10 April '16
Howdy, folks. Hope all is well out there. A while back, I had asked Phil Johnson, Democratic candidate for BOC Chair, for an interview. He happily obliged. Initially, I was going to email him some questions and then follow up with a phone interview to put together a write-up. I sent the email, and I had the phone conversation, but I've decided to just copy and paste my questions and his responses. I'm doing this because his answers were so thought out and thorough that I didn't really want to filter it or condense it in any way.
Our phone interview went really well. I've known Phil a long time and we've had some great conversations over the years. He's obviously a really smart guy, and he has a very firm grasp of the issues. For the most part, we covered a lot of things that you'll read in his responses.
While Phil and I disagree on some things and have some differences in our core political philosophies, we have a lot in common and I like a lot of what he has to say. I'm not currently endorsing anyone in this race, and I have some doubts about Phil's ability to survive the Democratic primary, but in terms of knowledge of the issues and intelligence, I would think he would probably be at the top of the list of any of the four other candidates running on either side. With that said, I'll also say this - with the campaign team he has assembled, I think he's definitely got a chance. Should be a fun race to follow. And as I've mentioned before, I'm hoping to have interviews with the other candidates in this race in addition to Phil (I've already interviewed Micheal Syphoe). Below is the text of my questions and Phil's answers.
As always, thanks for reading.
*Ed. Note - for those of you reading on mobile devices, you'll notice gaps in the text. That's a formatting issue from me having copied and pasted Phil's response from Microsoft Word. There's probably a way to fix it, but I'm not technically savvy enough to figure it out. My apologies.
~ Q & A with Phil Johnson ~
1) Why are you running for Chair?
A picture of my 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild is the best answer, but you
probably want more.
I began running for Chair almost two years ago, spurred by a disturbing leadership
vacuum in our county government. The pivotal moment came during public debate over
the 2050 Plan, when the current Chair told me he didn't believe he should take a
position on such matters. His lack of an articulated vision and failure to seek consensus
on critical issues before the commission over the past three years absolutely convinced
me our problem is leadership. It’s no coincidence multiple boards spent the past five
years arguing about our form of government, while ignoring the very substance of
government. In the chase for power, we’ve abandoned the essential leadership
necessary for inclusive, transparent, responsive government. I don't have all the
answers, but I understand full well the importance of tackling tough issues, discussing
them openly in the light of day, and having the courage to take a stand and lead.
Situations like the landfill and reservoir aren’t just issues for today; they affect future
generations in all our families. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure future
generations of my family grow up enjoying the kind of community where I have lived my
2) Define your political philosophy specifically.
Our nation has long been divided along partisan lines, but fracturing within the parties
today reflects just how dissatisfied people are with the current system.
We’re split by significant issues nationally. But, at the local level, I actually see people
coming together, aligned on more fundamental values like fairness, integrity, common
sense, inclusion, and transparency. This gives me hope.
Local government isn’t tangled with the great philosophical or moral issues of our
day. As the saying goes, local government is about making the trains run on time.
To the extent political philosophy is how government should operate, I embrace the
morality that a public official is answerable to all citizens and must be transparent,
truthful, and fair conducting the people’s business. Outrage over the compromise of
these values is what united the people of Newton County to force the dramatic events of
the past 15 months. And, that’s a good thing.
Where reasonable people disagree is what role government should play and how much
government we should have. It’s an important discussion, but there are no absolute
answers. The Apple debate over individual privacy vs. public safety is a great example
where competing objectives required weighing tradeoffs. Locally, the 2050 Plan debate
is another excellent example. I believe strongly in the need for local governments to
establish frameworks for future land use and development, but I also joined the voices
who felt specifics in that plan were imposing unreasonable restrictions on landowners in
some parts of the county. Citizens expect individual freedom with property they hold or
acquire to develop, yet they also want a degree of predictability for what develops
Local government must find the delicate balance between those interests. We won’t all
agree on where to draw the line, but it is a leader’s responsibility to frame the
objectives, facilitate honest discussion, and to the best of human ability find good
compromises that serve community interests.
3) What should be done with the Bear Creek situation? If abandoned, what of the
What made Bear Creek Reservoir most troubling were the lack of objectivity in advice
and direction from the County Attorney/Water Consultant and the serious failure in
oversight by the Chair and commissioners. The net effect is a shelved project with no
permit and $22M of public funds spent with little to show for it.
The public pressure which forced the board to call a halt last summer stopped the
bleeding. But, where do we go from here?
