Our Opinion | Wishing for Wilson: mural truce, pet shelter and graduation honors

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New Year’s Day can’t come soon enough for Wilson County’s elected officials.

It’s been a year marred with missteps, most notably tone-deaf city council and school board decisions in the first month of 2017 made with indifference at best and outright disdain for the public’s wishes at worst.

We need a fresh start, and 2018 gives our leaders a chance to turn over a new leaf.

On Jan. 19, the Wilson City Council voted to add a 37 percent pay raise for its members to the 2017-18 budget. The surprise motion wasn’t on the agenda, and though Wilsonians had ample time to weigh in before the budget passed in June, the initial decision was made with no public input.

On Jan. 23, the Wilson County Board of Education voted to phase out the recognition of valedictorians and salutatorians with a switch to the Latin honors system in 2020. The unanimous choice was made with no parent or student feedback. The decision is extremely unpopular but has yet to be revisited.

If 2017 was the year of officiousness, disregard and arrogance, 2018 can be the year of responsive, citizen-centric public service. Our elected leaders can resolve to remember who they work for and act as true representatives of the people, not paternalistic potentates.

That fervent hope leads us to this year’s “Wishing for Wilson” editorial, a tradition started by Times matriarch Elizabeth Gold Swindell. We offer suggestions for our local leaders that are something akin to New Year’s resolutions.

For the Wilson City Council, we wish for the swift adoption of a citizens’ amendment to the unified development ordinance that clarifies the rules for business signs and art installations. Revising Wilson’s nebulous language would end zoning officials’ enforcement case against Brewmasters, whose exterior mural has been wrongly called an oversize sign.

We believe the mural designed and painted by Dave Matthews is clearly a work of art and comes nowhere close to meeting the Supreme Court’s definition of commercial speech. Forcing the business to alter or remove the mural would be an act of censorship that violates the First Amendment and undermines Wilson’s image as a haven for art aficionados.

The sooner Wilson disavows its bid to censor Matthews’ mural, the better.

For the Wilson County Board of Commissioners, we wish for considerable progress toward building a new animal shelter and expanding free and low-cost spay and neuter clinics. Commissioners decided in January 2009 to charge county pet owners an animal privilege fee in order to build a new shelter, but it recently came to light that fee proceeds were being deposited into the county’s general fund.

Pet owners have been defrauded into subsidizing county government operations at a higher rate than their neighbors. Residents rightly feel cheated. Commissioners have begun making amends for the former board’s folly, voting last June to set aside animal fees in a capital reserve fund for the new shelter.

The county should announce a construction schedule, and when the shelter is finally built, the animal privilege fee should be scrapped.

Since county ordinances require dogs and cats to be confined to private property when not on a leash, pet owners who follow the rules impose no burden on government to justify the discriminatory tax. A “privilege fee” for owning a lamp, a television or a frying pan makes about as much sense.

For the Wilson County Board of Education, we wish for the restoration of valedictory honors, which are scheduled to disappear in 2020.

School board members cited fierce competition for the top two class rankings as a reason to discontinue the time-honored tradition of designating a valedictorian and salutatorian. They’ve never explained why the competitive spirit we encourage on school athletic fields is somehow counterproductive in the classroom.

The Latin honors system allows schools to recognize more high-achieving graduates, but there’s no reason that can’t coexist with individual honors.

While we object to future academic standouts being robbed of the recognition they deserve, it bothers us more that school officials failed to gather input from stakeholders, voted in a unanimous bloc as if the matter had been settled behind closed doors and, to this day, don’t seem to care that the community opposes their hasty move.

Wilson County deserves better from its local government in 2018. Let’s hope our leaders are up to the challenge.