Ben Felder, news editor
Last Thursday morning in the council chamber of Piedmont city hall three local teenagers were honored by a high ranking state official for their service following the May 24 tornado. The citation from the state insurance department was a representation of all that was good following the tragic storm as neighbors and strangers alike came together to help one another move forward.
Less than 24 hours later in the same room an uglier scene unfolded that reminded us that for all the good that has come out of our town in the past few months, there are still many challenges we face and in some ways we are still a fractured community.
The event I reference was the city council meeting on Thursday night where a vote to continue negotiations with Williams Foods over a contract and the hiring of a new city attorney brought out an outburst from members of the public, confrontations in the hallway and parking lot, a harassment complaint filed with police and a likely lawsuit from the grocery store’s owner.
Let’s forget about right and wrong for just a moment. Put aside whatever your personal opinion might be in the long saga of the city and the grocery store. Maybe you think the council acted inappropriately, or maybe you think they are getting a bad rap. Maybe you think the city should honor the contract or maybe you think the council is standing up for tax payer rights.
Whatever your beliefs, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and leave politics at the door for a moment. Instead, think about what’s best for Piedmont. What’s best for our town right now? What’s best for us as a community? What’s best for our image and what’s best for our future?
The answer first and foremost is a community that is willing to work together, communicate, support and overcome challenges for the best of all involved.
I’m not naïve and I don’t believe we will quickly become a town that is holding hands and signing peaceful love songs at the next council meeting. I fully expect this situation to get worse before it gets better and no matter what side you are on, if you even consider yourself on one side or the other, law suits, shouting matches and feelings of anger do no one any good.
If the May 24 tornado was a test of our town’s resolve and commitment, this situation might be considered the extra credit question on that exam. I don’t want to be disrespectful in making a languid comparison between the tornado and the grocery store fight. One incident destroyed homes, shattered families and took lives. The other, while also a divisive and ugly incident at times, is not a matter of life and death. But I want to remind the community that following the storm we banded together and laid down a strong foundation for the long road to recovery. The best of Piedmont shown through the dark clouds of that day and there is no denying that the spirit of this town was on full display for the region to see.
Now we face another storm, of sorts, that has been playing out for over a year but recently took a turn for the worse. Just like the days following the tornado, how we handle this new challenge will go a long way in defining what kind of community we become.
That doesn’t mean we don’t debate the issues. Citizens have a right and an obligation to let government officials know how they feel. Likewise, government officials have a right and a responsibility to represent their constituents, even those that disagree with them. Communication is key right now. Following the tornado the city made every effort to inform the public on what was going on. Town hall meetings were held, requests were made of the newspaper to publish vital recovery information and sacrifices were made. But with this situation, the communication doesn’t appear to flow as freely. Legally the council is not required to do any more than they have when it comes to informing the public of its thoughts and I understand that with a legal matter some issues cannot be discussed. But I would challenge every council member to remember they are on the side of the people, an advocate for citizens and should do all they can to let constituents know what they are thinking and why they are thinking it.
Likewise, citizens have a role in this process that involves civil discourse, support of each other and, at times, possibly a little understanding. Monday’s council meeting could be well attended and already there is talk of citizens on both sides of the issue showing up to speak their minds. That would be a beautiful thing; democracy in action.
We have a wonderful town and a beautiful grocery store, but we also have a serious issue that is going to take cool heads, ethical leadership and a willingness to find common ground in order to overcome. But for as bad a situation as we might be in, we would all do ourselves some good to remember the loss our town experienced less than two months ago and the community spirit that was created. If nothing else, it might inspire us to overcome this new storm.