They protesteth too much, me thinks

Ed Howell
Posted 9/7/17

Alright, now it is my turn to say something.

As you might have read in this paper, the Walker County Commission didn’t like the coverage of an interview I had Clinton Carter, the state finance director. We were told Carter didn’t like it, …

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They protesteth too much, me thinks

Posted

Alright, now it is my turn to say something.

As you might have read in this paper, the Walker County Commission didn’t like the coverage of an interview I had Clinton Carter, the state finance director. We were told Carter didn’t like it, either, but I don’t know what he has seen or understood. But there is no question about the commission.

From what I gather, what they didn’t like on my part was the fact that the headline said, “Carter: County’s finances ‘not as dire’ as once thought.” The commissioners, particularly Chairman Jerry Bishop, made repeated references to the package. They claimed — and I think they are really upset about the headline, essentially — that it looked like the county had plenty of money and wouldn’t have a worry in the world.

At one point, Bishop said, “They can’t furnish me with furniture for the office, but the paper said we’re not in dire need. Y’all excuse me, I’ve been mad ever since I’ve read this paper.”

Mad enough you can’t see straight, because no one said the county was not in dire need. The phrase was “not as dire” as first understood by Carter.

Looking at the paper in their eyes, the commission probably feels like the public will feel like they lied to the public. That the finances turn out to be much better than expected. Maybe they thought people would only read the headline. (Judging from comments online, I see many of you people do read the full stories.) 

First, I think the commission has forgotten the reason Carter was coming in the first place. The commission had talked about bankruptcy; they had to, because it was a true threat. In fact, even in the interview, Carter said bankruptcy still can’t be taken off the table. And we all know all the problems that would result from that. It would put the county back decades. (To his credit, District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who is deeply involved in the budget process, said his first goal is to avoid bankruptcy.) 

So I heard very positive things about that meeting with Carter and the local officials. Carter pointed out in the story the county has to make some tough decisions, and it won’t be easy. But he did say this:  “Generally speaking, though, I thought it was not as dire a situation as I was led to believe — at least I had assumed it might have been. Sure, they have a lot of debt for their size anyway,” he said, terming it as a “fairly significant amount of debt — almost $21 million counting the leases and counting their size. That’s a lot, but it seems to be manageable if they make several changes, structurally, financially that they’ve got to overcome if they want to kind of make some headway.” He went on to say the changes would not be pleasant but that one laundry list of suggestions that the commission showed him “had more than enough to cover the shortfall for the current budget.”

(Bishop said that the money was saved up to pay for a lawsuit over taxes if the county lost the case. However, later that morning the commission was talking of possibly using those same funds, although I didn’t get that was a sure bet yet.) 

Here is the thing: Compared to bankruptcy, sinking economic development and being under the thumb of a judge, the news that Carter brought was good. It was “not as dire.” Yes we have a lot of problems to yet, but if you understand the bankruptcy element, it is good news.

The stories note the other side of the coin, of course, but I was relieved that industry and business that might pass us up for dead economically would at least understand that we are not necessarily on the verge of bankruptcy. Hard times, yes, but probably not bankruptcy.

So I was a little surprised when the commission took after the Daily Mountain Eagle, and my name was even brought up a time or two. The subject was actually brought up about seven times in the course of the formal meeting. Bishop was particularly angry about it all, and eventually even was critical of Carter’s events.

“You can’t believe everything you read in this paper,” Bishop said. And then appeared to believe a good bit a short time later, reading whole passages from the paper, amazed and dismayed at some of what Carter said.

I am sure he doesn’t feel well medically, but I thought it was a sad moment for the commission and Bishop in particular, who also snapped at District 2 Commissioner Ralph Williams when he thought his example in discussion strayed too far. I’m not expecting an apology, but he owes one to Williams, who is his equal.

Frankly, if anyone wants to read the coverage, they can find it online and decide for themselves. But I am not sure the commission deserves its lumps, too, when no budget work sheets were provided to the Eagle. I have been kept at bay from getting this information and find when I go down to the commission office everyone is in meetings. Forget me — that doesn’t serve the constituents well. I am no accountant, and would not pretend to understand spreadsheets too complex, but basic summary sheets provided to the commission Tuesday would have been nice to guide the reporter. I get the feeling maybe that with a few exceptions (including a lunch with Davis this week) that the commission or its staff is not wanting to go out of its way in sharing details of the budget mess, away from the meeting discussion. The process is just as important for the public to keep up with as the end product they are handed. We are not mind readers when they refer to figures in meetings, without much explanation. And that hurts you, the reader and constituent.

Did we really need the tax? I think for what we could get on the debt, yes. But I am starting to think as items come bubbling to the surface that maybe it wasn’t so bad to defeat this tax. Maybe we needed this to re-examine a lot of financial practices, such as repeated overspending by the Sheriff’s Department and the lack of budget amendments mid-year to deal with spending. I might have still voted for the tax due to the debt, but maybe this is just as well.

I feel for them politically, as it is a tough spot. I know Bishop doesn’t feel well, and it is terrible to have to layoff 19 part-time workers, whom I particularly feel for. The whole situation is bad.

But when it comes to headline critiquing, I would say the gentlemen protesteth too much — way too much.