Citizens (and their government) doing the right thing

If you listen to the Tea Party people the government can’t do anything right; if you listen to the Occupy Wall Street people the government is the answer to all our problems. Both are not only misguided, they’re simply silly and ignore great examples of how government can be an effective partner for local initiatives.

Here’s the story from San Augustine, Texas (population 2400) county seat of San Augustine County(population less than 10,000). San Augustine pre-dates the Declaration of Independence, being the location of a Franciscan mission in 1716. Just over a hundred years later in 1832 the town was formally organized and laid out, including a public square. A century after that in 1927 a wonderful classical revival court house was constructed in that square.

Enter the government. In 1999 then Governor George W. Bush signed into law the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Governor Bush may have signed it and the Texas Legislature may have passed it, but it really was an initiative of Laura Bush. Early on the citizens of San Augustine County decided their court house was both in need of but also worthy of preservation. Problem was, even though a large amount might be available through the Texas Historical Commission, they would have to raise a considerable amount themselves as match money.

So who stepped up? The (mostly) women of the Garden Club of San Augustine. Holding chili suppers, bake sales, and every imaginable form of fundraising, they raised $600,000. It took them eleven years, but through commitment and perseverance they got the job done. The restoration was completed a year ago and this week was a dinner and field trip venue for the Texas Downtown Association who was meeting in Nacogdoches some 30 miles away. The pride in their accomplishment and their fundamental hospitality meant over 40 local citizens joined a receiving line to welcome the visitors.

At that dinner I met Samye Johnson, the County Judge. In Texas “County Judge” is not a judicial position, but rather the executive officer of the county – sort of like the mayor of a city. Ms Johnson certainly expressed pride in her fellow citizens, but told me they were just getting started in San Augustine County. They’ve been awarded a $4.2 million grant to build a vocational training center. “This is a county with a high poverty rate” she told me. “That means it’s not uncommon for young people to get in trouble with the law. But once that happens they have a lot of trouble getting a job. So we’re going to use the vocational training as a ‘second chance’ opportunity. So these young people can get themselves out of poverty, and at the same time help our community. We’re calling it ‘community development’ rather than ‘economic development’. Here is her reasoning. “The standard catch phrase ‘economic development’ somehow seems to conjure the impression that growth-at-any-cost is the ultimate goal. We feel it is important that our Community Development plan fit perfectly with who and what we are.”

The lessons here? 1) Being small and poor is no excuse. The Garden Club of San Augustine raising $600,000 in a county of less than 10,000 is the ultimate “quit your whining and do it” example. 2) Citizens can and will do great things when government gives them the tools and some of the resources to do them.