It’s J.D. Hess, the Calhoun County commissioner.
Likewise, let me introduce you to the mayor of Wellborn.
It’s Eli Henderson. As if it could be anyone else.
And the mayor of White Plains?
And Pleasant Valley?
That’s fantasy, of course. Hess and Henderson aren’t mayors — and Gene Robinson is? — because Saks and Wellborn aren’t cities. They’re part of the mass collection of unincorporated communities that dominates the county’s northern, eastern and western regions. In terms of county-specific matters, they are politically powerful and culturally significant, some rural, some picturesque, historically residing behind the Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville triumvirate that dictates most things Calhoun County.
They aren’t cities. No news there.
Yet, it was news in 1987 when Saks didn’t merely flirt with incorporation, it nearly did the deed. Spurred in part by what some residents feared was an overt and ongoing “Anniston land grab” that was going to do everything but bring fire and pestilence to that society of suburban bliss, Saks opened its polling places to ask voters a simple question:
Do you want to be a city?
Emotions, you may recall, were at near-boiling stage.
“Anniston’s going to grab up everything,” one voter, fearful of annexation, told The Star.
“If I wanted to live in Anniston, I would have moved to Anniston,” another voter said.
“Our homes, schools and youth activities will be easy prey for Anniston to ‘grab up’ and control,” proclaimed a letter sent by pro-incorporation activists to several thousand Saks voters.
The pro-incorporation propaganda and campaigning didn’t work, obviously. Nearly twice as many Saks residents voted against incorporation (1,389) as did those who thought it a good idea to build a city hall and begin taxing residents for things like police protection (752).
Twenty-three years later, it now seems immaterial the reasons behind the pro-incorporation movement that bubbled up that summer on the U.S. 431 corridor. (Though The Star’s editorial page in ’87 had a valid point when it proposed that the election would have had more merit — though not necessarily a different outcome — had it asked voters if they wanted not to incorporate, but to be annexed by Anniston with the ironclad promise of Saks-specific ward representation on the City Council. In that case, Hess today wouldn’t be mayor; he’d be on — Egads! — the lovely Anniston council. Sorry, J.D.)
Today, what’s compelling is envisioning Calhoun County’s odd example of local politics if communities like Saks — and Wellborn, which had its own incorporation discussions in the early ’90s — had joined the city ranks. (This fall, that’s what’s happening over in Jefferson County, where community organizers are trying to push McCalla into becoming that county’s 36th municipality.)
Thanks to the machinations in Anniston and Weaver — where City Hall lawsuits and inquiries rule the day — the front-page vision of modern-day elected leadership in this county is, sadly, tinted with dysfunction and turmoil. It overshadows the statesmanship of those who seem to do it right, whether it be in Jacksonville or Piedmont or on the County Commission, Hess’ and Henderson’s real assignment.
If Saks had incorporated, had Wellborn followed suit, had Blue Mountain remained a city — it “de-incorporated” more than a decade ago after nearly 100 years as a town — Calhoun County would be home to 10 cities, a notable increase from today’s total (7). That would cause quite a political shift, with more elected mayors and council members and fewer unincorporated areas represented by the normally efficient County Commission. And that says nothing about the other byproducts of city life: sales-tax revenue, local school issues, police and fire department agreements and real-estate values, for starters.
Would Saks mimic Piedmont and Jacksonville and seek its own school system with its own school board led by Saks-minded residents? Would Wellborn have enough tax revenue to prosper, or would it fiscally resemble Hobson City? Would incorporation inject either community with new residents for its neighborhoods, new students for its schools or new businesses for its tax base?
I suspect that most of Calhoun County’s unincorporated communities enjoy things as they are; content with the services they have, free from the city taxes and political turmoil they see in nearby towns. Incorporation today seems light years away from the issue it became in Saks in 1987.
Unless, of course, Anniston or Oxford or someone else starts anew the land-grabbing across city-county lines.
If that happens, Mayor Hess and Mayor Henderson might have something to say about it.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor.