Guest View: I voted no — for now | Opinion | heraldcourier.com

via Guest View: I voted no — for now | Opinion | heraldcourier.com

Here is my latest article with the Bristol Herald Courier. If you live in Sullivan County, you will want to read this. It has to do with an expected tax increase in 2020. Follow the link above – or check it out here.

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    It is always a risky thing to make a promise, especially if you hold an elected office. Last year, as I campaigned for a seat on the Sullivan County Board of Commissioners, I made a promise. I was frequently asked about taxes. I promised that I would not vote to raise taxes during my first year. This past July, I kept my promise, not that it made a difference. The commission voted to raise taxes. Barring some miracle, however, I do not foresee being able to vote no in 2020. I believe people need to know why so they can prepare for what is coming.

     

    I voted no for two reasons. First, because, while are jobs available, income levels haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Folks don’t have any more money in their pockets now as compared to last year. Economic recovery and good government keeps money in wallets, not government coffers. However, a second reason I voted no is because of an enormous, unfortunate, but necessary expense coming our way, which will require a tax increase.

     

    It is no secret we have a jail issue in Sullivan County. Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell and others have shared about the situation. They also invited commissioners to come see for themselves. I, along with other commissioners, took them up on that opportunity and, although not the worst jail I’ve seen (as a pastor I’ve visited several across the country), it was bad, in need of attention and financial support. We have an overcrowding issue, which often puts our officers in harm’s way. That alone is unacceptable.

    The men and women of our sheriff’s department work hard, and they need to know that we are behind them as a community, not just when something tragic happens but in a proactive way. We should do all that we can to ensure that those who serve our community have all they need. Without a doubt, something must be done about our jail and some things are being done.

    The Board of Commissioners approved hiring MBI to provide consultation regarding the costs, and options for expanding or building a jail. Mayor Richard Venable formed five jail committees each with specific tasks around the jail issue. In fact, MBI will be giving an update to those committees in September. Additionally, I became the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee for TCSA.

     

    TCSA is hosting seminars on jail liability and criminal justice matters because jail issues are not just a Sullivan County problem. Several of our commissioners are attending those seminars. I can assure you that a lot is going on to try to figure out ways to address the current situation in our jail. As much as I would like to see alternatives to building a new jail and diversion programs, I believe the opportunities to do so are long passed. From what I can tell, it is becoming clear that our community will be faced with a large criminal justice expense in the next few years. One estimated figure is in excess of $50 million but the final numbers aren’t in.

    It does not do any good to look for someone to blame for our jail issues. It is also pointless to look back and contend that someone or a group should have fixed it in the past. It is simply an exercise in futility. The problem is here, and it must be dealt with now; it is expensive, but it is ours — Sullivan County’s — to fix.

     

    Knowing what I know about jail conditions, the impact it has on our officers, and the precarious position it places our county in with the state, I will be prepared to vote for a tax increase in 2020. I know that may seem like a long way off, but it really isn’t. My hope, however, is that this commission will have the foresight to plan better so that we don’t run into this again; so that in five years, we aren’t building another jail. But until then, I believe you should know what is coming so that you and your wallet can prepare.

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Living It Out – Christ and Pop Culture Style

capc25_2018a-e1547190963199A few days ago, I came across a list of the top 25 “most-meaningful cultural influences of 2018?” It was a list compiled by a website that I subscribe to called Christ and Pop Culture.

Christ and Pop Culture provides deeply researched articles and insights from film, literature, politics, sports, etc., and they do so from a Christian perspective; however, while they provide honest insight they are not critical or judgmental, which is evident from their top 25 list and its goal. The top 25 list looks at the “favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts” that the Christ and Pop Culture’s writers “feel best represent God’s truth and grace in the world.” But they don’t merely focus on things that are particularly Christian or from Christians. Their list is, by their own admission, “extremely weird;” it is “a meandering, whiplash-inducing product of the diverse perspectives of (their) writers.”

The list does have a goal, though, and I think it is a fantastic, admirable goal: “The goal of our list is to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world, and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places.”

I read over their list of cultural influences and they are right; some of them are extremely weird – but their explanations do a good job of highlighting why they think something is good, or how God uses Christians, and or the ways God’s common grace spills out. For instance, they pointed out a pod-cast called Apocrypals – where two guys avatar_8aeed238b358_512who are not Christians read the Bible without being jerks about it. It is quite good. The podcast hosts do not make fun of the Christian faith; they simply interact with the Bible, dig into it, look at the history, and talk about it. They do a pretty good exegetical, hermeneutical job. I really enjoyed listening to them and I’d recommend others do as well.

