Where did civility go?

Published 10:28 am Friday, March 30, 2018

by Barry Porter

At its January organizational meeting the Southampton Board of Supervisors voted to replace the Board’s liaison to the Planning Commission, Dr. Alan Edwards, with Supervisor Bruce Philips. This action was met with swift and mostly demeaning condemnation by a group of Southampton County residents. This opposition was expressed through articles/letters submitted to The Tidewater News and at the citizens comment period at the Board’s February meeting. Unfortunately, I could not attend that meeting because I was in the hospital.

Below are comments I made at the Board’s March 26, 2018, meeting in response to this condemnation. I have been encouraged to share these comments with the wider public as insight into why I voted the way I did.

I want to stress that these comments are not meant to be an indictment of Dr. Edwards, but more as a concern over a toxic atmosphere that is developing in our community (and country as well) in which it is OK to practice character assassination by rumor and innuendo when we have a disagreement (especially with decisions of public officials.)

Dr. Edwards is a highly intelligent individual who represents his constituents very well. At times we have very different approaches and opinions, I respect his right to have and express those approaches and opinions and do appreciate his different points of view.

I also am willing to admit that we could have done a better job discussing and explaining our decision at the January meeting. For that I apologize. None of us is perfect and hindsight is always superior to foresight.

Those of you who did attend the March 26 meeting know that the Board had a tough yet candid conversation about the relationships among the Board members and about all of us working together to make a better future for Southampton County. I believe we are all committed to doing just that and I look forward to working with all Board members to make that happen.

The comments are verbatim as to what I said at the March 26 meeting. If I were to write them today after what I believe were positive developments in the relationships among Board members after the last meeting, they would probably be slightly different. However, to do so would distort my logic for voting the way I did:

“Several people told me that I was lucky to miss the last Board meeting (Feb. 26, 2018.) I guess in their eyes it was better to have to spend five nights in the ICU Critical Care Unit at the Sentara Hampton Hospital than to be here.

What’s wrong with this picture? How did some of you get so much hate, mistrust and love for conspiracy theories in your hearts? How can you be so callous and unaware of what is going on in the county?

Every one of you has a right to disagree with decisions this Board makes and the right to voice that disapproval. We have an obligation to listen to you. That is beyond question.

However, I believe you also have some responsibility to express your opinions in a somewhat civil discourse, and you have some responsibility to seek the truth and base your comments on facts.

The five gentlemen I serve with on this Board that you chastised, in addition to myself, Mr. [Bruce] Philips, Mr. [Ronald] West, Chairman [Dallas] Jones, Mr. [Carl] Faison and Mr. [Randolph] Cooke are five of the most honorable people I know. The content of the character of these five gentlemen, their devotion doing the right thing for the County and their commitment to service is second to none.

One thing that has been missing in this whole conversation is the simple question. Why did we replace Dr. Edwards with Mr. Philips? No one has asked me and as far as I know, no one has asked any of the other supervisors that obvious question. I do not profess to speak for the others, but I can tell you why I voted the way I did.

I voted to replace Dr. Edwards, not because he was bad planner or not because of his opinions which he is entitled to. In my opinion these factors were irrelevant. I voted to replace him simply because he was not doing the job he was supposed to be doing in the position as the Board of Supervisor’s liaison to the Planning Commission.

Contrarily to what most people seem to think, Dr. Edwards gave up his regular Planning Commissioner’s role six years ago when he won election to this Board and appointed Mr. [Jack] Randall, whom I think is an excellent Planner, to take his place. As Mr. [Ash] Cutchin appropriately pointed out in his remarks at the last meeting, the position he occupied was one he assumed from Chairman Jones six years ago as the Board’s primary communications channel between the Board and the Planning Commission. Over these six years we have had some disagreements with the Planning Commission, most notably the Comprehensive Plan, the Camp Parkway Project and the Southampton Solar Project. We have had meetings with the Planning Commission to try to find a way in which we could work better together. Each time the discussion came down to the issue of communications. We left the meetings optimistically that things would get better.

However, nothing seemed to change. Most wise people would conclude that when something fails for six years, then it is time to try something else. That is what the Board did. We followed the process dictated by the state and county statutes. To say that we were unfair in our replacing of Dr. Edwards with Mr. Philips is a misunderstanding of the process and a lack of awareness of what has been going on for the last six years.

The feedback I have received from the Franklin District Planning Commissioner is that in his first two meetings Mr. Philips has already provided more perspective on the Board’s thinking and directions than he saw in his total experience with Dr. Edwards. He also indicated that not everyone on the Commission is upset about the change.

However, the truth and the facts seem to matter very little to some of you. You seem convinced that this board has some nefarious plan and is prone to back room dealing though the facts do not support any of these accusations.

These accusations have arisen from time to time in my six years-plus on the Board. I find it curious that there appears to be one common factor in each of the accusations. Each time this monster has raised its ugly head, either Dr. Edwards or former Supervisor [Glenn Updike] disagreed with the majority of the board on a decision of the Board or a direction the Board was moving in. If you do not believe me check the facts.

One of these conspiracy accusations resulted in a frivolous lawsuit against the county which cost you, the taxpayers of Southampton County, almost $50,000. This lawsuit was primarily based on accusations by Dr. Edwards and Mr. Updike of wrongdoing by the Board. The judge gave the Plaintiffs three opportunities to make their case. Each time the plaintiffs submitted a rehashing of these accusations.

The result was that the judge ruled that there was no evidence to support any wrong doing by the Board and dismissed all charges with prejudice. Still, it cost the taxpayers almost $50,000. Where is your outrage over this waste of County resources?

I am sure that somewhere in some of you in your twisted logic you blame the majority of the Board for this waste because you did not agree with the Board’s decision on the Camp Parkway Project.

If you do not agree with our decisions, the proper course of action is not to sue us or bully us into changing our minds but to vote us out in the next election.

I find it ironic that with respect to the Camp Parkway project, every supervisor who faced opposition and won in the last election supported or appeared to support the project. Even Dr. Edwards appeared to support the project. If you do not believe me reread the transcript of the Supervisor Forum held in the Southampton High School auditorium just before the election.

I just have one more comment. Choose your heroes wisely. They are truly a reflection of who you are.  As for me, I choose people like Mr. Philips, Mr. West, Chairman Jones, Mr. Faison and Mr. Cooke and I am proud to serve along beside them as we try to make Southampton County a better place for all of our 18,000 residents and not just a few who feel entitled to special treatment because of who they are or what they have.”

BARRY PORTER represents the Franklin District on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors. He can be contacted at bporter@southamptoncounty.org.