See Jackson County's
1999 Year in Review
Tolbert: A rebel with causes
BY ADAM FOUCHE AND MIKE BUFFINGTON
If Rep. Scott Tolbert had studied literature rather than law,
he might look to the opening words of Charles Dickens' novel,
"A Tale of Two Cities," to describe the past year.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,"
It is, perhaps, an apt description of 1999 for Tolbert. It was
a year that saw the Jefferson attorney in the middle of two major
issues, one of which earned him praise, the other of which found
him the focus of much ire.
Whatever the viewpoint, there's no doubt Tolbert had a hand in
two issues whose outcomes will forever change Jackson County
- a major restructuring of county government and the unplanned
move of the county into the sewage treatment business. Because
of that, Scott Tolbert is The Herald's Newsmaker of the Year
A NEW GOVERNMENT
When Tolbert announced in 1998 that he would introduce legislation
in 1999 to restructure the Jackson County Board of Commissioners,
many dismissed the plan as just another political promise in
the middle of an election year campaign. Changing the county
government had long been a celebrated cause among some in the
county. All the way back to 1960, grand juries had called for
a larger board and more professional management. Indeed, several
efforts to put the idea before voters had taken root, only to
be snuffed out during the rough-and-tumble of turf politics.
But as 1999 dawned, Tolbert released draft legislation that would
enact a five-member board with a hired county manager. He held
several town hall meetings across the county to explain the plan
and answer questions. No organized opposition surfaced.
Still, there was one hurdle to clear before the matter could
go to voters in the form of a referendum - the Senate. Tolbert
had pushed his bill without the support or consent of the existing
board of commissioners. That didn't bother Tolbert, but it did
Sen. Eddie Madden. When the matter had come to Madden several
years ago, he balked on getting it through the Senate without
the consent of the existing board. He reiterated that this time
as well, saying two of the three current board members had to
agree to the change before he'd send it through the Senate.
Madden knew, of course, that while two current board members
supported the change, they wanted a key provision worded differently.
While Tolbert supported having four of the five new board members
elected by districts, commissioners Henry Robinson and Pat Bell
wanted all board members voted on at large, even if they did
live within specific districts. Madden, too, had reservations
about the by-district plan, having seen problems in other counties
where he serves as senator.
But Tolbert was unswayed and put the bill through the House the
way he had promised. As expected, when it went to the Senate,
Madden balked and changed the language to give voters a choice
of electing by district or at large. It was a move that still
"Before I did the legislation I did a poll of what the people
wanted," he said last week. "So I had a pretty good
feel of what they wanted before I ever went into this thing."
Tolbert believes the changed legislation was an effort by some
to kill the by-district option by creating "confusion"
on the referendum ballot.
"I think there were some people that wanted to derail that
method and I think that was obvious in the wording of the referendum,"
he said. "...I think the hope was that people would get
confused and hit 'option one.' They worded it exactly the way
they wanted to word it and they did it at such a time late in
the [legislative] session that I didn't have time to go back
and change it. I think there were people out there that did not
want this change."
In the end, Tolbert had to accept the new language, or see his
bill die. He grudgingly signed off on the changes and was vindicated
by the outcome. Voters approved his original plan of having the
board of commissioners elected by districts. Not only that, but
the vote to change the government structure passed by a whopping
80 percent, perhaps the largest margin this century in any local
Even with the wording change issue, Tolbert reflected on the
fact that he hit the timing right for the referendum.
"I may go the rest of my political career and not write
anything to equal that," he said of the county government
DROWNING IN SEWAGE DEAL
While the victory in restructuring the county government was
a Tolbert high note, his involvement with a private sewage firm
and the resulting bitter feud with county leaders cast a shadow
across his political landscape. Even today Tolbert speaks with
passion about the sour deal between Water Wise, Inc., whom he
and his law partner represent, and county leadership.
"They (county leaders) use emotion instead of using their
head," he said. "One person doesn't have the patent
on all the good ideas... That is what is wrong with that crowd
down there. If it's not their idea, it's a bad idea. If they
are not controlling it and they are not running it, then they're
not going to do it. That's why you had a referendum that passed
80-20, because of that type of attitude."
Early this year, Tolbert had helped pursue a sewage deal between
the firm and the county water authority. In the meantime, Tolbert's
father was representing the sewage company in its effort to buy
the old Texfi sewage facility in Jefferson.
