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COLUMN: Who’s in charge here?

OPINION: Jessica Szilagyi talks about why citizens and elected officials share equal responsibility in maintaining the integrity of local governments.

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.


Apathy.

Apathy smothers transparency, suffocates accountability, and squashes good governance generally. But what causes apathy? Most often, it’s the belief that citizens cannot influence public servants to act with regard to the will of The People. It usually starts with an issue related to poor behavior that impacts a citizen personally. Said person takes part in the process to resolve the issue, and is then awakened by a deafening silence that comes about either by literal silence on the part of the government entity or by the continuation of the poor behavior without so much as a pause. “Both” is also an option here.

In my job, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people not to give up while encouraging them that the issue of the month may finally be the issue that turns the tides and one needn’t turn a blind eye. Persistence is key, I tell them as I, myself, often wonder if we are all wasting our time.

It’s particularly bad when you start talking about personnel who seemingly have our elected officials by the zipper of their jeans because no matter what myriad of God forsaken, unethical, and often times illegal acts these employees commit, there seem to be no consequences.

Look no further than the Evans County School Board that scoffed at a wall-to-wall room full of citizens outraged by the Superintendent secretly hiring his own wife who was barred by the State of Georgia from working in a school system. His contact was renewed.

Or the year after year contract with benefits for the Claxton city attorney who has landed the city in legal trouble, sanctioned with open government training, and subjected to public humiliation in the media as they break laws every other meeting while he sits in the front row with his vintage oak etched name plate.

Or the interim police chief in the City of Guyton, the one whose resume looks more like the evidenced-based version of The 10 Commandments of “What not to do in law enforcement” to the extent that people in a three county radius are wondering if they recently met someone at the gym who might be more qualified to run the department.

It bleeds into elected official accountability, too. See the City of Claxton’s absolute silence in a Council Meeting after a video of a councilwoman interfering with a traffic stop went viral.

In all of these instances, the community identified a problem, worked to raise awareness, contacted the media, hollered some more, showed up to meetings, and left empty handed. In many instances, a scandal or well-known complaint is never even so much as acknowledged in public, which is even more offensive than the game that is the public charade of pretending to field concerns and then acting like said employee is much too valuable to be disciplined or canned.

It certainly leaves reasonable people wondering “Who’s in charge here?”

There are two separate but equal issues here. To put it simply, let’s pretend this is all one big dance party.

First, our public officials are elected with the expectation that they will break it down on the dance floor, but all they really want to do is play the DJ. It’s easy to pick the song, set the tone for the crowd, and announce when its time for everyone to leave. It’s much more difficult to get out there and show people you have a move for every era. Or that you’ll at least shimmy to the rhythm.

Second, The People too often have some warped belief that they can’t make repeated requests to the DJ. And when he plays two songs in a row that they don’t like, they head home.

Everyone is taking the easy way out and shrugging their shoulders when the going gets tough. No one wants to deal with out of control personnel.
“No, that’s not my department.”
“That isn’t my council member.”
“I thought it was wrong too, but I’m just one person so I didn’t say anything.”
“We talked about it privately by phone, but no one wants to get sued.”

Right now, you’re probably thinking, “She just wants the people in her stories to be fired because they’re her stories.” There’s some truth to that, except that I would suggest swapping “get fired” for “be held accountable,” and that’s mostly because I’ve written about some pretty egregious stuff and then when nothing happens, you’re standing there wondering how the in the actual you-know-what we are just going to maintain the status quo.

But in reality, every city is just a dancer lined up while The Cha Cha Slide plays is on repeat. They all have the same set of dance moves, but several can’t dance and some can’t even hear the music. A few are too drunk to be on the dance floor. Every city faces the same types of problems but the ones that Cha Cha real smooth know you’ll never win the dance contest if your contest representative makes up their own moves or has no legs.

That’s a longer way to say that poor behavior and unqualified personnel should not be excused just because there’s a cost to finding a replacement, or because it might temporarily bring bad press, or because that employee has a family to support. Also – since when did the mere risk of a lawsuit become more valuable than the integrity of the institution? Has anyone reminded elected officials that once they make it clear that they’re worried about a lawsuit, everyone’s response to discipline and accountability will be, “Fine. I’ll just sue”?

Someone needs to tell them to take control because they are in charge here…for the most part.

The People must also stop backing down. I recall being called into Oak Park, listening to the laundry list of problems spanning across departments, and telling them it would take 7-9 months. It took six and then and election. Month after month, the people showed up. They spoke out of turn, they cornered people at the gas station, and they held town halls of their own. Month after month they used every outlet and forum possible to tell their elected officials that the status quo was not acceptable.

It is not unreasonable to expect and demand that our elected officials have uncomfortable conversations. They have an obligation to hear the People and entertain their concerns.

As citizens, we must know that we can never win every battle, but our relentlessness will be frightening enough that it cannot be ignored.

So, when you ask yourself “Who’s in charge here?” The answer – loudly – for all y’all and ya mama and them is ‘You are.’

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com.

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