The list also includes the movie A Quiet Place. This is a movie starring John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) and Emily Blunt. The two, real-life spouses, play a husband and wife in the film who are jim officetasked with protecting their three – soon to be four – children from alien creatures with no eyes but incredible hearing. The slightest sound can draw one of these creatures from miles away, which spells trouble for humanity. The movie falls into the horror category; it is intense, which may lead some to wonder why Christ and Pop Culture would include it as a cultural influence – especially one consistent with their goal. They do so, however, because of how the movie has “cultural indicators about the ways people approach child-rearing and marriage in the midst of unexpected and unforeseeable difficulties.”

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Christ and Pop Culture also include the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House on their list of 25 most-meaningful cultural influences of 2018. This is another spine-chilling inclusion that is about a family that moves in and starts to remake an old estate and house. The trouble is that the house is, as you’d expected, haunted house by some particularly possessive spirits; indeed, the house is alive and has plans of its own for the family.

As much as I hate to admit it, The Haunting of Hill House made me jump a few times, which was one of the reasons that I found it so entertaining and a reason that I thought the folks at Christ and Pop Culture had lost their minds. Then I looked at their reasons for the-haunting-of-hill-house-widemaking it one of their top 25. Frankly, I couldn’t agree with their point more. In Hill House they find an important message for people who are dealing with all sorts of grief, pain, loss, and suffering. According to Christ and Pop Culture, “Life is worth living, Hill House says, not despite the suffering in the world, but because of it. There are hagiographies that haven’t said it better.”

I brought Christ and Pop Culture’s list up because I think it does a good job of furthering a discussion I’ve been having with some friends of mine. Our discussion was prompted by some significant changes that are happening in our community – specifically – but our broader culture as well. As things change, we are wondering if, what, and how those cultural changes impact the way we live out our Christian faith.

I’ve known some Christians over the years who have pulled way back from culture, feeling it better to be disengaged than engaged. Most of the time they do that as a way of protecting their children. I understand that but it isn’t something I’m prepared to do. Granted, for some Christian folks changes on the national level can be difficult and it might seem wise to hide out – so to speak. For instance, in the past few weeks, several new faces took their oath of office on the Bible, some on the Quran, and some on books of law. What’s more – somewhere around 153 openly gay people were elected last November – including Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis – who is the first openly gay person elected governor in US History. These are the sorts of changes that have some Christian folks staggering or looking for a bunker to hide in.

The truth is, things have changed, which I believe prompts the discussion that I’ve been having with my friends. Personally, I believe that Christian people must think about how those changes give shape to the way we are to live as followers of Christ. I also believe it is critical that we do not try to simply ignore the cultural shifts; now I’m not suggesting that Christian people compromise the core of their faith to please others or to simply acquiesce. However, I do think it is critical that Christian folks recognize that with a change in culture comes a change in the way we live our faith, which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a public faith and one that is known by its love for neighbor and its trust in God.

That’s why I brought up the folks at Christ and Pop Culture to begin with. I think they are on the right track. They are one of the few Christian groups out there that looks at the culture in, what I consider, a very Christian way. They certainly aren’t living in fear of being swayed or are they willing to compromise. They are on a solid, theological footing. At the same time, they are able to recognize beauty and goodness – even when it doesn’t emerge from a particularly Christian locus. I think that is incredibly important given the ways in which our culture has changed.

As I said earlier, I like Christ and Pop Culture’s mission / goal. In fact, as I continue to have the discussion with my friends I plan to harken back to Christ and Pop Culture a lot. I think it is the sort of goal that the church / Christian folks can share in; I do believe we need “to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places.”

 

 

Reading Between the Lines

This morning, like most mornings, I grabbed a cup of coffee and the paper. My routine is fairly, well, routine. I start with the front page and work my way through, slowly so as not to miss anything. I like reading articles closely because sometimes I get the chance to read between the lines.

So, there I was this morning perusing the Bristol Herald Courier (a paper I hope to contribute to again once I’ve won the election in August) when I spied with my little eye a brief mention of something happening in Tennessee. Frankly, it was a small blip of a post – not long at all. Simply put, Belgian Bus maker Van Hool is building a facility in Tennessee – the first manufacturing plant in the US in its 71 years of operating. Van Hool is going to invest $47 million and employ around 640. And guess where in Tennessee: Morristown, TN.

My wife and I used to live in Morristown and my sister and her family still do. Frankly, I’m happy for Morristown – and happy for East Tennessee. As I read the brief announcement, however, something struck me – something which allowed me to read between the lines a little bit.

