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Justice - a qualified view

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Monday, February 4, 2013

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Pittsboro, NC - Justice is an ideal, just as freedom, in our American society. Though hard to define in detail, the understood guarantee is in the Pledge of Allegiance, “...with liberty and justice for all.” In short, that phrase promises fairness in the delivery of equality under the law. Since I am not a “constitutional attorney,” I will not cite the Bill of Rights or the Constitution, which also hold similar promises.

This broad topic may not seem Chatham-centric. But, when I look at the dominant, impressive structure we have just erected south of the government center, I see an imposing building, the largest in our county capital. It is overbearing. Its size implies that justice shall prevail, while it also intimidates with its columns, capitals and expanse. The building is ours for the next hundred years or so. I trust that it will serve us as long as the old one so that we gain a good return on its cost. It’s name implies that it will be the center of justice in our county.

The old courthouse in the circle has a familiar feel to it, a more comfortable presence. It housed many county offices as part of daily business, the register of deeds, the finance office, the clerk of court, the tax office. The courtroom hosted meetings of all kinds as well as those of the county commissioners on a monthly basis. The memory of how the courtroom floor creaked under my feet remains after the fire which destroyed it. It was more a part of daily life. Having circled it a few thousand times, I was accustomed to it. Having talked to every department it housed over the years, I was familiar with government and felt confident in dealing with its rules and departments.

The subject of justice deserves more attention. Without passing judgement on criminal or civil actions, I want to extend the topic to include government services and how they play a role in our lives, fairly or not.

Decades ago, the concept of government acting unfairly was foreign to me. That impression may have been juvenile and naive. Maybe that time was simpler and government was more transparent than it is today. Access was unimpeded. Public servants appeared to understand their roles. They were often neighbors and friends. Laws and rules seemed to be easier to understand. Receiving a notice from a government office today elicits a response of defense, caution and skepticism. I have to lay it down for a day and read it again when I have cleared my mind in order to trust my understanding of what it says. This reaction is an ingrained behavior. I can change it. However, it now seems to be a warranted response to some of the communications and impressions I get from dealing with today’s government bureaucracies.

Chatham County’s recent expansion of buildings, improvements and capital projects reinforces my hesitation to be on equal and friendly terms with my local government. I attend county commissioner, tax, planning, mental health board, and other board meetings. I know county employees. I take an active role and participate. The number of citizens who do is small, so I can imagine what those who do not must feel.

The Justice Center is just one building. My reaction to it is uniquely mine. However, there are other structures which distance me from public servants. The departments housed in the old Lowes food store, the Dunlap Building, are now barricaded at the entrance with locked doors to the offices of Health, Inspection, Planning and Environmental Health. The receptionist sits behind a protective glass window and barricade. Excluding public intrusion may make work more efficient, but the edifice also creates the impression that we can not be trusted. It also infers that county employees are doing something so bad to the taxpayers that their actions may give rise to taxpayer anger and reprisal. Certainly, the separation is officious and defensive compared to what it once was. It does not afford comfortable interaction with employee. What prompted these capital improvements under the previous board of commissioners that created that distance? The phone tree is purely offensive. The process of contacting a person within the bureaucracy has become a burden. The impersonal reception implies that our local government is much larger than it actually is, more like that of Atlanta or Washington, D.C. Yet the county employees are still neighbors and friends. I have to ask why they wish to be so distant from my contact.

The implied power over the taxpayer is increased by edifice and barrier. Without a doubt, the application for a septic, building or planning permit is already an intimidating challenge for most citizens before the new building program. Now, the size and structures of the county campus in Pittsboro say that its government is larger than it used to be. Yet, the number of stated employees has not grown in twelve years in official records.

Raleigh, by extension, has become a foreign state. Though I know several bureaucrats and legislators, applying for a permit there is more demanding than in Chatham. Uncertainty is increased. Defense is expected. Neighborly contact is denied by the impenetrable bureaucratic barrier of official distance. The official’s knowledge of the soil on which my home is built and the neighborhood in which I live appears negligible at best.

In this economic climate, when most growth is on hold, why has county government grown to such an extent that it mimics much larger institutions? Why has our capital improvements budget inured us to a debt almost twice our annual revenue? We are already in the position of being unequal by barrier and distance. Now, we are burdened unfairly with debt spent on a larger bureaucratic structure. When receipt of basic services seems disconnected from their original purpose, this loss of fairness and equality is emphasized.

Justice, in this scene, is questionable from the perception of some citizens. The taxpayer appears to be at a disadvantage by physical design and procedural structure. The sense of neighbors acting together to build a county is gone, replaced with the officious and costly edifice of bureaucracies.

Just what, then, can be done to build confidence in justice of every citizen? The structures are already built. Proof of fair and equal treatment must become the charge of the bureaucrat and official. Relief from fiscal burden would remove some doubt. However, removing the regulatory burden from permitting and easier access to employees would improve confidence that the government is acting on our behalf, instead of protecting the interests of someone outside.

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Justice - a qualified view