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In some circles, Mark Miller just might be the least popular attorney in Pickens County, Ga. After less than eight years as a small town lawyer, the former big-city veteran has managed to get sued for libel, raise the hackles of any number of county employees — including at least one judge — and become one of the driving forces behind a local tax revolt. But Miller, 35, says he came to this county of about 27,000 not intending to spark controversy. He had been was an associate at Atlanta’s Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, and realized, he says, he was very low in the firm’s hierarchy and likely to remain so for a long while. “Sometimes it’s more fun to be a big fish in a little pond than a tiny fish in a huge pond,” he says. So he accepted the invitation of former Georgia Congressman Ed Jenkins, for whom he’d worked in college and law school, to hang his shingle in Jasper, Ga. Some aspects of his new life seemed to meet his idyllic expectations. He’s Sunday School superintendent at the First Baptist Church. He’s president of the Lions Club. And he’s a player at the Chamber of Commerce. But he also has found that big sharks swim in small ponds. In Pickens County, as Miller sees it, the biggest shark is a dishonest good-old-boy system that doesn’t treat taxpayers equally. His battles against this system certainly have given him a big-fish profile, though not exactly in the way he envisioned when he first came to Jasper. BATTLE WITH ASSESSOR On the one hand, he’s quite popular with many of the county’s taxpayers; on the other, he’s got a less-than-chummy relationship with the county’s chief tax assessor, Roy Dobbs. And neither popularity nor notoriety make Miller mince words. “It’s my personal opinion,” he says, “that the [tax] assessment process in Pickens County is corrupt.” The county’s total tax digest, a tally of all assessed property values multiplied by the tax rate, rose 63 percent between 1997 and 1999, Miller says, driving taxes to unaffordable levels and residents to panic land sales. In terms of roads, schools and other services, Miller says county residents don’t have much to show for higher taxes. “Where the devil is our tax money going?” he asks. As for Dobbs, he doesn’t think much of Miller. The animosity between Miller and the Pickens County tax system goes back years, to his first tussle with Dobbs during a case Miller handled. Dobbs tried to seize a restaurant’s kitchen equipment to satisfy back taxes, a move Miller thought was unjustified. The two men have tangled ever since. Miller admits that part of his motivation in the tax fight is that Dobbs angered him in the restaurant skirmish. But, he adds, “It also got me looking at what happened in the county.” LIFE CHANGES Miller’s closer look ended up changing the life he envisioned, the life he could have had, in Jasper. When he first moved to Jasper, he says, he imagined a quiet country practice comprised mostly of business generated in the Atlanta metro area and local real estate closings. Instead, his practice with Miller & Associates, the firm he now runs, is largely local and involves a fair amount of paid and unpaid tax controversy work. In just the last two months, he says, he’s spent 250 to 300 hours of pro bono time on tax matters. He also hosts a weekly radio show, “One Man’s Opinion,” focusing on local politics and, yes, the tax issue. Though he felt ostracized early on in the tax fight, he says he’s not excluded now, thanks in part to Pickens County’s population boom and newcomers who aren’t part of what he’s called the “Boss Hog” network. “Definitely the civic involvement has helped people see that I’m not just a Johnny-come-lately, stir-up-trouble guy,” he says. MAJOR PLAYER IN TAX FIGHT Still, through his role in the tax fight, he’s been on both sides of the witness box and a major player in tax actions ranging from the rancorous to the ridiculous. The most recent was filed in November. He’s pro bono counsel for nearly 300 freeholders — those with title to real property in the county — who’ve filed a petition in Superior Court seeking to oust the members of the Pickens County Board of Tax Assessors. The suit alleges the board’s members are not qualified to serve because their assessments aren’t impartial. Other confrontations include a libel action Dobbs and a Pickens county commissioner filed against Miller (Miller won) and a challenge to the county’s application of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act during tax appeals (again, Miller won). In another action, Miller represented a man criminally charged with breaching the peace for uttering “fighting words” by calling Dobbs a liar and telling him to “Chew your cud, Roy.” The jury was so disgusted with both sides that it sent the judge a note saying all parties “should be sent to bed without their supper and not allowed to watch television for a week.” These cases and others became front-page news in some Georgia papers, and they’ve exacted their toll on Miller’s popularity with clients and the Pickens County bar. Miller, general counsel at a local bank, says one of the bank’s officers told him to stay out of the media, and asked him to think about how successful his practice could be if he’d drop the tax fight. Miller also acknowledges scrapping with a local Superior Court judge and says most local lawyers don’t approve of what he’s doing. Not that he cares. “I wear the fact that I’m scorned by those lawyers as a badge of honor,” he says. Still, he acknowledges, sometimes he remembers his old life in Atlanta, and thinks he should have stayed at a big firm. Even billing “2,800 to 3,000 hours a year” for a big firm would be easier than his small-town life, he says. The city also could offer a sometimes-welcome anonymity. In Atlanta, he could go out to dinner without being recognized. Just last week in Jasper, while he and his wife were eating at a local steakhouse, he ran into Dobbs, he says. Despite all the hassles, Miller seems to relish his life as a small-town crusader. “Maybe I’m too idealistic,” he says, “But people are more involved in their government than they were 10 years ago.”

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