Do you know why this company chose to locate their company in Morristown? Granted, I’m sure there were other reasons and incentives – but according to BHC (as well as the U.S. News and World Report) it is because Morristown boasts both technical schools and a skilled worked-force. In fact, CEO Filip Van Hool is quoted as saying “the presence of ‘highly-regarded technical schools and well-trained workers in Hamblen County’ helped convince the company to make the largest investment outside Belgium in its 71-year history” (U.S. News and World Report).

There seems to be a recurring theme in what Van Hool said. It wasn’t that long ago that Amazon announced they were looking for a second location. It is clear to anyone paying attention that landing Amazon would be a tremendous economic boon to a community. However, Amazon’s announcement came with a list of criteria so that cities would know if they would even be considered. You guessed it. Amazon is looking for the same sort of things Van Hool found in Hamblen County: technically trained – educated – skilled workforce.

It seems clear to me that the way forward for Sullivan County – for Bristol – for Kingsport is to be a place known for our well-prepared, technically trained, superbly educated, skilled workforce. That means of course that we may need to step away from doing the same thing the same way with the same people. It’ll mean investing our resources for the long-term and doing what it takes to develop the next generation. It’ll also mean thinking things through and planning together rather than remaining fixed, isolated communities. It will also mean letting go of some long-time practices and even saying goodbye to some people and attitudes that have held our community back.

Maybe – just maybe – the next brief blip will be in the Citizen Tribune (Hamblen County paper) and it will report that a manufacturer is investing millions in Sullivan County. Here’s hoping!

Expect the Worse & The Worst You Shall Receive

My father died when I was a freshman in high school. Apart from the grief my family and I still bear from time to time, the things that he said have taken on a near-sacred aurora. I think a lot of families elevate things their loved ones say or did as a means of holding onto them; I suppose that’s altogether another reason to watch what we say and do.

As it was, my father had a lot of things to say in his 51 years. The other night I remembered something he said to me one day when I was grousing about something or someone. He said if I always expect the worst from someone, chances are good they will not disappoint me; in other words, a person has a tendency to live up to the expectations that we place on them. I thought about that the other night as I listened to Judge Jim Goodwin talk about the Sullivan County Felony Recovery Court, which is a court that works to “achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse among nonviolent, substance abusing, adult felony offenders” (Goodwin).

I have to be straight up honest, I more often than not expect the worst or very little from the sort of people that Judge Goodwin’s Recovery Court seeks to help. Before you judge me, ask yourself if you haven’t done the same thing. If you’ve ever worked with addicts – you know that they can be the most manipulative, deceptive people on the planet. However, it is no secret that we have an opioid issue in this region. In other words, we have a lot of people here who go out of their way to get the drugs that they crave. In fact, I was told recently that an overwhelming majority of the people incarcerated in Sullivan County can be linked to drugs of one kind or another. It is safe to say that the opioid issue – drugs in general – are a direct contributor to overcrowding in our jails and there are those who suggest that we (that is Sullivan County taxpayers) need to invest around $50 million in order to build and or improve the jail.

As someone who prefers to see tax dollars go toward education and job creation, as someone who thinks that the answer to the drug problem is more than incarceration, I’m all ears when it comes to alternative ideas and suggestions. So, when Judge Goodwin began to talk about the Felony Recovery Court, I paid close attention.

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The court itself works with people that most people have written off. They are repeat, non-violent, offenders who have a history of drug abuse. They are felons who are looking at doing a lot of time behind bars – which as you know costs the taxpayer. The Recovery Court is the last stop for these folks. The court – working with experts – hopes to increase the “likelihood for successful rehabilitation through early, continuous, and intense judicially supervised treatment, mandatory periodic drug testing, and the use of appropriate sanctions…” (Goodwin). The program started here in April 2015 (it’s being used in other places as well) and, so far, the results have been good. Judge Goodwin reports that “75% of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least 2 years after leaving the program.”

Granted, the program isn’t perfect, and it takes time. People with serious addictions aren’t cured overnight. But the program does seem to reduce crime, helps our community, reduces the number of offenders being incarcerated, and it saves taxpayer money – which can be better spent in other places. But more importantly, it impacts the lives of people that are expected to fail – to blow it – to spend a great portion of their lives behind bars. Like my dad said, if we expect the worst out of people we will probably not be disappointed. I think Judge Goodwin is showing the folks of Sullivan County that maybe – just maybe – if we expect something good from people – they just might step up and meet our expectations.

 

*Remember – I’m running for Sullivan County Commissioner (District 2). Come out and vote in the Primary on May 1, 2018, and the General Election on August 2nd, 2018. If you aren’t a registered voter – then get registered!

