Black Belt Action Commission must change

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 28, 2004

Commentary by Jonathan McElvy

He sat in the same seat, confirming the same passion of too many before him. He was a college football coach giving a pre-game talk. Ed Richardson stood in ear-shot.

Gov. Bob Riley looked every member of his starting lineup in the eye. Out of necessity, he asked his players to respond.

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They didn’t.

More than 19 months ago, Riley announced the creation of the Black Belt Commission, tapping State Sen. Hank Sanders to lead the idea as chairman.

On Aug. 11, 2004, Riley added an adjective and a co-chair to the idea and formally ordered the commencement of the “Black Belt Action Commission,” co-chaired by Sanders and State Treasurer Kay Ivey.

There are nearly 150 members on the commission – Riley said “it doesn’t make sense” to exclude anyone who offers to help this region.

Of those 150 members, Riley, Sanders and Ivey each appointed four people to serve on the executive committee of this commission. These 12 people have been charged with leading the BBAC, and I am one of the 12.

As a journalist in this region, I understand the unyielding wall between government and the press. It is one I cannot climb; one I do not wish to climb.

I was asked to serve by Ivey, and after spending six years studying, reporting and constructively criticizing our region’s inability to evolve from a “Third” to a “Second World Country,” I accepted the charge.

There will be journalism ethicists who condemn the decision, questioning my ability to distinguish between reporting and cowering to the biased information of a political administration. So be it.

In the Black Belt, it would be the norm to refuse such an opportunity. I am one among thousands who have openly discussed the needs and opportunities of this region; I refuse to be another who denounces and then disowns us.

No, it is not proper for me to report on this commission. It is my duty, however, to continue a journalist’s role of holding government accountable.

On Tuesday, Aug. 24, the executive committee held its first meeting with Riley, and in a message scripted from past concerns about Black Belt committees, the Governor said all the right things. We don’t want studies and analyses; we want action. We don’t want to talk about what’s wrong; we want to implement what’s right.

At the end of his zealous declaration, Riley requested feedback from his team. He got a silent stare from a row of de-sponged tackling dummies.

Obviously, Riley hasn’t allowed a group of dummies to lead the latest surge into our state’s perceived wasteland. He has put trust in Sanders and Ivey to select good people with better ideas.

So, with a room disproportionately full of Black Belt residents, why did the administration’s pep rally conjure near silence?

Most of us didn’t know what to say (though I predictably bucked the trend). Better yet, maybe every member of Riley’s executive committee had too much to say. We didn’t know where to start, much less where to end.

Riley has put together a plan for leading action in a region of stagnation. Unfortunately, that’s all we’ve got – another plan. In order for the BBAC to affect change, I believe the commission must change.

First, the BBAC executive committee must be given better direction. We have a talented pool of players with a talented coaching staff, but we’ve only had one practice. You can’t position 12 good athletes on the field and expect them to win. You must tell them when to push and when to pull.

Second, the entire BBAC must be rid of self-servers. Too many of the 150 members seek gain – both professional and personal. An effective commission cannot function when its members have more regard for resumes than results.

Finally, the entire BBAC must change its expectation for action. Some believe this is a decade-long project. It is not. Obviously, unemployment will not drop to state averages in a year, but realizing accomplishments depends on the will of the worker, not the perception of the analyzer.

Riley has provided a pool of talent and a fully equipped field house. Whether or not we actually line up and tackle this stubborn issue depends solely on us.

Jonathan McElvy is publisher of The Demopolis Times and is a member of the executive committee for Gov. Bob Riley’s Black Belt Action Commission.