ONE LAST TIME – I’ve been covering Clay County and all its intricacies, governmental processes, schools, standout citizens and more for nearly four years but today, I must announce that my time at Clay Today is coming to an end.
You might not necessarily recognize my name in the column section of this paper – the captain of this ship, Don, has been steering through that ocean for years – but if you read Clay Today’s school stories, or perhaps the Board of County Commissioners stories (everyone loves a good government meeting, right? Right?), you might recognize the name Wesley LeBlanc.
I kind of fell into this job back in November of 2017. I had interned at the paper earlier that year for about six months as part of my final semester in college. I had a great time but it was an internship and after graduating, I didn’t think much of it. The University of North Florida’s journalism program requires an internship, and while I loved my time interning at Clay Today, I never thought the paper would offer me a job. There was a full staff of reporters already and they were great.
So, I continued managing Spring Park Coffee in Green Cove Springs, the excellent coffee shop I had been working at for five years. Then, my old editor shot me a text in November 2017 and said there’s a reporter position open and that I should interview for it. I set up an interview and when I arrived, it was less of an interview and more of an “it’s yours if you want it, and here’s what we can offer.”
It didn’t take long for me to begin seeing Clay County through a new set of eyes – a reporter’s set of eyes. I have lived in Clay County since 2002, but not once did I ever concern myself with county, town and city budgets, nor did I ever think about the school board. I knew Clay County was full of some great people doing great things, but I never thought I’d be writing about them. Then, I was hired at Clay Today and everything changed.
I quickly became the friend and family member explaining millage rates, half-cent sales taxes and more to those around me. I explained the importance of voting in local elections and what people in Clay County were capable of with the right resources. I talked about how Clay County’s school district is a Top 10 district in Florida and how teachers are grossly underpaid. I always noted that it wasn’t necessarily the school district’s fault – as someone who’s known multiple school board members and two superintendents on a close professional basis, I can confidently say these people want your child’s teacher to be paid more. The state funding simply isn’t there and teacher insurance stinks.
I urged my parents and my friends to pay attention to what was happening in BCC meetings and local town and city meetings.
These boards are dealing with millions of dollars and voting on big projects for those millions. It’s your money – wouldn’t you want to be in the know? There are certain things towns and BCC boards approved that I disapproved of and there were things I internally jumped for joy over (I’m quite proud of Clay County for voting in favor of the school district’s half-cent sales tax), but I feel confident in saying that you’d never know it.
That’s important too. You shouldn’t be coming to me or Clay Today for opinions about what’s happening in Clay County. You should come to us for hard-boiled news, void of bias. That’s what journalism is all about. We’re watchdogs of government and caretakers to residents and citizens who want to be in the know.
When I wasn’t breaking down multi-million-dollar budgets, new amendments and public hearings, I was usually trying to find a teacher doing something amazing for her student or following a forest firefighter handling a controlled burn. One day I was talking to a charity about their new initiative to help those in need get medical help. Another day, maybe I was writing about a Clay County woman who went to prison and now uses her very famous TikTok to advocate for women’s rights in prisons. Whatever I was writing about, I was proud to be doing it.
Clay County is a great place to inhabit and live. It’s a great place to start a family. It’s an amazing place for your children to attend school in. It has great food (OP Fish House is legendary, y’all, and Saigon Wok on Fleming Island has the best bowl of Pho I’ve ever had) and it has some good people in it.
I’m happy to have met some of them, interviewed them, photographed them, written about them, worked alongside them and mostly, I’m happy to have known them for these past four years. To the teachers, elected officials, constitutional officers, standout citizens, local business owners, charity leaders, children looking out for their peers ... I’m proud to know you and even prouder that I was able to tell your story.
Keep being you, Clay County, but maybe consider staying open later and also, quit trying to avoid the growth that’s coming no matter what. It’s better to be involved and prepared for growth than upset about it and left wondering how things came to be because you chose to stay uninformed about it.
It feels great to be informed, doesn’t it? After my four years here, I stand by this: Every issue of Clay Today will make you feel great about being informed.
Until next time~