I’m Mark A. Hutton and I approve this message. Paid for by Mark A. Hutton.

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Immigration Reform

*Just a quick note: Since I have declared that I am running for Sullivan County Commissioner I will not be able to contribute to the Bristol Herald Courier until the election is over. I’ll be posting things here – hopefully – weekly. 

This time last weekend the government was shut down. It has been called the “Schumer Shutdown,” which, unfortunate for the senator, is catchy and plays well with Trump’s rhetoric. Within all the partisan reasons for the 3-day shutdown, however, is the issue of immigration. Now the government is up and running again, at least until February, but immigration and DACA remain open for debate. In fact, as I write, people in Washington are talking it out.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones talking. I overheard a familiar conversation a few weeks back. One person brought up the issue of immigration to his cohort, which brought on an onslaught regarding foreign people overrunning our borders. At one point one man said, “all those damn, raping illegals keep taking our jobs.” His advice to those in Washington was to build a wall high enough and long enough to keep everyone out.

A few choice words ran through my head, but I refrained from saying anything. It was clear that this person has bought into an ideology that no sort of reason can address. It was also clear that he actually doesn’t know much about this area or the people in it; even worse, he doesn’t know anyone who has immigrated to the US and most likely doesn’t even know anybody of another race.

I have to say that my life is richer because of the immigrants that I have met who immigrated to this country, especially as I learned their reasons for doing so. Years ago, I met a woman named Rita. When I met her, she was 98 years old. She welcomed me and another member of our church into her home with a hug and a small kiss on each cheek. As I sat in her living room, I marveled at the needlework that lined her walls; they were like tapestries – intricate in beauty and detail. It was a skill she had learned from her d6490117f3df2f4579d2e327079363ffmother – when she was a little girl growing up in Germany.

Rita had just married as Hitler rose to power. Even as a young woman, she has already lived through the devastation of WWI and the loss of her brother. She feared another war, something she was certain Hitler would bring. Her husband, a devout Christian man, refused to take part in the Nazi party or the army out his convictions. That sort of attitude was a risky one at best. Being alerted of an impending arrest, the two of them were forced to flee, leaving everything and everyone they had ever known behind. They sought safety in Holland, but it wasn’t long before the Nazis arrived there, too. Rita and her husband were forced into hiding until they were finally able to make it to the US. They knew this was the one place they would be safe.

Unfortunately, Rita’s husband died eight months after they arrived here but her neighbors and a small church, knowing that she spoke almost no English, stepped in and helped her. In spite of all her troubles, Rita was known to say, “God has been good to me.” Some of that goodness came from the good people of this country – at least those who understand the plight people have to deal and the respite the US offers.

Rita isn’t alone. There is my friend Najib. He came here in the 1970s from Lebanon, just after the revolution. Najib and his brother owned a store but when the revolution occurred both of them became targets because they were devout Christian men. Both of them endured near-constant harassment; they were arrested and beaten, taken from their homes at night, dragged out in front of their children. Najib’s brother died during all of this persecution; Najib and his family made it to the United States. They knew they could make a life here – where they would be free to worship and free from persecution.

There are more Ritas and Najibs than criminals crossing the borders. Sure, there are people who have come into this country illegally with evil intentions, but they are not the norm. Perhaps there are some that need to stop acting as if they all are. Those of us who were fortunate to be born in this country often do not realize the gift that we’ve been given and the gift that our children have as well. Perhaps it is time for some level of immigration reform, but the kind that causes us to check our attitudes so that we can continue to be a nation that does the sort of good in the world we’ve always been known for doing.

Words Matter, Especially a President’s

This article was published on Sunday, January 21, 2018, by the Bristol Herald Courier

The late Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” once pointed out that BHC Logo“How we talk is how we think.” Of course, that idea wasn’t original with Postman. Jesus himself pointed this out when he said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.”

In essence, words matter because they reveal things about us as human beings.

According to the Bristol Herald Courier and other news outlets, people all over the country are outraged. It is unconscionable, they declare, that a president of the United States should ever publically refer to some African countries – or any country – as “sh*thole” countries.

In fact, a number of people are bristling that he would use such inappropriate language because it is not only unbecoming and unpresidential, it is offensive and it is sure to alienate the people of those countries.

Then there are those who defend Trump, even hail him as a genius. They see nothing wrong what with Trump said and even go so far as to applaud his transparency. They like Trump’s tough language and stance when it comes to immigration and his responses to other world leaders; it is, according to some, the sort of John Wayne-ish rhetoric that America has been missing for a long time; it will put us on the road to becoming great again.