While Water Wise did eventually purchase the facility, the relationship
between Water Wise and county leaders headed south. The county
refused to sign a contract with Water Wise, in part because county
leaders discovered that if the private firm had an EPD permit,
it would have the power of condemnation. That means the firm
could have controlled growth in the county by where it put sewage
Privately, several local leaders kicked themselves for not having
led the county into the sewage business earlier. The cost and
the political fallout of getting into sewage had held the county
back and now it was faced with a difficult choice - either stop
Water Wise and get into sewage, or stand aside and allow a private
firm to perhaps get control of the county's growth pattern. The
county chose the former and hoped that it could prevail on the
state to not grant Water Wise a permit unless the county agreed
to the terms.
All of that might have just been a sideline to Tolbert's law
practice had it not been for the now infamous July 20 meeting
of the Pendergrass City Council. A former mayor of Pendergrass,
Tolbert and his law firm continue to represent the legal interests
of the town. Tolbert's brother is the mayor and his father a
city councilman. So when Water Wise told the city council on
July 20 that the company wanted to build a sewer treatment facility
in the small town, it at first appeared like a regular deal,
albeit one with a lot of family connections.
But when county leaders read about the deal between Pendergrass
and Water Wise, they sensed something else was afoot. By that
July meeting, the county had learned that to get an EPD permit,
Water Wise had to have the backing of a local government through
a "trust indenture." They suspected, rightly as it
turned out, that Pendergrass had signed such a document and that
the company's July 20th pitch to the town was just an elaborate
ruse designed to cover up its real intentions.
Receiving the strongest wrath from county leaders was Scott Tolbert
who, many believe, had orchestrated the deal with Pendergrass
behind the scenes in order to bypass the county government. Questions
were raised about how Tolbert's law firm could represent the
interests of both the town and Water Wise in the deal. Some county
leaders fumed that as a state representative, Tolbert had betrayed
the larger interests of his county in order to help Water Wise,
a private legal client.
Lawsuits are ongoing in the matter, but rather than dwelling
on the legal aspects of the issue, or his controversial role
in the deal, Tolbert now waves his Republican Party's banner
of "privatization," saying Water Wise would be better
able to serve the county than the county government.
"If the county had left Water Wise alone, Jackson County
High School would have been served right now and they would not
be sitting in the predicament they are sitting in with sewage
coming up to the surface," he says.
Tolbert also slams the county government for its attitude in
the Water Wise deal as being a symptom of a larger government
"What they are trying to do is almost a socialist form of
government: 'Let us pay for it; let us own it; let us operate
it.' I just don't understand why government has to run and control
and be involved in everything. That's not what our forefathers
established government for. It wasn't to be involved in every
little piece of your life."
THE COMMON THREAD
The fallout from the Water Wise controversy on the affable Tolbert's
political career has yet to be measured. For all his emphasis
on ideological issues, he is a practical politician, as evidenced
by his well-timed move from the Democratic Party to the Republican
Party in 1997, a time when the county was rapidly moving to the
Always quick with a quip, Tolbert has a disarming political charm
that may serve to smooth the rough edges of political battle.
While not a spellbinding speaker, he exudes self-assurance (some
would say "cockiness") and a command of the issues.
His use of sarcasm as a political dagger is well noted.
But beyond those surface signs, perhaps the most telling aspect
of Tolbert's political makeup is the common thread that runs
between his move to change the county government and his role
in the Water Wise ordeal. In both cases, Tolbert displayed a
strong disdain of county government in general and of the current
county leaders in particular. His desire to change county government
may have been equal parts restructuring and retribution.
"Now you're actually going to have county leaders who are
going to be accessible to their constituents and they're also
going to be accountable to their constituents," he says
of the new board structure.
Of the Water Wise issue, Tolbert says county leaders were wrong
to forgo the first deal offered by the company.
"Anybody that does not agree with that is just a raving
lunatic," he says in a not-so-subtle slap at those who disagreed
with the deal.
Tolbert's contempt of county leadership is apparent, but it remains
to be seen if he can broaden his causes and make a mark on issues
that go outside these fights with county leaders now that he's
reached his major goal. Whatever the underlying motivation, how
county government works from now on will reflect, good and bad,
And as other political leaders have learned (think Newt Gingrich),
it's always easier to be a brick thrower than a builder of brick