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Our Opinion: Sharpsburg mayor betrays supporters with bizarre antics

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Most elected officials enjoy a honeymoon period after earning voters' stamp of approval. Sharpsburg Mayor Robert L. Williams has turned his into a bitter breakup.

The mayor who made international news for a drunken driving arrest after the polls closed and before his victory was confirmed on election night displayed bizarre and erratic behavior at this week's town board meeting, an emergency session called to address allegations that he's hassling Sharpsburg police officers.

Commissioners Becky Humphrey and Mary Jackson called the special meeting after receiving a letter from the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association accusing Williams of flashing the middle finger and using "racially charged insults" in his interactions with town police.

State PBA Executive Director John Midgette said the acts targeted officers involved in his May 8 arrest on charges of impaired driving, concealed weapon possession and resisting, delaying or obstructing police.

Midgette and Raleigh attorney Mikael R. Gross sat in the front row for Tuesday's meeting, ready to address the board. Williams wasn't in attendance — at least not officially.

The mayor stood near the doorway, declining to take his seat at the commissioners' table and refusing to answer roll call. That required the town clerk to count him absent, which resulted in the lack of a quorum and stalled formal action, as Commissioners David Pride and Beverly Davis were unable to attend. 

Williams did address the board briefly, managing to accuse Town Attorney Brian Pridgen of ignoring him, which Pridgen denies, and to call the concern over his actions "racially motivated" without evidence or context before leaving in a huff. 

The situation worsened when a handful of audience members and a CBS 17 news crew followed Williams out of Town Hall. David Hurst, a reporter for the Raleigh news station, approached the mayor and asked him to explain his claim of racial bias.

Williams shouted at Hurst to get out of his face and appeared to shove him, according to CBS 17 video of the encounter. Our journalist was covering the meeting, which was still in progress, and did not witness the incident.

Hurst warned the mayor that he wasn't allowed to touch him, and Williams retorted that the news crew was "not allowed to be filming," which is untrue.

"Yeah, I am," Hurst said. "It's public property." 

While not as violent as Montana congressman Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter during his 2017 campaign, an incident for which Gianforte later pleaded guilty to an assault charge, Williams' apparent manhandling of a broadcast journalist should concern his constituents. His fib about filming shows he either disrespects or doesn't understand the First Amendment. 

The Sharpsburg Board of Commissioners seems poised to put its mayor in check. In addition to the state PBA letter, the board was scheduled to vote on a resolution delineating the commissioners' and mayor's powers and discuss Williams' bid to demote Humphrey from the post of mayor pro tem, appoint Pride to the role and remove Commissioner Randall Collie's oversight of the police department. 

The fact that Williams has a pending DWI case involving Sharpsburg police should preclude him from handling law enforcement matters. Sidelining the police commissioner - which the mayor likely can't do unilaterally anyway - presents an obvious conflict of interest. The PBA writes that Williams' actions "reek of personal bias and retaliation."

In the council-manager form of government under which Sharpsburg operates, the role of mayor is more ceremonial than executive. Williams chairs the town board but can only vote to break a tie. He can neither make unilateral policy changes nor oversee day-to-day operations; the latter role is reserved for the appointed town administrator. 

Successful mayors lead with soft power, advancing their agenda by securing board members' support and using the bully pulpit only when necessary. A savvy politician wielding the gavel can be a powerbroker, but a mayor who's lost his board's confidence has a toothless roar. 

Sharpsburg commissioners are losing patience with Williams' antics and aren't likely to work with him absent a full public apology. Even then, his prospects of being an effective leader seem slim. 

For the good of this small town of hardworking souls straddling Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties, we call on Williams to either recalibrate his relationship with town commissioners or step aside and allow someone else the opportunity to lead. 

When the honeymoon ends in disaster, the only choices are marriage counseling or divorce.

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