We still must meet future water demands from residential, commercial, and industrial
growth. The refusal by the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit for Bear Creek
and eroding public support were both rooted in the same basic problem. Despite more
than 17 years of effort and expense, Newton County has not demonstrated objective,
fact-based understanding of our current water system capacity, nor projected future
Thus, the steps we should take now are:
1. Partner with the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority (NCWSA) to
examine existing treatment plants (Varner and Williams Street) and the
associated distribution system to determine repairs and enhancements needed
to handle the full volume of water we are permitted to draw from Lake Varner and
the Alcovy River. Then we should engineer, fund, and complete those repairs as
soon as possible.
2. Work with the NCWSA to obtain reliable information on our existing raw water
resources at Lake Varner and the Alcovy River, as well as the availability of
alternative water sources such as Hard Labor Reservoir in Walton County.
3. Inventory property and easements acquired for reservoir construction and
environmental mitigation to determine conditions, buy back provisions, or time
constraints involved, so we know deadlines for taking any required action.
4. Evaluate passive recreation and green space potential for the acquired land until
there is a demonstrated need for an additional water source in Newton County.
In summary, we seem to have an adequate supply of raw water to meet residential,
commercial, and industrial needs for a significant period of time, but existing treatment
facilities need immediate attention. Before building any new reservoir, we should
explore alternate sources for long range needs. Finally, we should not squander the
investment made at Bear Creek by disposing of the only asset we have to show – the
land. We should explore recreational and green space uses to realize an interim return
on investment until there is a demonstrated need for an additional raw water source.
4) Why are you running as a Democrat?
I would prefer local elections to be non-partisan. At a level where you can sit with
candidates to talk at length about the issues, party affiliation can be a distraction. It
keeps us from listening to ideas or considering candidates with an open mind.
Unfortunately, in the current primary election system, I had to qualify as either a
Democrat or a Republican. And, the hurdles for qualifying and winning as an
Independent are still too great.
In 1976, I ran as a Democrat and was elected to serve in the Georgia House of
Representatives. It was a time when every elected official in Newton County was a
Democrat. My father and grandfather, like almost every voter in Newton County, were
Democrats due in large part to historical pressures existing over a century and
reinforced by the Great Depression and the war which followed.
To change parties now would seem disingenuous and opportunistic, neither of which
reflect my character. Politicians are tempted to plot the path of least resistance to
winning. But, doing so creates an even greater dependence on a partisanship I hope to
My path to victory and the opportunity to serve the people of Newton County runs
through the Democratic Primary. With a win in the Democratic Primary, I believe I will
enjoy broad support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in the General
In the end this election is not about party politics, race, geography, or income. It is
about having the skill set, life experiences, and leadership style to articulate a vision and
unite citizens to build a better Newton County. That – not political maneuvering -- has
been my focus the past two years.
5) Do you have, or have you had, any business dealings with Tommy Craig?
Yes. I’ve probably known Tommy Craig longer than anyone in Newton County. We
started law school in the same class at the University of Georgia in 1972. In the fall of
1975, I opened my law office in an old service station on Highway 278. Tommy was
unhappy as an attorney in Hartwell, so he called to ask if he could come practice with
me in Covington. John Strauss, Sr. was also interested in private practice, so we
formed the firm Johnson, Craig and Strauss in late 1976. By the end of 1980, John left
to become District Attorney for the newly established Alcovy Judicial Circuit, and I
separated to return to my private practice.
Since then, I have represented clients in matters opposite Tommy, including several
zoning cases. I have also represented families from whom the County acquired land for
Bear Creek Reservoir.
Like many citizens, I became concerned by the extraordinary legal billings of the Craig
firm – which were clearly out of line with the legal expenses of almost any comparable
county. But, those amounts were not my biggest concern.
Our greatest concern should have been the near total control exerted by the County
Attorney over all Board decisions. At some point, we moved from the County Attorney
being legal advisor for the Board of Commissioners to what can best be described as a
County Attorney Form of Government. He created a culture of dependency by
interjecting himself into every decision.
We must remember, however, Tommy Craig did not seize control by armed coup. He
wielded power abdicated to him by successive Chairs and Boards content to let him set
policy and dictate actions. The end result is our current situation: muddled lines of
authority, missing accountability, and a glaring inability to act decisively on even basic
matters of governance.
6) Describe your platform for your campaign.
The next Chair must address the burning issues of today: solid waste management,
water resources, form of government, budgeting, and fiscal management. But, these
are just symptoms of a deeper problem.
