Poll shows leaders have work cut out on trust issue

Metro Atlantans have a stern warning for public officials: We don’t trust you, and we won’t pay to fix some of our region’s biggest problems until we do.

Many government officials say they’ve already heard the message, and some are putting more time and energy into public relations and trying to increase transparency. But so far signs of restored trust are scant.

A poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 60 percent of respondents in 10 metro counties believe government wastes “a lot” of money; that “not many” or “hardly any” of the people running the government are honest; and that public officials don’t care much what people like them think.

The polling firm, SRBI, concluded distrust in government is likely the primary reason the T-SPLOST transportation tax referendum, billed by advocates as critical to the region’s future, failed nearly two-to-one last summer.

Tricia Palese, 52, of Norcross, said she favors a special sales tax to improve transportation. But she doesn’t trust the government, she didn’t vote in the T-SPLOST election and she almost didn’t vote in November.

“My distrust has gotten so strong I don’t feel my vote counts,” she said.

Top suggestions in the poll included replacing dishonest government officials with honest ones, increasing transparency and accountability in office, and wasting less money.

Some government officials interviewed this week said better communication is a first step.

Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee said he’s seen distrust grow over his 10 years in office, especially at the federal level. He was on the receiving end of blistering attacks during the debate over T-SPLOST, which he helped design but which failed in every metro county.

Lee wants to propose a new sales tax to replace some property taxes in Cobb. But because of the strong distrust, he plans to go slow, using next year to pitch the proposal in public meetings, community conversations and interviews, with a vote possible in 2014.

“In the past, I might have tried to move that concept forward at a faster pace, but because it’s important the public believe they’ve been listened to, it’s going to take longer to move that concept through,” he said.

Some of the state’s biggest agencies say they need to show results and tell their success stories better.

“When you touch everyone’s life on a regular basis and something goes wrong, you hear about it. But there’s so many things we do well, that’s just not something the general public knows,” said Keith Golden, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

DOT is going to be more aggressive at publicizing projects that get done on time and on budget, he said. It’s considering putting project progress online.

Golden said it’s no less important that DOT do a great job, especially on high-profile projects. The T-SPLOST passed in three of the state’s 12 regions, and successful delivery of projects there could be an advertisement for a future regional transportation funding measure here.

“The governor told me in his office to deliver the program flawlessly,” Golden said, “and make others see what the potential is.”

Fred Daniels, MARTA’s chairman, said the transit agency’s recent audit was a step toward gaining trust. MARTA hired KPMG, to look for ways it could be saving or making more money. MARTA intends to use the savings to improve service, he said.

“If the buses don’t arrive on time, if our trains are not timely…that erodes confidence,” he said.

Gwinnett voters have especially good reason to distrust government. Three commissioners have resigned amid allegations of corruption in the past two years.

Gwinnett’s new commissioners are trying to rebuild the government’s reputation, approving new land-acquisition rules and a revised ethics ordinance. Days before meetings, the county posts a detailed agenda online with all the documents that are available to commissioners.

But commission Chair Charlotte Nash said it’s ultimately the behavior of commissioners that earns, or loses, public trust.

Sometimes the public mood can be tough to read.

Clayton County Commissioner Eldrin Bell was voted out of office in August, along with other incumbents in the county.

Voters also replaced the incumbent sheriff with a challenger, Victor Hill, who is under indictment on 32 felony charges stemming from his first term in the position.

Bell feels he was swept up in the wave of anger toward Clayton’s local government that stems in part from a past school accreditation crisis. He blamed poor communication of successes and declining civility among public officials.

“The results speak for themselves,” he said. “You get a Ph.D. and come home, and there is no one there to welcome you. You get charged with multiple counts of misbehavior and criminal activity, and we have a party, or we give you overwhelming support in your election process.”

Fewer than half — just under 50 percent — of people surveyed in poll thought the state Legislature or business leaders such as the Metro Atlanta Chamber were helpful to progress in the region. Only half said government involvement in their lives is useful, and 60 percent said public officials don’t care what people like them think.

On the state level, many respondents said they still seethe at the state’s broken promise to remove the Ga. 400 toll on schedule. Poll respondents brought up news accounts of officials who used their positions to advocate for personal gain, of decisions made without public support, or of results that weren’t delivered.

Some want what officials say is impossible: for government to erase congestion, or completely solve similar major problems, with the money on hand.

Experts say the poor economy has fueled distrust.

“If you’re worried about your job, you may have more distrust, and you may have reason to have more distrust,” said John Thomas, a professor of public management at Georgia State University.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said public trust is important but he thinks the T-SPLOST failed for additional reasons, including its timing.

Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam Williams, who helped lead the fight for the T-SPLOST, said that the Chamber’s research concluded that trust was a key reason for the defeat.

People surveyed for the poll had a raft of suggestions for ways to build trust - some specific, some vague, some personal. Few responded it couldn’t be done. But in interviews, few thought it would be easy.

Kelvin Beverly, 35, who lives in Kennesaw, said he voted for T-SPLOST because he felt it was needed, but he still feels most politicians squander the money they have, and turn around and ask for more. He said PR campaigns won’t sway his thinking.

“People believe what they see with their eyes. If you’re telling me you’re doing this, until I see what’s going on, until I see something getting fixed — you’re telling me that, but that’s not going to help.”

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