OPINION: Gratitude for those who serve in elected office

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Some years ago a lady who liked reading my rough-edged opinions became a friend and approached me at a restaurant to ask, “Terry, why don’t you run for mayor of Peachtree City?”

Those who know me well instantly recognize I would be woefully misfit in that role or City Council. I told her with a smile, “I’d rather lick a gas station toilet seat all day long!”

My reluctance comes from knowing, no matter how pure my heart, no matter how diligent my toil as a public official, there would always be a long line of vocal citizens eager to tell me how they know better. My personality would not mix well with daily complaints, lectures and an occasional finger poked in my chest.

When I think about running for office in the first place — self-aggrandizing speeches, the lunacy of standing beside a busy road waving at traffic — well, I’m getting nauseous.

So, maybe you’ll understand that I appreciate officials who do serve in Peachtree City and Fayette County, those who put up with steady criticism that comes with the territory in their daily struggle to plan, fix, repair and undertake projects on a never-ending list in which limited resources only allow working on the top priority tier. Pardon me while I throw them a few flowers.

Some years ago, we endured public juvenile squabbles in the Peachtree City Council. That embarrassment has been blessedly gone in recent years as new personalities brought adult behavior and peace with differences handled quietly. Thank you from all of us.

In the recession years when revenue suffered, maintenance was deferred on roads, golf cart paths, buildings, etc. Since then a difficult maintenance backlog has been caught up. I do know the gears in Peachtree City Manager Jon Rorie’s head furiously spin in his quest to do things better, and if you take your pet gripe to him, like “We really need to upgrade the tennis center!” Jon will likely respond with “Show me the money!”

Excellence in an organization starts at the top, with leadership by example and demanding the best from subordinates. That’s just what Jon Rorie does, always thinking and moving like the Energizer Bunny even early, late and weekends, mixing among City workers and getting his fingernails dirty setting an example and demanding their best. I believe we are lucky to have him as our City Manager. Fair disclosure — I have breakfast now and then with Jon, though he did not provide me any of the info herein.

Our property taxes have increased in Peachtree City over the years, but that is due to the increasing assessed value. Our taxes went up even though the millage rate has gone down, from 7.33 mills in 2014 down to 6.232 mills today.

I don’t like writing my property tax check any more than you, but I don’t think we’re abused on that score. Nevertheless, an easy prediction is some genius with daydreams of flying with a cape to soak up chest-swelling voter admiration will offer to rescue us with a plan to lower taxes and solve traffic at 74 and 54. That’s when I roll my eyes and reach for Tylenol.

Recently, the City Council took note of the painful squeeze by the Covid mess on local businesses, especially restaurants and bars. City annual license fees for bar and restaurant alcohol sale add up, (approximately) $5,000 for liquor license, $1,350 for beer/wine license, $1,000 for a 2nd bar in the same restaurant and $500 for Sunday alcohol sales.

You probably don’t know what relief action the Council took because I didn’t hear them thump their chest about it. Peachtree City recently sent a check to about 1,900 businesses rebating 20% of FY 2021 Business/Occupational Tax, and for bars and restaurants among them, rebating 20% of all the FY 2021 alcohol license fees as well, a pleasant surprise to those business owners struggling to keep staff and customers. Some on the Council wanted to rebate the whole banana but 20% is what they agreed to when the smoke cleared. Good on them for doing something to help.

A spring-loaded crop of critics might ask, “What about meeeee?” or “Where do we get the money to pay for that?” Well, if you accused me of knowing little about municipal finance you would be spot-on, but I do know this. Best Practices for AAA bond rated cities like ours is to keep a minimum of 30% of the budget in reserves for unexpected expenses, so Peachtree City strives for 31% or more. The reserve balance fluctuates but is now around 47% of budget or $18.2M, a nice cushion for the unexpected.

Critics would rightly point fingers if reserves are too low, but might also say taxes are too high if reserves are fat enough to comfortably handle unusual or emergency expenses. Sometimes you can’t win. To give the rebate relief to local businesses, the City spent about $163K. Critics may howl, I say well done.

Is everything peachy in Peachtree City? No, and it never will be. Just like a business, it’s an ongoing struggle.

Do I see things in our City government to prompt my disagreement? Yes, now and then I do. But most often, my disagreement falls under what I call my threshold of delegation, and I let it go.

In the business world, wise managers know that delegation is an art of judgment and self-restraint. When we delegate responsibility to a subordinate, we shouldn’t undermine them with micro-management or interference. Delegating means entrusting decisions to them, and supporting them even if we would have decided differently.

I see it the same way voting for public officials. With my vote I am delegating to them the responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of all of us, and I should support them unless I see a train wreck developing.

But not everyone feels compelled to that same tolerance; there is a steady supply of minds busy with their favorite minutia and oblivious to delegation, maybe complaining the City should inhibit tree root growth to make golf cart rides more smooth, or that tennis courts should be converted to paddle-ball courts.

On larger issues, critics are of course important to keep government on its toes and feeling the healthy heat of accountability. Personally, I am content that Peachtree City is run pretty well, not perfectly, and I can save my criticism for really serious issues.

We all get tunnel vision now and then. If yours gives you a burning desire to inflict points of your personal passion on a City official, consider giving my tolerant attitude a try. Apply the restraint of delegation. Ask yourself if your pet peeve is really a matter vital to all in the City. If not, let it go, lower blood pressure and give your targeted City official a bit of peace.

At my age, I put premium value on peace, which is why I am grateful for those willing to serve and put up with relentless grousing. They likely don’t even know they have rescued me from licking a public toilet seat.

[Terry Garlock has written many opinion columns for The Citizen over the decades. His email is tlg.opinion@gmail.com.]

1 COMMENT

  1. I find myself in general agreement with Mr. Garlock here. Most local workers and managers attempt to do their jobs well, and most local elected officials believe they are acting in the best interests of the citizens. They deserve kudos for the many things they do right if we are going to criticize the few things they get wrong.

    I offer one caveat, however. Any local employee or elected official who publicly lashes out against the citizens or engages in name calling the electorate deserves any backlash received.

    Officials like City Counsel representative Mike King who uses this blog to call people who dissent from his opinion “stop signs” (i.e, dumber than a post), deserve all the derision that they unleash. Thankfully, the great abundance of public servants do not follow his bad example. Kudos to them!