The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.
“It’s a culture problem. You’re talking about a community where the people who speak out and cite laws are the villains and the people who take from others, stifle growth, and hold grudges because of feelings have their name on the wall.”
I made a joke the other day that this job often feels like I’m on a hamster wheel. Each town, though different in economic stability, demographic, and size, is merely a cookie cutter of the last. The investigation yields initial answers about technology problems and old records as reasons for not following the law or a more simple approach that “no one knew any better.” Whether the investigation goes down the path of outright corruption or just plain ignorance, the gross mismanagement of finances ends up perched squarely on the shoulders of the taxpayers. An election cycle comes around and a new administration takes the helm while vowing to do things different – which they do…for a while. Until they, too, become comfortable and technology, or not knowing any better, or sheer power get the best of them as well.
On the off chance that people incapable of being corrupted by the mesmerizing upper echelon of politics get elected, it is usually short lived after they discover that one person cannot revolutionize a broken system or their personal life begins to suffer due to blows to their locally-owned business, ostracization by the community, or even impacts on their family. And don’t forget, if you’re doing elected office the right way, chances are it is a financial burden, not a financial windfall and the sacrifice of the latter can take a toll on a wallet.
That, once again, brings communities back to the same old people running the show.
I’m not talking about the regular citizens who contact their elected officials, post questions or concerns on social media, or show up to meetings. Albeit, if there were more of those people, the puppet masters I reference wouldn’t have near the same influence.
I’m not even talking about the chokehold of power within a single family. You know, how the city attorney is also the state court judge and the county attorney is the municipal court judge and the school board attorney is another state court judge and the wife of the attorney is the police department clerk and his brother is over probation. Or how two people from the same family are on Council and other members of their family hold the appointed positions. Or how commission members appoint the wife of a late commissioner because of what she gave to the community when her husband served all those years. No, not those.
I mean the quiet puppet masters who work behind the scenes and influence everything from who gets into public office to appointments on boards to business recruitment in the community to how ‘news’ is reported in the local paper. These puppet masters control the environment of the community and while most people know of their somewhat unscrupulous behavior, they are either feared too much to be challenged or the rest of the community is too dependent on their ‘services’ to oust them. These puppet masters have their names on buildings, have bricks on sidewalks, and are honored annually by the local civic organizations for their support of the community. They usually have money and, more often than not, they are two steps ahead of the rest of the community.
Every now and again, the people in elected office are actually puppet masters themselves, but generally speaking, the elected official making unethical moves, the clerk accused of funneling money, the utilities director using government goods on private property – they are just pawns. When it hits the fan, the pawns step in as the fall guys, too. Of course, they are usually guilty and deserving of the fall, but much like drug trafficking, the puppet masters are the kingpins and the fall guy just had an ounce of weed in his jean pocket. The kingpin freely carries on because there are no consequences for his actions.
And much like drug kingpins, puppet masters are well connected because most everyone else in power is there thanks, at least in part, due to the puppet masters’ orchestration.
If this all comes off as a some microscopic deep state, conspiracy-type thing, then I have missed the mark on descriptiveness because this is all very real. When people say, “The same few families have been running this town for years,” they mean it. The thick web of small towns is woven by the acts of a select few and the cynic in me often wonders if the ‘victories’ The People see at election time, on policy issues, or on financials are orchestrated just like everything else.
In my brief tenure, I have seen legislators step in and stop GBI investigations that were rightfully initiated and judges halt Attorney General inquiries. I have seen law enforcement pin petty cases on whistleblowers while paper trails of egregious abuses of power end up in the shredder or on a desk of a town hall that ends up in flames in the middle of the night. I have watched whisper campaigns about honest public officials spiral into health crises while the ones who belong on the chopping block quietly leave for a well-paying job in the private sector. Good business opportunities end up going elsewhere as the same few entities double down on their subsidies from taxpayers.
And if I had a dollar for every time someone said, “It will be better before too long, we just need a few more funerals…” I could probably launch a casket company.
But it wouldn’t matter because there are more puppet masters in line.
So, why press on at all?
It isn’t that there are no victories for The People – there are. And even temporary reprieves from poor governance are still reprieves that offer a short lived benefit — be it a fiscal responsibility victory, a breath of transparency, or a regime change.
The worst part about small towns is that everyone knows everyone – and they know them well. Speaking out is uncomfortable because it is someone you attend church with, that helped finance your home loan, that your child plays sports with. That will forever be the biggest hurdle in small communities.
The lack of movement, the seemingly missing consequences for wrongdoing, the blind eye from independent agencies with oversight, and the absolute apathy can discourage others from getting involved. What’s the use? Admittedly, it makes me want to quit at times, too.
But there are incredible, principled people in all of these towns. There are people who want their area to thrive for everyone, not just themselves. There are autonomous gluttons for punishment who get elected with no favors to repay and we all have a duty to support them.
Because tiny, incremental changes are better than no changes at all.
And because a little pushback from a few is better than no pushback from any.
Because it is the right thing to do.
And because…if not you, then who? And if not now, then when?