Nearly four years ago, looking at the “yes” and “no” voting buttons, Patrick Bell realized the weight his decisions as Forsyth County commissioner could have on residents and businesses.
“That button’s intimidating,” said Bell, recalling the start of his term representing the county’s northern District 4, which concludes Monday.
“When you start getting into decisions that affect people, affect the property next door to people or you affect somebody’s investment … or you make a decision on benefits for 1,400 county employees, that’s when it’s tough.”
Getting into the swing of the job didn’t take long, according to Bell, but the individual decisions always held that same importance.
Bell was elected in 2008 in a countywide vote to succeed one-term commissioner David Richard.
This year, Bell lost the district-only election in August to Cindy Jones Mills, who will begin her term officially Tuesday.
Those who follow county commission know that Bell can get fired up in a meeting, but he looked calm on a recent morning wearing a cotton shirt and white socks, recalling the ups and downs of his time in office.
Bell said he’s proud of the consistency in his “thoroughly conservative” voting record of four years and doing what he felt was right as a representative.
“Every issue is its own issue to me. That didn’t gain me any favor,” he said. “That’s why I’m gone. I didn’t play with the people who wanted to play.”
He first got actively involved in local government during the discussions of two February 2008 referendums: an extension of the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST VI, and the parks, recreation and green space bond.
Bell opposed the $100 million bond for parks and the handling of the county’s negotiations with the city of Cumming about the sales tax.
“As that was winding down, people had been nudging me to run,” Bell said. “And off I went, not knowing anything about politics really.”
The first year in office brought some of the most difficult decisions, including laying off county staff and cutting benefits to meet the budget, he said.
The county’s finances also needed a lot of work that year, Bell said.
His service on the finance committee gave him a firsthand look at the budgeting process, which has undergone revisions each year.
Despite going through tough financial times, Bell said he’s proud of his work to maintain county services and tighten the budget.
As a small business owner, Bell said he had been able to change operations quickly. That process, however, moves slower as a government representative.
“It’s very hard for a new commissioner to understand that they are not able to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “It can be frustrating.”
Bell learned from staff and obtained optional county commissioner certification in his first year, following up later with the advanced certification.
According to Bell, the knowledge he gained taught him how to work with the state to get results for the whole county and how to help a single resident when an issue arose.
A lesson that took him longer to learn, however, was a new perspective on other opinions.
“Just because somebody has an opposing viewpoint doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” he said. “I didn’t learn that until this year. I don’t agree with that viewpoint, and I don’t think that’s the best way to go, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”
When Bell got most fired up, he said his frustrations came from seeing how “special interests can control what some believe is good for the community.”
The political games and personal attacks, he contends, started as soon as he finished the “fantasyland” period between election and taking office.
Someone he knew well advised him at the start of his term “not to trust anyone, including me,” Bell said. “As it turned out, I couldn’t trust him.”
His experience in politics has left him with “a more negative view of government,” but Bell continues to hold a desire to elect and support those who will do the right thing.
Bell said he’s not ready to rule out politics in the future. For now, he will continue to run his golf apparel business and work as a pre-litigation mediator for local governments. He has also taken a job as a commercial and business brokerage associate.
What he won’t be doing, he said, is staying active in Forsyth County government.
“If people wanted to hear from me, they would have re-elected me,” he said. “The best thing I can do to help our community is continue to do something that I feel the board should be doing and that’s embracing economic development.”