Our Opinion: Citizen steals spotlight, outshines candidates in Brewmasters brouhaha

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Wilson City Council candidates got a dose of good, old-fashioned populism Thursday evening.

After incumbent councilmen passed on the opportunity to oppose art censorship and express support for the mural at Brewmasters that city zoning officials have erroneously branded an oversize sign, an audience member at The Wilson Times’ candidate forum made an appeal for compromise.

“On the streets of Wilson, a lot of people see the city as being anti-business,” Mark Levin said during time reserved for public questions. “When I look at the Brewmasters issue, can’t we use common sense and say ‘Look, this is a gray area. Let’s grandfather this sign in, and in the future we won’t do these things?”

Levin continued: “You’re creating an image. You may not meet people on the street that vote, but you’re creating an image of being anti-business.”

Spontaneous applause broke out in the Edna Boykin Cultural Center auditorium. Levin had struck an obvious chord.

Councilman Derrick Creech cited Wilson’s sixth-place ranking on WalletHub’s list of the nation’s 10 best cities to start a business as evidence that Wilson is not anti-business. But praise from a personal finance website didn’t square with the needless bureaucratic mess in which Brewmasters finds itself.

“The people that vote for you don’t see that,” Levin countered. “The people that you represent don’t buy it...We’re the people you represent. That is on the street. Ignore it at your peril.”

Levin spoke truth to power and reminded council candidates who they’re ultimately accountable to — the people.

A woman who volunteers with the Arts Council of Wilson also spoke, explaining that Brewmasters’ mural is a bona fide tourist attraction. Visitors ask for directions to it.

Wilson’s zoning staff wants it altered or scrubbed, considering it to be a sign rather than the art installation it is. The city council has been reluctant to intervene — placing it at odds with many Wilsonians who see the heavy hand of government coming down hard on a local business for no good reason.

As we’ve noted in this space before, the Brewmasters mural does not meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of “commercial speech” set forth in Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products and is likely protected by the First Amendment.

Councilmen and candidates are entitled to their own opinions on the matter. The six hopefuls on the Boykin Center stage spoke eloquently, sharing their perspectives on various issues facing the city of Wilson.

Each forum participant articulated a positive vision for Wilson’s future. We sincerely commend them for that.

What we didn’t hear, however, was any indication that a candidate would seek consensus from constituents. If one of our would-be councilmen stakes out a position, we’re not sure it’s possible that even a majority of registered voters in his district could sway him from it.

City governing bodies are representative democracies; we elect council members to study the issues and vote on our behalf. Not every decision a councilman makes will be popular.

We owe our elected officials some autonomy to use their best judgment — but they owe us some consideration, too. It’s a two-way street, and the will of the people should matter.

In the end, what’s at stake here is much bigger than the fate of a mural on a business wall. It’s about how much influence Wilsonians have over the operation of their city government. Are our leaders convinced only they know best, or will they listen to the people they represent?

We could use a little more populism and a little less paternalism.

Wilson voter Mark Levin sent that message to the six candidates on stage at the Boykin Center, and we think they all heard it loud and clear.