James Bell, a longtime citizen activist who championed government transparency and many other causes, died suddenly Friday at the age of 58.
Bell was originally from Fulton County and moved to Lithia Springs in 1962 when he was a child, said Robby Heisner, who was friends with Bell for nearly 25 years.
Heisner said Bell was working a job hanging sheetrock with his brother, Jamey Heisner, Friday morning in Marietta. After they finished the job, Bell told Jamey Heisner he was going to wait in the truck. When Heisner got to the truck a few minutes later, he found Bell.
“Jamey thought he had fallen asleep and said something to him and he didn’t respond,” Robby Heisner said. “So he tapped him, and when he did he exhaled a big breath and that was it. Then he called 9-1-1. We’re figuring it was probably a heart attack or something.”
Robby Heisner said an autopsy was being performed to determine the exact cause of death. He said Bell was an organ donor and that he will be cremated. Plans for a service hadn’t been finalized at Sentinel press time.
For years, Bell was often the only citizen in attendance at government meetings in Douglas County. He spoke out about issues he cared about and could often be spotted with a video camera, taping government retreats and other meetings to post online so more citizens could see what their elected officials were doing.
Bell headed two organizations for issues he was passionate about: the Georgia CARE (Campaign for Access Reform and Education) Project “to end marijuana prohibition,” and the Georgia Taxpayers Alliance to educate “the public, media and legislators on tax matters including SPLOST, property taxation, activism, open records, waste in government and corruption.”
Most recently, in July, he held a free class in Douglasville to educate citizens on how to appeal their property tax assessments.
Douglasville City Councilman Richard Segal was also a citizen activist before being elected to serve Ward 5 in 2015.
“He will be missed,” Segal said. “I learned so much from JB about so many things.”
Brenda Bohanan considered Bell a “close friend and fellow activist.”
“I met James during the beginnings of the Douglas County Tea Party when he was doing activist work through his group, Georgia Taxpayers Alliance,” Bohanan said. “We protested on street corners, discussed issues from the Board of Education to medical marijuana. I've never known a person so willing to share information, teach others, and advocate with every fiber of their being. Our community, state and local, has suffered a deep loss with his passing.”
State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, worked to legalize medical marijuana but opposes legalizing it for recreational use. While Bell wanted it legalized for all uses, Gravley said they found common ground on medical marijuana.
“I am saddened by the news of James' passing,” Gravley said. “He was always a very kind and gracious soul to me. Although we didn't always agree on issues, I considered James a dear friend and a passionate advocate for the causes he believed in. He was a great source of information and research as I worked to help pass the Haleigh's Hope Act with Rep. Allen Peake. He will certainly be missed by many.”
Robby Heisner said he and his brother had a band called “Van Gogh,” and that Bell started following the group and eventually became a go-to guy who would help with anything the band needed. That led to a long friendship between Bell and the Heisners.
The Heisner brothers moved onto video production, and Robby Heisner said Bell stuck with them and learned how to work the cameras.
Robby Heisner said Bell was the type of person who would help anybody and didn’t expect anything in return.
And he said Bell was passionate about everything he did, from his work to his activism.
“He would get the facts and he wasn’t in your face about it,” Robby Heisner said. “He didn’t want a confrontation, he wanted to discuss it. He was just a good guy. He’s just a genuine good guy. I think politically, people have lost more than just a good person. He’s somebody that stood up for the people and really considered everybody’s situation, not just his own.
“It’s going to hit me a couple of days from now. He’s always been our go-to guy. He was always there. It’s going to be very odd.”