Local News

June 15, 2014

‘We need honesty, morals,’ students told during county government month program

Eighth-graders at Valley Point Middle School may not remember all the details they heard about some of the jobs of Whitfield County government officials.

But Sheriff Scott Chitwood hopes they will remember at least one thing he mentioned during the fifth annual National County Government Month program at the school on April 29.

“Just recently we had a job posted and received 200 applications,” the sheriff told the students gathered in the Valley Point media center. “We narrowed it down to about 25 people real quick because the other applicants had done something wrong — they lied, they stole, they did cocaine, they’ve smoked meth, you name it, they’ve done it.”

Chitwood pointed out that anyone can learn how to do the everyday tasks in his department like putting handcuffs on, shooting a gun and driving a patrol car.

“Every office represented here today can probably also say the same thing about what they do,” he said.

But, more importantly, the sheriff told the students, “We need honesty. We need morals. We need people with good character. That’s what is hard to find. So as you get older and move into high school, be careful with Facebook. That’s one of the first places we go to check when we’re hiring somebody. OK?”

Chitwood also urged the students to do their best in school.

“Be a good student in high school because the first place we call (for references when hiring) is the principal or the teachers back at your high school,” he said. “‘Tell me what kind of student they were, what’s their attitude?’ So what you’re doing today is going to lay the groundwork for your career as an adult.”

“I’ll stick my neck out on a limb to say everybody up here,” the sheriff said, pointing to the six other government officials who participated in the program, “has a clean record or we would not be where we’re at today. So it can be done.”

Joining Chitwood in the two hour-long sessions at Valley Point were Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris, Magistrate Judge Gayle Gazaway, Probate Judge Sheri Blevins, Bill Holloway and Chris Blessing with the Tax Assessor’s Office, and Jess Hansen with the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) division of the IT Department.

The program has been held during April for the past five years to help Whitfield County celebrate National County Government Month.

“The goal is to show these students that their county government officials are real people who care about them and the other residents in Whitfield County,” said Mitch Talley, director of communications for the county, who has organized the program since 2010. “We always get a lot of positive feedback from our teachers and students after we visit the schools. We want them to realize that they are always welcome to talk with their local officials if they have a concern and that our county officials have their best interests at heart as they do their jobs. It’s also good for us with the county to meet some of the people whose lives may be impacted someday by the decisions we make.”

Talley thanked Valley Point educator Ted Yarbrough for participating in the program the past five years and congratulated him on his retirement.

“The programs are always informative to our students, and we get positive feedback from them after each presentation,” Yarbrough said in an email after the program. “Please pass on our thanks and gratitude to all the speakers. As you know, I will be retiring at the end of this year, and this is one of the events I will hate to miss.”

The speakers first shared an overview of their jobs with the students and then took time to answer questions.

One such question prompted an insight into what it’s like to be a Superior Court judge.

“You have to remember that it’s not personal,” Judge Cindy Morris told the students. “My job is to listen to the evidence and apply the law to the evidence. So even if I sentence somebody to prison, I’m not going to do it because I’m mad at the person. I might be mad at what they did because there are people that do some really bad stuff. Yes, they do bad things, but you have to remember you’re not taking that out personally on them. You’ve got to take a step back and listen to the evidence and apply the law to the evidence. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath!”

One student asked the panelists what was the most fun part of their jobs.

Blessing, who appraises land and buildings for the Tax Assessor’s Office, had a quick reply: “My favorite part is actually exploring. My number one thing when I’m out in the field is locating property, and sometimes when you’re doing that, you come across some crazy things. We’ve come across people committing crimes where we’ve had to call the sheriff’s office, and there’s been a case where I was a witness in a Superior Court trial … actually been a few.”

“I get to see everybody’s house in my area,” he continued. “Sometimes I run into angry taxpayers who want me off their property. Sometimes I run into really nice people — actually most of the time, I run into really nice people. And I get to see weird things, like a taxicab golf cart that goes through Tunnel Hill, just odd things like that.”

His fellow worker, Bill Holloway, pointed out that his office keeps up each year with the value of the equipment and the inventory in the hundreds of businesses in the county, which means he sometimes  has to value thousands of pieces for large companies. Those values all come together to help create the county tax digest, which is used to come  up with the millage rate that determines how much property tax is owed by the county’s taxpayers to pay for the services provided by the government.

Jess Hansen, GIS coordinator, said he takes care of the county’s version of Google Maps, which shows lots of information about county property 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Before GIS was introduced into the county,” Hansen said, “if you wanted this information you’d have to get in your car and drive down to the courthouse during business hours, sit down in the Tax Assessor’s Office, pull out the tax map, find out what the tax assessment number is, go to a file cabinet, pull out the old property record card, then you’d learn who owned it. Then you’d have to go upstairs to the tax commissioner’s office, you’d have to figure out how much they paid in taxes that year. Then you’d have to walk over to the clerk of court’s office and look up in their books what the current deed is for that property, if it wasn’t listed on the property record card.”

What GIS and digital information have done for county residents, he said, is “we can get this information out to people within the county and outside the county, so they can get the information right then, get it very quickly, 24/7, 365.”

Magistrate Judge Gayle Gazaway, who took office earlier this year, explained that after law enforcement officers show her evidence that someone has committed a crime, she then issues a warrant and the perpetrator is arrested and taken to the jail, processed and then has a right to what’s known as a first appearance. “That’s within 48 to 72 hours of their arrest, and we tell them what they’ve been charged with, what their rights are, give them an attorney if they can’t afford one and set a bond for them if they’re eligible.”

She said the main goal of her court is to treat everyone fairly.

The panelists also offered some sound advice to the students, including Probate Judge Sheri Blevins.

“You can lose your driver’s license over speeding,” she reminded the students who are nearing the age to climb behind the wheel. “Tuck that away in your memory that if you’re going too fast, I have to take your driver’s license away from you. I don’t like to do that. A lot of times kids need their license to get to their jobs, to get to school, and I have to take their license away if they do something wrong. Just remember, you can lose your driver’s license for things like misdemeanor marijuana, DUI and speeding if it’s too fast.”

Blevins discussed the eligibility requirements to run for her position (college degree, law school, passing the bar exam and practicing law for at least seven years) but pointed out that her office, like many of the others in the county, also has positions that require a high school diploma only.

“But if  you want to work in county government or think you might some day,” she said, “be sure to keep a clean record because any county government’s going to check your record and make sure you’ve got a good record. So be sure and keep that record clean. Don’t let it get messed up early.”

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