:Mort Ewing shares a laugh with his sister, Marion, during a reception in his honor at the Newton County Historic Courthouse Tuesday. - Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- During his 12 years in office, Mort Ewing said he's never made a special request of the Board of Commissioners. But on Tuesday night, he parted with that practice and asked that he be allowed to make the motion to adjourn the meeting. It was the last meeting of the year, and Ewing's last meeting as a commissioner, since he opted not to run for re-election this year.
"I feel like as a group, as a team, as a board, as a county, we accomplished a lot," he said in an interview on Wednesday, during which he reflected on his three terms in office. "I've never been a person to take credit, because one person can't do anything. You have one vote; it takes a true team effort to accomplish anything as a county."
Ewing has been involved in politics since the 11th grade, when he ran for student council at Newton County High School. Throughout his adult life, he was involved in committees to recruit qualified candidates to run for office. He never had a personal ambition to hold office until one year, the committee insisted that he was the best candidate for the job.
"When I make a commitment, it's 100 percent. I always tell people I'm the hog in the ham and egg breakfast. The hog makes a total commitment ... the chicken only has to participate," he said.
In fact, Ewing said he has attended between 185 and 200 meetings every year in his role as commissioner, and, still taking notes the old-fashioned way, goes through about 30 legal-sized paper pads a year.
"I will miss the people I've worked with, but I won't miss the 200 meetings a year," he said.
"I've always tried to stay in touch with the people who elected me, I've tried to be responsive to the people who elected me," he added, but noted that he's tried to make decisions based on what's best for the entire county, not just one district.
Ewing thanked the dedicated volunteers in District 1 who have served on boards and committees over the years, noting that he's never had to "make a political appointment" because "I've never felt I owed anybody anything" and has always had a pool of willing candidates to interview and select from to volunteer.
Ewing has seen vast changes in the county since elected. Twelve years ago, the population was about 60,000 and Ewing recalled there being 109 inmates in the county jail. The 2010 Census reported Newton's population at nearly 100,000 and now there are 600 inmates in jail, he said.
Twelve years ago, the majority of residents were natives or had relatives or others that motivated them to move to the county. That changed with the housing boom, when people started moving to Newton at rapid rate due to the low cost of housing. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the need for county services and for medical services, he said.
The budget increased to a high of $55 million, then fell to $44 million due to the economic downturn, but the population did not decrease along with it, meaning commissioners have been challenged to find a way to meet state and federal mandates and continue to provide expected services to citizens. Ewing said that has been one of the most challenging aspects of his job. He said he is proud that the county has always operated on a balanced budget during his term and that there has only been one millage rate increase, which he did not support.
Another great challenge was during the housing boom, when it wasn't unusual to have as many as 15 applicants at rezoning hearings and citizens split sometimes equally in favor of or against petitions, he said, adding that the board tried to find a balance in respecting landowners' rights to develop their property and listening to the concerns of the surrounding property owners.
"Every time we rezoned a subdivision for 30 houses or 100 houses, I would see farm land being destroyed for the rest of my life and for Newton County. That was difficult as a farmer," he said. He noted that toward the end of the boom, the board worked to increase the quality of development, and that during the current lull, efforts have been made to strengthen regulations so that when building resumes, development will be high quality.
Ewing said he is very proud of the board's efforts at historic preservation, and especially of the renovation of the historic courthouse where the board holds its meetings. When he was elected, the building was padlocked and abandoned, he said, and the citizens agreed to fund its renovation through SPLOST. In addition, Ewing's recommendation that the historic jail be turned into a history museum was also approved by SPLOST voters, with the 2005 SPLOST covering outside renovations and the 2011 SPLOST funding the inside work; Brick Store, the first courthouse in the county, is being renovated and converted to a stagecoach museum, with the Historical Society taking the lead and the county acting as a fiscal agent; and a master plan was approved for Gaither Plantation, which continues to be preserved and is the site of numerous events each year.
Ewing also cited the collaboration and approval of the 2050 Plan as one of the most important events of his tenure, saying it will be looked upon as a major achievement for the county.
"I just think we are very fortunate to have leadership in Newton County at all levels that thought it was a good idea to plan for the future," he said.
Preservation of the county's water supply and planning ahead for future water needs are also at the top of Ewing's list of proud accomplishments during the last 12 years, including expanding capacity at Lake Varner and work on the Bear Creek Reservoir.
Ewing may be retiring from politics, but he will still manage the insurance office of Jones, Ewing, Dobbs and Tamplin and run his family farm. He also hopes to do more traveling with his wife of 52 years, Faye, and spend time with family, including sons Ben and John.
In 2010, Ewing and his wife completed their goal of traveling to all 50 states. In each state, they were the guests of a farmer, "and that includes Alaska and Hawaii," he said.
"My wife asked me the other day what I was going to do now that I was retiring and I said, 'I guess we'll start over with the 50 states,'" he said.
A sixth generation farmer, Ewing has volunteered with, served on and/or helped found numerous farming organizations, including Future Farmers of America, Georgia Milk Producers Association; Georgia Young Farmers Association; Georgia Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau; and the National Hay Association.
Ewing is leaving office satisfied that he kept his pledge to the citizens.
During his three campaigns, "The only promise I ever made, in print and in person, was that if elected I would do the job to the best of my ability and, to the best of my ability and knowledge, I have kept that promise," he said.