Neely Young: Heart Of The Community

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. As part of the centennial anniversary, the association has assembled a collection of beautiful photographs of the courthouses in all 159 Georgia counties. Some are shown here.

For more than two years, photographer Greg Newington traveled the state to take pictures that capture the courthouses’ beauty in a way that pays tribute to their communities’ stature.

My association with our state’s county courthouses predates my association with Georgia Trend. I spent nearly 35 years walking up their steps as a reporter, photographer, editor and publisher or owner of newspapers. My job included covering the news that courthouses had to offer our newspaper readers.

Courthouses were my bread and butter. And what a delicious meal they served. The buildings are beautiful. They are built and designed to reflect the pride of the citizens in the communities they serve. Most Georgia courthouses are neoclassical in design, and almost all are located in the middle of a town square.

If there was ever a slow news day, all you had to do was go over to the courthouse and you would always find a juicy story. That’s because it’s a happening place that touches almost every citizen in some way or another. The main reason for its existence is to house the courts and judges’ chambers. The sheriff’s office is usually located in the courthouse, and for most of Georgia’s history the county jail was located in the building or close by. The building also houses many other functions. The tax commissioner collects taxes there; the probate office is there to record deeds, wills, births, deaths and all manner of other legal documents.

The great fun for a reporter is that courthouses are usually the location of the offices of the county commission chairman and county commissioners. The sheriff, judges and other court officials are independently elected officers not controlled by the commissioners. This sometimes leads to them feuding and fighting with each other, and that is where many great news stories are found.

I was once publisher of the Daily Citizen News [now The Daily Citizen], the daily newspaper for Dalton and Chatsworth. One story I wish I had covered happened in Murray County in the early days of its existence. According to historian Tim Howard, the community wanted a new courthouse, and the county commission designed what is still one of the most beautiful in the state. It opened nearly 100 years ago, in 1916.

The judge at the time didn’t like the location of his office in the new structure; a large window that let in the sunshine made the room too hot for his liking. When he complained, the commissioners told him he needed all the light he could get anyway, so they refused to make the change. The judge ordered the sheriff to throw the commissioners in jail for contempt. So among the earliest prisoners in the courthouse were the commissioners who built it.

County commissioners can also pick fights with cities. Around 1980, I was at the Dalton newspaper when the city and Whitfield County got into a dispute on how to split up what I remember as $30 million in collected sales tax revenue. If they didn’t come to an agreement by the end of the year, the money would revert to the state.

Part of the dispute, for instance, was that the city didn’t want to pay Whitfield its share for county police protection because Dalton had its own police department. Our newspaper was full of angry charges back and fourth between the city council and the commissioners who were sitting across the table from each other.

As the deadline approached, I was asked to mediate the argument. I separated the two boards into different rooms and carried proposals back and forth for several days. No one on the outside knew my name, and the radio reporters covering the event in real time called me the “mediator.” It came down to the wire, and at the last minute I was able to get both parties to come to an agreement.

When it was signed, everyone was all smiles, and people who were cussing each other a few hours before shook hands and gave each other a pat on the back. Politics make strange bedfellows. There was a state patrol car waiting to race down to the Capitol in Atlanta to deliver the agreement before the deadline, and the document made it just in time to save the day.

It was unusual that a newsman would be involved in something like this, but it seems the local newspaper was the only party both sides trusted to be impartial, something that would be very rare today. And all this took place in the county courthouse.

While I didn’t know it at the time, I was practicing what is called community journalism, when local media try to improve a town and county, not tear them down.

County commissioners and city council members get along better today. The ACCG and the city association, called the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), reflect this change. ACCG Executive Director Ross King and GMA’s Executive Director Lamar Norton are great friends, and they work as a team to make sure the good of all is satisfied in the legislature and in other areas of government.

I’m sure counties and cities still go at it sometimes, but things usually work out for the best, just like they did in Dalton-Whitfield County. Just don’t mess with a judge.

Categories: Neely Young