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See Jackson County's 1999 Year in Review


Tolbert: A rebel with causes

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," wrote Dickens.
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 for 1999.

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 angers Tolbert.
"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 referendum.
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 bill.

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 lines.
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 problem.
"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 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 political right.
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, on Tolbert.
And as other political leaders have learned (think Newt Gingrich), it's always easier to be a brick thrower than a builder of brick bridges.

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