August 16, 2017

We can’t let Pogo be our landfill prophet

     Back when I was squirming in those rock-hard desks at Orange Street Elementary School, my teachers didn’t know about attention deficit disorder (ADD.)  Mildred Jones, Gussie Richardson and Sara James simply declared, “Son, you have ants in your pants!”
     Those wonderful ladies are gone, but my inability to sit still is very much alive.  And if anything squirms more than my bottom, it is my brain.  In this landfill controversy, the “ants” have crawled from my pants into my brain.
     Somewhere, somehow, there has to be an acceptable resolve for Republic Services and the citizens of Wayne County.  The Broadhurst Environmental Landfill, like it or not, is here to stay.  Your newspaper has been here since 1865.  The Press-Sentinel isn’t going anywhere either.  I am confident that tens of thousands of you feel the same way.  No one, not even a multibillion-dollar behemoth, can snatch up our roots, our love, or our loyalty to this place we call Wayne County.
     Over the last week, I have had multiple telephone conversations and face-to-face visits with people on both sides of this brouhaha.  Sunday afternoon, as I was driving, I was rolling around all the comments I had heard.  Out of nowhere, a Simon and Garfunkel tune popped into my head.  I began humming “Mrs. Robinson,” and then I got to “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?” in the 1968 lyrics.    
     Now, what does a New York Yankees legend have to do with a wetlands-destroying rail spur and millions of tons of toxic coal ash?  Absolutely nothing.  I’ve already told you about the incessant whirring of my brain, and that explains how my thinking jumped tracks to Henry Kissinger.
     Yes, the former United States secretary of state and national security advisor back in the era of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  Kissinger’s keen mind and negotiating skills won him a Nobel Prize.  At 94, he’s probably not interested in hopping on Amtrak to Jesup for a peace-talks summit.  However, that’s the kind of facilitator we need—now—to pull together a forum to explore the right steps to a win-win resolution.
     When Republic presented its latest proposal on July 20, the waste-management company thought it was providing a way to erase the community’s angst about toxic coal ash—forever.  Republic called it a “good neighbor” plan.  For the most part, it has been perceived as anything but a good neighbor gesture. Now, we have Goliath frustrated and digging in his heels.  To compound matters, the county and our three municipalities can’t seem to agree.
     This is what I think.  Negotiations have to start somewhere.  Republic’s first draft is exactly that—a first draft.  But before our officials start negotiations, something else needs to happen.   The people of Wayne County—elected and otherwise—need to decide what we are willing to accept.  There should be a series of town-hall meetings with county, Jesup, Odum, and Screven officials, along with Solid Waste Authority members and the taxpaying citizens of Wayne County.
     We must identify the things most important to us in the upcoming negotiations.  If Henry Kissinger were here, he would tell us, “You must be united, or you will not be successful.”  We must not let positive dialogue collapse while we squabble among ourselves. 
     Oops, my mind has jumped again.  
     This time, I’m in the Okefenokee Swamp.
     Walt Kelly’s cartoon possum explains exactly what we must avoid. 
     Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
     No, no. 
     We can’t have that happen here!

August 9, 2017

We should listen to Yogi and The Possum for guidance

     If you were born in 1967 or before, where were you on your 50th birthday?  I know where I was on mine, Dec. 3, 1998.  Gov. Zell Miller and I were sitting toe to toe in a state airplane, about 15,000 feet high in the clouds.  Across the aisle was Rebecca Paul, the Georgia Lottery Corporation’s top executive.  We were Albany-bound on an economic-development mission.
     The pointed toes of Gov. Miller’s cowboy boots were touching the tips of my black tassel loafers when I leaned forward to ask, “Who’s your favorite country singer?” Without hesitation, the father of our state’s education-enriching lottery fired back, “George Jones!”  I knew the governor had two special affinities outside of politics: country music and baseball.  The mountain man from Young Harris is an encyclopedia on both subjects.
      The governor was a personal friend of Jones, aka The Possum.  I’m a fan of both men.  One of my favorite George Jones tunes is “Choices.”  He wails about living and dying by the choices we make.  That could very well be the theme song of Wayne County’s plight in the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill saga.
     Our county commissioners made a choice a quarter-century ago to allow a privately owned regional landfill in our community.  Unfortunately, the downside consequences of that choice were overlooked.   By now, we all know the fallout of the 2005 choice of the commissioners to handcuff us into a 50-year contract with Republic.  However, a growing number of people believe those “handcuffs” should be challenged, especially after Central Virginia Properties LLC’s stealth rail-spur application in January 2016.  And that choice has kept us entangled in a modern-day David-and-Goliath battle ever since.
     Now, let’s go back to Gov. Miller. Four summers ago, Larry Walker and I nicknamed our road trip “The Legends Tour.”  We stopped in Calhoun first to visit our friend Bert Lance, just before the banker-turned-political operative died.  From there, we darted deeper into Northwest Georgia to see one of America’s most feared and revered attorneys—Bobby Lee Cook.  In his signature seersucker suit, he regaled us with stories, and we left convinced our friend was the inspiration of TV’s Matlock.
     From Summerville, we drove to Young Harris to spend the morning with Zell and Shirley Miller.  Inside that quaint stone home are two remarkable Georgia leaders.  Until the bulk of his baseball memorabilia moved across the road to the Zell and Shirley Miller Library at Young Harris College, the Miller home was also a baseball museum.   It’s still a library.  Thousands of books adorn the walls.
     As the former governor and United States senator walked us from room to room, he paused and laughed.  He was pointing to a framed note his buddy, Mickey Mantle, had scrawled on a banquet napkin.  The last line of the former New York Yankee legend read, “Yog and Zell remind me of each other, not as dumb as they seem.”
     That brings me to Yogi Berra, who also wore Yankee pinstripes.  Besides being a Hall of Fame catcher and major-league coach, Yogi’s was good for quips such as “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”  George Jones could have used that line in one of his songs.
     In the coming weeks, as we search for common ground in this Republic-vs.-the-people-of-Wayne-County debacle, I think we can look to both The Possum and Yogi for guidance.  Whatever “choices” we make, we’ll be “living and dying” by them.  There’s a river of legalese and emotions to wade through. 
     Republic is insistent. 
     We should be, too.
     Before this is resolved with the ultimate choices, there must be healthy rounds of discussion.  And where should the citizens of Wayne County be?  Right in the middle, making their voices heard.
     Republic is a multibillion-dollar corporation, a Goliath compared to our meager David-like resources.  Still, Yogi is right:  “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”