ensure we are always ready to deal with key leadership changes – planned or unplanned.
  3. Building a productive city/county partnership – It’s been evident in recent years -- on key programs like Economic Development, Main Street, Tourism, and SPLOST -- that City of Covington and Newton County leaders are not always pulling in the same direction.  Programs like the Leadership Collaborative provide a framework for partnership, but it takes personal involvement and open, honest relationships to truly partner for better outcomes.  As a councilmember, I will bring fact-based assessments, straight talk, and win-win thinking to my relationships with other leaders in the community.  I will lead by example in putting the interests of the city as a whole above any other special interests.
 
 
Recently, the Newton Citizen newspaper asked both candidates to answer a series of questions about themselves and their respective campaigns.  In the Sunday, October 13 edition of the Citizen, answers were presented edited for space.  This is the first of three blog posts providing my full answers to the three key questions asked.

Please identify what you view as the top three priorities for the city of Covington in the next four years and please be specific about how, if elected, you would take action to address those priorities:
  1. Economic Development – A healthy mix of businesses is crucial to sustain our local economy and provide diverse employment options for residents.  Covington has done well on the industrial front, but we are seriously behind in commercial development.  I will press for clear plans and strategies to boost retail business in Covington.  We have specifics that need to be addressed, such as utility rates that disproportionately burden commercial businesses.  We also have economic demographics to overcome.  But, we have to sell to our strengths, while taking deliberate steps to address our weaknesses.
  2. Increasing Quality of Life Choices – Quality of life means something different to each of us, but the key word is “choices.”  To attract young professionals and retain our own young people, we must offer diverse options for making a complete life here.  That means more restaurants and shopping; green space, parks, and passive recreation; and walkable streetscapes in live/work/play settings.  I will renew the Council’s focus on studies already completed and projects identified for the Highway 278, Pace Street, and Washington Street corridors.  I will be proactive in pursuing those visions and plans, doing all I can to end the practice of sitting and waiting for better days to find us.
  3. Building a Sustainable Future – Yesterday’s accomplishments brought us to today, but they cannot carry us to tomorrow.  The council, mayor, and city staff must constantly assess our strengths and weaknesses – leveraging the former and working to address the latter.  We must seek out opportunities that address our long-range objectives, while confronting head-on the issues that threaten our overall goals.  As a councilmember, I will make strategic thinking and results-orientation essential ingredients in how we run the business of the city.
 
 
The Covington News reported today what I've known for some time -- my opponent, Chris Smith, refuses to answer live questions in public about the issues.  When the Chamber of Commerce and Covington News invited us for an evening forum, Mr. Smith said he couldn't make the proposed date.  They suggested another date, and he couldn't make that one either.  To accommodate schedules, they then offered a day-time taping with just the moderators and the two candidates in a studio answering questions.  Mr. Smith says he's too busy for that too.

I'll participate anytime, anyplace, in any format.  I'm a busy man, but this is important.  It's Mr. Smith who's hiding. 

Under normal circumstances, the organizers could move ahead, and it would be the No Show's loss.  But, with only two contested races in the entire county, it's hard to stage a forum without one of the candidates.  At this point, I'm ready to debate his empty chair, but I understand why the organizers wouldn't want to put on such a show.

Clearly, Mr. Smith sees talking unscripted to voters about issues that matter as my strength and his weakness. He's right.  And, so, he's seeking to change the game.

In sports, that's how you try to survive as an underdog.  In basketball, you stall on offense and you foul intentionally on defense.  In football, when you can't stop an opponent's offense any other way, you bend the rules and hope not to get caught.  Consider the public mauling the New York Jets secondary committed against Falcon's All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez last night.  But, despite triple coverage and blatant holding, Tony broke free and made his catches.  The Falcons lost the war, but Tony prevailed in his personal battle.  He made 10 pass catches -- most in clutch situations -- because he comes prepared, he's focused on doing his job, and he's committed to winning.  He wouldn't get frustrated and he's never distracted.

I'd love a dozen forums before November 5.  It's vitally important candidates openly discuss critical issues with the voters before, during, and after elections.  But, I can only hold up my end of that bargain.  My opponent thinks he can stall his way to November 5, but he's going to be really disappointed with how that plays out.

He can play his game of keep away, but this campaign is marching forward undeterred and not distracted.  I'm prepared, I'm informed, and I'll have the discussion one-on-one with every citizen in town if that's what it takes.  My website, campaign video, and  Facebook page aren't just tools to win an election.  They're how I connect with voters to discuss the issues that matter.  It's called substance, and it's what I'm all about.

I'm making the effort, and I know the voters will too.  It's Mr. Smith who's looking for an easy way out.

There isn't one.

 
 
Announcing his reelection bid in April -- and more recently, in his campaign literature -- Councilman Chris Smith said he has "fought to keep taxes from increasing."  It's an interesting claim to make, since no one has proposed a property tax increase to the Council since Smith took office in January of 2010.  In fact, the last time Covington raised it's millage rate was 2003, and there have been two rate decreases since then (before Smith took office).

