By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
just gone crazy,” said Gene Carter. “I get to thinking about it and I get so
mad, the way things are, I want to scream. Then I go out and cut grass and try
to forget it.”
Carter, former mayor of Trenton? The Sentinel caught up with him at his Case
Circle home in August in connection with a story on high gasoline prices. Not
having seen him in a couple of decades, and never one to miss an opportunity to
multitask, the Sentinel also asked Carter for an interview about his two stints
as Trenton’s mayor.
“Oh, I’ve been
mayor more than twice,” said Carter.
So though he
hadn’t planned to discuss anything but per-gallon prices, Carter consented to
talk a little about the Old Days, if only in the interest of accuracy. Here is
what he said:
“When I went
in, we had one city policeman and that was it,” said Carter. “I started out in
1972, October of 1972. You had city recorder, which is the same thing as city
clerk now. The city recorder did everything as far as city administration and
also served as traffic court judge.”
city recorder in 1972 was Charlie Gray, who stepped down that fall 41 years ago
to run for county probate judge. Carter was appointed to serve out the
remaining three months of his term, with the city election to be held in
December. Carter ran successfully in that election to keep the recorder job.
For reasons he
can no longer remember. “Trenton wasn’t as big as it is now, but still, it was
a lot of work,” he said. “The tax digest, you had to go in there and manually
type every single property tax. You didn’t have computers back then.”
So Carter would
go in at 3:30 or 4 p.m., after he got home from his regular workday, and pound
out tax bills until midnight. In addition, there were the traffic court duties.
For all that, he made: $200 a month. It was just as well he’d kept the day
That was at the
old Scholz Tannery in Chattanooga, a division of the Brown Shoe Company. Carter
had started in the plant as his first job and worked his way up, and for the
rest of his working life he never really left the industry. The tannery itself
closed down in 1985, said Carter, but: “We moved across the street off Broad
Street, opened up a big warehouse, and we started importing all our leather
that end of shoe biz for another decade, until the company president closed the
place down to retire. Carter retired at that point, too, but three years later
allowed a friend who owned a saddlery to persuade him back into action.
Together, they ran Sho-Tan Leather, another leather import business, until
Carter retired for good.
But back to
1972, when City Recorder Carter was typing out tax bills, not exactly awed by
the grandeur of his surroundings. “If you went in City Hall back when I first
went in, that first night, it would blow your mind,” he said. “It looked like a
big old garage but it said ‘Trenton City Hall’ on front.”
It was a
concrete block building, he said, dinky in size but somehow the water company
and fire department were also squeezed in. There was paneling on the walls,
with maps over every inch of paneling.
“The phone sat on the floor,” said Carter.
“Their files were boxes stacked on top of each other. The desk was an old desk
that Charlie Gray got from a railroad company or something, that they gave him.
The commissioners met at an old kitchen table that was sitting in the middle of
the floor, that somebody had donated.”
stand it. With the permission of then-Mayor Ronnie Moore, he scrubbed down the
walls, bought surplus government office furniture in Atlanta and maneuvered the
telephone onto the desk. And that was just the inside.
thing, when I was city judge, we had this guy who was a brick mason,” said
Carter. “He got charged with DUI. Part of his fine was to brick City
the commission into buying the bricks, and the bricklayer worked off his
sentence plying his trade. “After he got the front bricked, why, he
volunteered, and he did a lot of the rest of it himself,” said Carter. “It
didn’t cost the taxpayers anything as far as labor.”
in the city recorder slot for seven years before deciding he might as well run
for mayor. He won without incident. “So from 1979 until heaven only knows when,
I served as mayor,” he concluded.
the how-many-terms question away with, “Oh, I don’t know,” but actually he does
know he went out in December of 1991 and Paul Rollings came in that January of
’92. The confusion arises, he says, because in the beginning the city offices
were all set up in two-year terms.
I did somewhere along the line is get the charter,” said Carter. “That’s when
we came up with the mayor-commission form of government, and it was four-year
terms, alternating, and that’s what we’ve got now.”
sure when that happened, but present-day City Clerk Lucretia Houts said the
Charter was adopted in 1987.
Just before he
left in 1991, said Carter, he’d lined up funding and had plans drawn for what
became a reality under Mayor Rollings: a new city hall. But Rollings omitted
one of Carter’s design features – a drive-through window, so Trentonians might
perform their city business without leaving the comfort of their cars.
Carter sat out
the ‘91 election, then ran again in ‘95 and won, so 1996 –‘99 was his last
stretch as mayor.
So far, anyway.
Carter swears he’s over it – “I’ve done my part” – but the Sentinel found him,
as we say in Dade County, eat up with opinions about the Trenton city
government. “They keep screaming for money but they keep doing so many things
that, in my opinion, is the reason they have money problems,” he said.
Such as? asked
the Sentinel, and Carter replied that the city government pays too much in
family health insurance contributions, for one thing, and then there’s the new
civic center for another. “I wouldn’t have supported that,” he said. “The only
way Trenton can afford a civic center is for Trenton and Dade County to go in
jointly and build a real civic center, not something that looks like that. I’m
ashamed of that.”
general approves of the newer Dade County construction, the Administrative and
courts buildings, as money well spent, for something taxpayers can be proud of.
The county’s government in general is set up more efficiently than the city’s,
he says; and in fact the two might benefit from joining forces as that other
Dade County did with its own major city, Miami. “It’s a metropolitan
government,” he said. “There’s not a thing in the world wrong with it.”
Trenton and Dade governments would take leadership, said Carter, but it would
work better here than in bigger places. Without someone at the stern capable of
making and implementing a plan, though: “It ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “The
city employees would probably fight it, because they would lose a lot.”
happens on that front, though, Carter thinks the Dade Water Authority should
take over the Trenton city sewer. “It needs to become a part of the Water
Authority so it can expand, go on out into the county,” said Carter. “That was
the original idea.”
Carter insists he’s happy to sit on the sidelines shaking his head sadly; his
own multitasking days – full-time in Chattanooga, part-time in Trenton, and
Army Reserve for three weeks of camp a year plus any number of weekends – are
over. “I loved it,” he said. “I have no regrets. I couldn’t do it now if my
life depended on it.”
got his hands full, and not just with mowing the grass at the oft-renovated
1890 Case homeplace he inhabits. (Carter is a step-relation to the Case
Hardware Cases. His mother was Nell Case, married to James Case, who ran the
store before his death in the 1960s)
finds himself in his 70s learning a new skill: parenthood. Carter started by
trying to provide stability in the life of a little boy named Justice and ended
by becoming his legal guardian. “That’s what I’ve been doing, is raising a kid,
and it’s not easy, I’ll tell you,” said Carter.
turns 7 this month, has just started first grade. Carter has had custody for
three years now, raising him from toddlerhood through kindergarten. It’s a
full-time job, he’s found, though he’s quick to add Justice is a very good
“I love every
minute of it,” he said. “He keeps me