My first assignment at this newspaper was to cover Manuel Maloof.
OK, technically, I covered DeKalb County government. But in those days, it was the same thing.
Before sunrise the morning my first DeKalb story appeared – a dutiful account that mentioned the county’s purchase of sewer pipes or some such thing – I was awakened by the telephone.
“Is this the dumb son of a bitch that writes for that crappy rag of a newspaper?”
Before I could answer, “speaking,” Manuel, then the county commission chairman, launched an unbreakable tirade of obscenity-laced reproach. It seems I had inaccurately described whatever it was the county bought – heaven forgive me, I can’t recall what it was. Manuel was infuriated that anyone could portray him as so cavalier.
After a few minutes, he paused. “So, got nothing to say for yourself?”
Not really. I had screwed up. It seemed a small detail, but to Manuel it was everything. Manuel lived for the job. “Making the county run was my whole being,” he said one night at his famous tavern. He never took the public’s trust for granted and worried deeply that his job could become impossible if he ever lost it.
Manuel, who retired in 1992 and died 12 years later, taught me to expect that from public servants. It stuck.
When I read Bill Torpy’s troubling front page piece on DeKalb’s decline, I can’t help but to think about Manuel.
I don’t have any idea whether Manuel’s successor, Burrell Ellis, has done anything to warrant the attention he is getting from DeKalb’s district attorney. I know only what I read about the dysfunction on the DeKalb school board that risks the school system’s accreditation.
I understand why the guy quoted on our front page decided against buying a $1 million house in DeKalb. But where will he go?
Four of five metro counties sit under some similar dark clouds. Gwinnett County has its indictments and suggestions of an unsavory relationship between developers and elected officials. Fulton County is incompetent to perform the essential act of democracy – running an election – and doesn’t engender much trust when its elected officials don’t bother to show up to vote and sleep during meetings. Clayton voters have elected a sheriff who not only is accused of a few felonies but wasn’t exactly a picture of prudent governance when he held the job before.
And the city of Atlanta is still haunted by the test cheating scandal. We should count our blessings that little seems amiss in Cobb County – at least not as of Friday.
Readers know that we have been devoting a lot of attention to the way elected officials conduct themselves. Many if not most officials, particularly the employees who labor with little attention or credit, would make Manuel proud.
Yet, too few can honestly say they live for their work. Many seem to be after a paycheck or small privileges such as UGA football tickets. When they call to complain these days, it tends to be about some hit on their image. It’s almost never about some small but important policy detail.
So, it’s no wonder that the public is mistrustful. Our recent polls show most folks here think their elected officials are wasteful and dishonest.
It seems that Manuel Maloof’s worst nightmare has come true. And it matters. Last summer’s transportation tax referendum failed largely because voters don’t trust their government at any level. Places that once held solid reputations, such as DeKalb, face daunting repair with their reputations, not only with their constituents but with the world at large. Metro Atlanta’s marketing folks, who once pitched the 1996 Olympics and pleasant weather, now must explain test cheating and the climate of corruption.
In his state of the state remarks this week, Gov. Nathan Deal showed he grasps the problem. “If the citizens of Georgia don’t trust us, it will all be in vain, for the vibrations of distrust will crack even the strongest foundations.”
After taking a swipe at the press for “sowing seeds of doubt and distrust” he tossed the ball to legislators, calling for “clear rules under which you and those who deal with you in your capacity as elected officials must operate.”
And he said ethical reform “should apply equally to all elected officials at the state and local levels.”
From Manuel, I imagine a sharp, slightly profane response followed by the hint of a hopeful grin.
The members of the state ethics commission, eager to bring order to one of the most disordered corners of state government, hired a “receiver” last week to heal their agency and then did they only thing they could.
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