There hasn't been much to fight against.  But, more important, fighting isn't the answer.  We can see the effects full well in the damage done by partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington.

I'm not asking you to vote for me so I can fight for you.  I'm asking you to vote for me so I can work for you and with you to keep doing the things that put our city in good financial standing.  Doing so requires understanding how city business operates today and where revenues come from to fund those operations.  Taxes in general and property taxes specifically play a minority role in funding city services.  Residential property taxes are an even smaller piece of the puzzle.

In the fiscal year ended June 2012, Covington spent $19.5M on governmental activities (administration, public safety, public works, etc.) while generating $5.6M in program revenues (fees, operating grants, etc.).  That left 13.9M of expense to be funded through taxes and other revenues.  Public safety alone was a $10.5M expense, while property tax collections netted just $4.6M.  Residential property taxes were less than a quarter of that (~$1.1M), with more than 70% (~$3.3M) coming from Commercial and Industrial property.

Our city budget is balanced each year through profits made on electric and gas utilities.  For fiscal year 2012, $5.8M was transferred from utility funds to general government operations.  A 2009 study of Covington's electric utility found residential rates produce less revenue than the cost to provide electricity, meaning the bulk -- if not all -- of that $5.8M came from commercial and industrial customers.  Add that to the $3.3M in property taxes assessed for commercial and industrial property, and it's clear businesses are the lifeblood funding our public safety, public works, and other city operations.  Our healthy tax base of 80/20 commercial and industrial property to residential property is why Covington weathered the "great recession" without a millage rate increase, while other local governments were forced to implement a higher "roll back" rate.

All of this explains why I am focused on economic development and enhanced quality of life choices. 
Recruiting and retaining businesses is the only way to keep taxes low.  It's not about fighting.  If anything, conflict and discord among elected officials make business leaders nervous.  It certainly doesn't encourage them to invest.


It's not about what you fight against, it's about what we plan for and how we work to achieve it.  I won't fight for you.  But, I will work hard and smart for all of Covington to ensure we have plans and actions to build a sustainable future for our community.
 
 
The beautiful thing about history is anyone can make it.  The secret to tradition is anyone can start one. We revel in legacies handed down by past generations.  But, how often to do we take up the challenge to create something worthy of passing on to those who will follow us?  The opportunity is there.

That's one of nice takeaways I'll treasure as a reminder from this weekend spent enjoying our special community.  In one very full Saturday, my wife and I attended the 30th annual Fuzz Run, the 2nd Texas Alley - Sandhill Reunion, and the Friends of Newton Parks fundraiser -- A Toast to David Waller.

Nearly 3,000 runners (and scores of volunteers and onlookers) flooded the streets of Covington early Saturday to benefit the Covington Police Department's Police Who Care charity.  Now a long-standing tradition with a rich history, it's hard to imagine the first Fuzz Run drew about a dozen runners.  But, from humble beginnings, with imagination, persistence, and hard work, our police have given us a showcase event that puts Covington on the map across the southeast and creates fun for the entire community.

For historic significance, it's hard to top Saturday afternoon's celebration of two of Covington's oldest historic black communities, as families that grew up in the Texas Alley and Sandhill communities gathered for food and fellowship at the intersection of West Street, Walnut Street, and Hendrix Circle, just south of Washington Street.  It was an afternoon rich in remembrance, thanks to local historian Mrs. Emogene Williams and other sharp minds who preserve and protect an oral history we're lucky to have.  But, the reunion is a new tradition started by Rev. Avis Williams and others, as is the health fair sponsored by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Walgreen's, and local medical professionals.

At Saturday evening's fundraiser for Chimney Park, prominent speakers and hundreds of guests paid homage to the life's work of a friend to many of us, David Waller.  While David's contributions as Wildlife Resources Director at Georgia's Department of Natural Resources were lauded across the southeast and nationally, those toasting David also gave testimony to the lasting impression he has made on Newton County over the past 30+ years.  Though born and raised in South Georgia, David is living proof of the impact a man can have on the place he and his family choose to call home.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with my city council campaign.  But, reflecting on the day reminded me of a book by Dr. Michael Mescon, Dean Emeritus of the Georgia State University School of Business, titled Showing Up for Work and Other Keys to Business Success.  I never had the opportunity to take a class from Dr. Mescon, but my wife Kim did.  His teachings were as simple, honest, and straightforward as that title.  To make a difference anywhere, you first have to be there.  You have to show up.

The Covington Police Department and the Fuzz Run volunteers showed up.  The organizing committee for the Texas Alley - Sandhill Reunion and the AKA sisters showed up. David Waller showed up.

In my campaign platform, I say "Active listening requires being present, participating in the community, and asking people what matters to them."  That's the kind of councilman I will be, because it's the kind of citizen I've been inspired to be all along.  Communities are built by people who show up, and we are truly blessed.

Politicians are great at telling you how much they "love this community."  Don't let anyone tell you.  Make them show you.