Trump’s comments reveal something about him not just as a president but as a person as well.

For one thing, his comments show a lack of understanding regarding the office of president; while he holds the office, it isn’t just his office. Trump is there to represent all Americans, and not simply the ones he likes or agrees with.

I suppose that has been one of the toughest transitions for him. After all, for decades his entire world has revolved around his interests; but as president of the United States, he can no longer simply think of his aims, his goals, his ideas. He needs to weigh what he says against that call and obligation to represent the United States and not simply himself.

Like it or not, he represents all of us and what he says carries a lot of weight. I suppose that’s why a lot of people are upset because the things he has said of late does not represent them. Imagine if someone who is supposed to represent your interests was saying things that you completely disagreed with but they kept saying it with no regard to you at all.

But that’s not the only issue here, or even perhaps the most important one. Words matter because they reveal something about us as human beings; the things we say often tell more about what is truly in our hearts than the actions that we take.

A lot of what President Trump has said over the past year was in step with the things he did as a reality TV star. Many of us simply took it in stride, considering it as some bluster. But this latest comment reveals more about what is going on inside his heart and mind than anything else he’s said so far.

What the president of the United States has to say about poor and impoverished nations matters. For decades, this country has been known for its humanitarian efforts – which frankly goes in stride with something from the book of Proverbs: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

But that isn’t what Trump seemed to be saying the other day when he cast entire countries and people into the sewer.

What does that sort of comment reveal about what he truly believes about these people? Does he really think that those nations are “sh*thole countries” or was he just blustering? What are we to think when someone with such power says something so horrible about people who have been the victims of tyranny and injustice for decades? Does it represent us well? What could he have been thinking? Who was he representing in that moment?

There are a lot of people in this region who support President Trump. There are others who are resigned to the fact that he is our president and others who loathe him. No matter your position, his comment reveals something about him as a person that is disturbing. It is something we need to bear in mind because his words tell us something about the man himself.

 

This article was published on Sunday, January 21, 2018, by the Bristol Herald Courier

Hope Within the Newspaper

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Every morning, like a lot of people, I step out into the darkness of the predawn hours to fetch my newspaper – the Bristol Herald Courier. The last few days, I’ve had to brave arctic blasts, which frankly are as out of place in the south as a Big Ten football fan. But, the trip from the warmth of my home to the newspaper is brief and worth bundling up.

Oh, it isn’t because I get all my news from the paper; that’s impossible in the 21st century. There are news outlets everywhere and a local press really shouldn’t try to compete with that. For one thing, that’s not why newspapers are important. Newspapers are invaluable to a community because, in the end, they remind us that there is still some good and beauty in the world and they do it in ways that TV and internet news sites could never do.

For instance, the front page of the paper often runs headlines that show the dark underbelly of humanity. Tragedy, scandal, failure, murder, political intrigue and corruption often grab headlines. Truth is, for some reason, people can’t take their eyes off those sorts of things – much like the way people slow down to look at a car crash. We do need those sorts of stories; there are lessons to be learned from them. They have value but they are not the most important or the most useful parts of the paper.

You see all the garbage that goes on around us, all the stories that we read about judges abusing their power, lawsuits being filed in Washington, counties taking money from city schools, stories about murder, addictions, they can taint our view of our region and make us overly cynical.

If that was all that the paper reported on, or if that was all we read, we’d be a miserable lot. But those things don’t define us; they do not tell our story. TV and internet news sites tend to focus the lens on those things because they are sensational. But the local paper, well, it shines a light on the fuller story of our region and the truth is – in many respects, it is pretty amazing, if not beautiful.

Scan the paper sometime and see what I see. Don’t skip past obituaries. It is not ghoulish to read over the lives of those who have passed away, even those people you did not know. Read what their families wanted you to know about their loved ones. They took time to write their stories so that you’d know how much the person meant to them. Their stories mattered. You’ll discover marriages that have lasted decades and people who loved this community and served our country. You’ll discover some good things about the people of this region.

Turn to the next section and you’ll no doubt discover other stories about our region that will help you to see beyond the muck. Often those stories are found in the sports section. But I’d like to suggest that you poke around the section on regional arts and artists; you may not realize just how much we need the arts here, and how much they tell our stories.

Art, in whatever medium, reminds us that there is good here, and beauty, even as we deal with the awfulness that can sometimes breach our guarded lives. The arts can speak into the deeper places of our existence. They do that by reminding us that there are still people who devote themselves to bringing beauty to the world simply as an extension of themselves, not for fame or fortune.

This article was first published on January 7, 2018 by Bristol Herald Courier.