My campaign is about something more fundamental. Our platform is leadership to
effectively resolve these issues and position Newton County to face new challenges
without allowing such widespread, long-term damage. We must advance to where our
agenda is shaped by tomorrow’s opportunities -- not yesterday’s threats.
To refocus on values people expect and outcomes our county needs, I will apply
leadership at an operational, tactical, and strategic level.
Operationally, the Chair must ensure clarity, transparency, and inclusion – the
hallmarks of good government. This means complying with the letter and intent
of state and local open meetings laws. It also entails managing board meetings
so motions are clearly stated, thoroughly discussed, and voted upon with a clear
understanding of the intent and consequences. The Chair also has a
responsibility to work with the County Manager so that follow on actions are
understood and executed by county staff with full awareness of the public and
Tactically, the Chair must represent the interests and priorities of citizens by
ensuring urgent items are getting proper attention and action. The
commissioners make the decisions, and the County Manager executes the work
plan, but it is the role of the Chair to frame the right issues, facilitate the
discussion, and engage all parties in getting things addressed. The current
situation with our landfill and solid waste management operation is a travesty and
a prime example where a lack of leadership from the Chair and others has
allowed things to spiral out of control, exposing citizens to huge environmental
and financial risks. I will not let this continue to happen.
Strategically, the Chair must unite the board, county staff, citizens, and others in
an ongoing planning process. As Chair, I will engage with citizens, partner with
the cities, and collaborate with agencies and business leaders locally and
statewide to further the interests of Newton County. Rather than shy away from
controversial discussion points, I will bring people to the table and work to find
common ground, workable compromises, and overarching principles we can
agree on to guide our planning, investments, development, and future projects.
In the end, I want to create a county government with professional management,
institutional integrity, transparency, and inclusion. We will balance the needs of the
whole with the independence of the individual, aimed at building the economic base of
living wage jobs and amenities to create the quality of life in all parts of Newton County.
We will make Newton County a place our children and grandchildren will want to make
their home for life.
7) How do we turn around the monetary losses of the landfill and trash centers?
First, we stop viewing the landfill and convenience centers as separate entities and
manage the end-to-end solid waste stream from collection to disposal. To do that, we
must accurately allocate costs and revenues to the appropriate activities and services
Our solid waste operation is currently losing more than $2.5M per year. Worse yet, due
to the unwillingness of commissioners to make tough choices or take decisive action,
we’re funding that deficit by dipping into county cash reserves. The resulting 30% drop
in reserves over the past three years threatens our bond rating and future borrowing
The majority of the operating deficit is from the eleven convenience centers which
collect no fees for usage. Last year the Board of Commissioners built revenue budget
estimates assuming a fee would be charged starting in the second half of 2015, but they
never implemented that.
Convenience centers are operated by a staffing company, but no monitoring is done to
ensure only Newton County residents dispose waste. While monitoring methods are
possible – such as a decal, camera systems, etc. – these require additional staffing
and/or equipment to enforce. This is clearly not a sustainable model.
I visited Lamar County to see how their Solid Waste Authority has dealt with these same
issues. About 23 years ago, they phased out convenience centers by establishing
county-wide curbside pickup. As a part of their service, in addition to weekly pickup,
citizens can dispose of 4000 pounds of bulk waste, seven tires, and yard debris at no
charge at their landfill.
While there are population and size differences between Lamar County and Newton
County, their success provides a good starting point for our Solid Waste Authority.
Since inception, the Lamar County SWA has not taken one cent in county taxpayer
money. The cost of curbside pickup has remained at $11 per month and their tipping
fees have stayed constant at $22 per ton for the last 23 years.
Beyond that, Lamar County has aggressively leveraged advanced technology to reclaim
landfill space – an issue we face as well. Twenty three years ago, they had only
months of landfill space remaining. By mining, compacting, and diverting waste from
their landfill, Lamar County has reclaimed about 100 years of additional capacity for
future waste. Going further, they are now exploiting leading edge technologies like
pyrolytic gasification to divert waste and convert it to marketable products like gas and
inert solids that take solid waste operations from a cost burden to a revenue generator.
The most important step the Board of Commissioners has taken to date on this is to
establish the Newton County Solid Waste Authority. But, to ultimately reverse losses
and also address environmental risks at our landfill, that authority needs the full support
of the board and citizens to:
1. Shift our mindset to end-to-end solid waste management with accurate
2. Transition over time from the convenience center model to curbside pickup.
3. Integrate recycling into curbside service to increase the amount of waste we
divert from the landfill.
4. Progressively move from our current 1970s approach of burying trash to modern
technology solutions that shift the landfill from a cost center to a revenue