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NeSmith legacy: Wisdom over ideas

When I saw Tim Bryant’s post that Jerry Nesmith had died, I felt a loss but didn’t really know what to make of it. Jerry and I were not particularly close and we certainly didn’t agree on everything politically, but the times we did interact made an impact on me. 

He showed up to the rezoning for my office and I remember being interested in his attendance. He was no longer on the planning commission yet he was in the crowd, observing and listening. I remember being impressed at how many hours he must put in to the often-thankless job of being a county commissioner. He didn’t have to be at this meeting, but he was. 

A while back, Jerry posted an angry comment about a commission action concerning a hastily organized historic district designation. He said he felt it may have been illegal. We chatted about it for about an hour during which he talked about not only the issue at hand but also the process and precedents and what that could mean for the future. 

Jerry was thoughtful. Jerry was experienced. Jerry was funny. But for me, more than anything else, Jerry was wise. 

He’d been around and seen a bunch. He’d run businesses and worked for them. He worked at, within, for and in some ways was, the government. He knew how things worked and could give you an idea how things might play out in the unforeseen ways. He had wisdom born from years of experience, a wide array of roles and a mind that was curious and open to the things and perspectives he may not have known. 

I’ve thought a lot about wisdom in government lately. I worked on a campaign to elected Harry Sims Mayor of Athens and while campaign workers are expected to love their candidate, I was awestruck at how wise Commissioner Sims is. His near encyclopedic understanding of government and how different ideas and initiatives had played out was remarkable. You could ask him about everything from infill housing to the long-term capacity of water reservoirs and he could tell you in great and understandable detail how it all works. 

Mayor Girtz is also incredibly wise and has that same teacher's gift to make the workings of government accessible to those on the outside. Had Kelly only been more brash, inexperienced, impulsive and bullish, Harry’s team might have run a better campaign against him. But he is not and Athens is better for it. Kelly is wise. 

Wisdom is hard. It often comes from hard experiences. It means having to see both sides of something and trying to forecast the long-term and unexpected consequences of not only the decision but also all the actions to get there. It often takes courage to stand up for things that wisdom supports. I remember the onslaught of attacks against Commissioner Sims because young white college students felt he didn’t know what is best for the black community. “Your ideals are nice” he would reply with a chuckle “but I’ve been black my whole life”. 

In contrast, ideas are easy. Anyone can have them and there’s really no requisite life experience required as long as they sound good enough. Most ideas can be offered up with the comfort and security of knowing you’ll never be held accountable for missed expectations or unforeseen consequences. Ideas are fun and emotional and aspirational. They don’t involve the kind of humility, experience and appreciation that comes with wisdom. 

Our community and government have slowly but steadily moved away from one that values wisdom to one that values ideas. We have begun electing people with a dwindling amount of experience with the real world most Athenians face. In the face of experience, wisdom and any advice we don’t like- we dismiss it with “old head” or “okay, boomer” We’ve either chosen or mistaken ideas for wisdom. 

Wisdom is looking at the potential consequences and the probable benefit. It means considering the gridlock before trying reconfiguring traffic on Chase Street. It means postponing a hastily called zoning meeting when you know it does not give the level of transparency you’ve been promising. It means considering that defunding the police will hurt our poorest neighborhoods first and that’s something those citizens don’t need, want or deserve. 

More social workers and metal health resources are nice ideas until one considers how often direct practice social workers are overworked, underpaid and mired in a mix of policy red tape and liability.  Social workers aren’t leaving government work to go work for non-profits in droves simply for the better coffee. It’s hard work that is never really appreciated. And to achieve this only after cutting our already understaffed police force is downright hazardous. I keep seeing a meme trying to explain what “defund the police means” and there’s a long list of tasks of what police should not have to do. The idea is that another force can move in to do these things. But wisdom will tell you police will always have to be in some way or another teachers, paramedics, social workers, extended family members and friends. Just like we expect from teachers. Just like we expect from social workers. Just like we expect from all of those with a servant's hearts. That’s not changing. Wisdom teaches us that. 

This is my appeal to my fellow citizens to choose wisdom over ideas. Choose leaders that have the experience to know how an idea will work and the restraint to not sell you lofty concepts that will never help (and will likely hurt).  We must weigh the proposals of our elected officials against their direct experience of seeing such proposals through to success. Be they business owners, administrators, teachers or retirees, their experience matters when it comes to the thoughtfulness of what they propose. 

I texted a few commissioners about the upcoming decision that could have Athenians paying more taxes this year despite the recession. A similar discussion erupted online. Some activists defended the move saying their ideas really need the money more than allowing citizens to keep it. Some have tried to spin the increase to look like a decrease. But Jerry’s approach was restrained. He listened and read and took in the perspectives of the many people and businesses that pleaded they just can’t give anymore right now. As a business owner, he knew their perspective. As somewhat of a retiree, he knew about the struggles of a fixed income but increasing tax bill. He didn’t rush to defend, attempt to distort or seek to deflect. He listened and read and thought about it. 

That’s wisdom right there. Thank you Jerry. 

Jeff Snowden


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