Leaders need a thicker skin

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 3, 2007

Service to your city apparently carries some new requirements in Franklin:

-Must not exercise one’s constitutional right of free speech.

– Must view the condition of your community through rose-colored glasses.

– Must walk in lock-step with the City Council.

Heaven help us.

The removal of Jennifer Bernocco from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission after her Aug. 12 letter in this newspaper might well rate as the smallest act I’ve witnessed in small-town politics. That’s saying something, as I’ve seen some extreme pettiness in my quarter-century of work in community journalism.

To recap for those who missed reporter Wendy Walker’s story in our Friday edition, Bernocco, founder and president of the Franklin Historic District Neighborhood Association, was appointed by unanimous vote in July to the preservation board. A few weeks later, we published Bernocco’s letter to the editor in which she expressed concern for the city generally and the historic district specifically. One day after the letter was published, the council retreated behind closed doors and decided to boot Bernocco from the board she had been deemed so wonderfully qualified for just three weeks earlier.

The retribution was swift and certain.

Charlie Wrenn, Jim Councill, Joe Scislowicz and Mark Fetherolf presumably felt better for flexing their political muscle. As for dialog, debate, dissent and citizen involvement in our community — all essential components of a healthy democracy — the effects of the council’s action are chilling and far-reaching.

For the record, I disagreed then — and still do — with the premise of Bernocco’s letter: that Franklin is headed to the proverbial hell in a hand basket. To the contrary, I’m bullish about our town. If I shared Bernocco’s pessimism, we wouldn’t have invested hundreds of thousand dollars over the past year renovating our newspaper’s physical plant and expanding our printing press. I wouldn’t have bought a house here, nor brought my lovely bride here from her native Tennessee, where she had a great life. I proudly call Franklin home.

But if Bernocco’s broad assessment was a bit over the top, I thought she raised some valid points about specific topics: downtown preservation, high property taxes, brain drain in the city’s schools.

She’s feisty. She’s involved. She asks questions. She cares. In short, she’s just the type person this community — or any other — needs serving on its boards and commissions.

Local government needs more debate, fewer unanimous votes, shorter consent agendas and people who are willing to ask hard questions. Dialog, debate and dissent are friends of good government. “Yes men” and apathy are friends of the entrenched and the status quo.

On that point, it should be noted here that the vote to remove Bernocco was not unanimous. Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson and Councilwoman Mary Hilliard showed some maturity amidst their council brethren’s lapse of same.

STeve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.