Speak Up, Speak Out

 Use columns, op-eds, letters to the editor to tell county story

 

As a financially challenged county, Milam has its share of gravel roads, and County Judge David Barkemeyer often hears a frequent refrain from frustrated county residents: “I pay my county taxes and the county road near my house is pretty bad. I’m not getting my money’s worth.”

Barkemeyer thought he needed to set the record straight about this issue and used his weekly newspaper column, which appears in three local papers, to do it.

“One of the articles I wrote I explained that only about 10 cents on the dollar of your county taxes goes toward your roads,” he said. “It’s so misunderstood, all the stuff we have to do – law enforcement, indigent healthcare, unfunded mandates … ” 

Those who read his piece told him they never realized that so little went toward roads and how much of their county taxes went to pay for many other important services. 

Barkermeyer.pngColumns

The judge has been writing a weekly column on county government since 2011. It appears in The Cameron Herald, The Rockdale Reporter and the Thorndale Champion newspapers. He also posts it on the Milam County website and it airs on two local radio stations.

Barkemeyer covers topics including: county spending and the county budget; the county tax base; business before the weekly commissioners court; and explanation of the various county departments, who works in them and how they serve the public.

“It’s my primary means of ongoing communication with the community,” he said. “I try to keep them focused on county government, although from time to time I philosophize.”

Barkemeyer said he considers writing his column part of his job. “I think it’s really important for county judges to communicate the county government function because it is so misunderstood.”


Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright agrees. He encouraged county officials to communicate county government issues by submitting columns, opinion-editorials and letters to the editor to local and regional newspapers. “Make the effort,” he said. “It’s hard to get media coverage of county business.”

Wright.pngWright submitted his first op-ed piece to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram years before he entered county office in 2011. “I’ve continued writing guest op-ed pieces through the years,” he said. 

Through their writing, officials can present an alternative view that hasn’t been aired on a current topic or explain an issue to clear up confusion, he said. 

“The main thing about writing an op-ed is it’s an opinion piece. You want to state your point and then prove your point,” Wright said. “Most newspapers will also accept letters to the editor from officials, especially if they are written to clear up something that’s confusing or clear up something the paper has written that’s inaccurate.” 

Wright said that as a county official, your insights, knowledge and opinions bring credibility to your writing. “Typically if an elected official has something that’s timely and that’s of public interest or public service I think most newspapers are happy to print it as a public service.”

Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long successfully submitted an op-ed to the Austin American-Statesman to present an alternate viewpoint on the proposed Lone Star Rail project. She sits on the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Commission, which had been discussing the project, its funding and future.

“It was a timely topic and up to that point really only one side of the topic had been presented,” Long said. “I had credibility because I had been involved in the discussion for years. There were a number of people after the op-ed came out that emailed or through social media thanked me for articulating that voice or perspective.”

long.pngImpact Worth the Effort

Long said officials should write about an issue to educate the public and make an impact. “You get so busy doing your job that you forget to inform the public of your side,” she said. “It’s a necessary thing that we need to take the time to do.

“In social media you can tweet about it or do a Facebook story or post a pic on Instagram, but it doesn’t give the full message,” she said. “People are still reading newspapers, even online. That’s still a great avenue to get your story out.”

Don’t hesitate to submit letters to the editor to Texas’ metropolitan newspapers outside your community, such as: the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio News-Express, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Austin American-Statesman. They appreciate receiving local perspectives from across the state that address state-wide public policy issues.


Wright said officials shouldn’t let the thought of writing intimidate them. “If you stick to the facts and explaining the facts and just being honest, how well you’ve written it is not going to be as important as the point you’re making. It’s worth the effort.”

“Every county office has got to realize that you’ve got to communicate,” Barkemeyer said. “You can’t just continue this assuming everyone understands county government because they absolutely do not.” 

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