Thumbs up, thumbs down: 2018 highlights, lowlights in local public policy

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It’s been a whirlwind year in municipal and county government. As we close the books on 2018, The Wilson Times editorial page is sharing a few notable highlights and lowlights from the boardrooms where elected officials make decisions that affect us where we live, work and play.

See Tuesday’s edition of the Times for our annual Wishing for Wilson editorial, where we recommend New Year’s resolutions for local government.

THUMBS UP to the Wilson City Council for its Jan. 18 vote to revise to the city’s unified development ordinance with a grandfather clause that preserves local artist Dave Matthews’ mural at Brewmasters. The policy change ended a zoning enforcement controversy stemming from confusion over the city’s definitions for signs and art installations. The Brewmasters mural is a beloved part of Wilson’s visual art landscape, and forcing its erasure or alteration would have violated the First Amendment. Wilsonians told city leaders to let the mural stand undisturbed, and our public servants listened.

THUMBS DOWN to the Greenville City Council for pressing ahead with its legally shaky red-light camera scheme. The Greenville robocams record the license plates of vehicles that cross intersections on red lights and owners are issued a fine regardless of who was behind the wheel. Police who monitor the program and vendor American Traffic Solutions make no effort to identify red-light runners and hold them accountable by issuing real traffic tickets. It’s a cash extortion racket with a flimsy public safety veneer. Despite a 2006 N.C. Court of Appeals ruling that cities must pay 90 percent of traffic camera fine proceeds to local school systems, Greenville shortchanges Pitt County Schools by giving it just $69.15 from each $100 fine. Legal action against the city is pending, and we hope judges kick this shameful shakedown to the curb.

THUMBS UP to the Wilson County Board of Education for voting Feb. 19 to rename Elm City Elementary School after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The school board honored the Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association’s request to restore the name. Douglass Elementary occupies the same building as the former Douglass High. “I am just proud of them for understanding and knowing that it was time,” said Alice Freeman, a 1964 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and a former alumni association president. The name change was complete after new signs were installed in August.

THUMBS DOWN to turmoil on the town board and within the police department in the town of Sharpsburg, a community on the Wilson-Nash-Edgecombe county line that deserves better from its public servants. In a story that made international news for its weirdness factor, Robert Williams Jr. was arrested on a drunken driving charge the night he won a special election to become Sharpsburg’s mayor. After taking office, he tried to unilaterally reassign the police commissioner and mayor pro-tem, but the town board reined him in. The North Carolina Police Benevolent Association accused Williams of retaliating against Sharpsburg police officers who charged him with DWI. Commissioners then fired John Hunt as police chief in July, and a former lieutenant sued the town in federal court in November, claiming race, sex and disability-based discrimination. Sharpsburg settled two other federal lawsuits stemming from police employment discrimination claims this year. With a new police chief at the helm, we hope to see Sharpsburg stabilize in 2019.

THUMBS DOWN to the Rocky Mount City Council for passing a July ordinance that prevents truckers from parking tractor-trailer cabs outside their homes. After a few residents took their NIMBY gripes to city fathers, they wrote the parking ban as a knee-jerk reaction and stuck with it despite concern from the owners of private parking lots who now face an influx of truck drivers searching for a safe place to stow their rigs. Parking disputes between neighbors are a matter for the civil courts. City officials interfered and cooked up a paternalistic policy that disrespects homeowners’ private property rights.

THUMBS UP to the Wilson County Board of Education for revising its public comment policy Dec. 18, scrapping rules that required three days’ advance registration and screening of speakers’ remarks. Under the new and improved guidelines, any member of the public is welcome to address the school board and can do so by arriving a half-hour before the monthly meetings and adding his or her name to a sign-up sheet. Board member Beverly Boyette prompted a review of the comment policy and newcomer Rhyan Breen, who campaigned on transparency and open government, was able to vote for the change and fulfill a campaign promise the same evening he took office. We commend the school board for doing the right thing and demonstrating a willingness to listen to its constituents.