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Opinion

FELDER: Johnson’s concerns directed at the wrong person

Ben Felder, news editor

During all the controversy surrounding recall elections and special meetings there is one issue that is going unnoticed and that is Councilman Wade Johnson has publicly expressed doubt in the competence of a city employee.

In his official response to the recall effort against him, Johnson defended his record on the council and also expressed doubt that the recall petition filed with the city would be properly certified by the city clerk.

“I (have) serious concerns with the validity of the petition as to it’s form and the actions of the city clerk,” Johnson said in his statement. Johnson said the fact that a recall petition against Hoss Cooley was thrown out last month indicates the city clerk is, at best, incompetent, and, at worst, being deceitful in her actions.

If Johnson has real concerns with Piedmont’s city clerk he has an obligation to address those concerns with the city manager, mayor and the rest of the council. To the best of my knowledge he has not done so and did not response to a request for comment last week.

But I suspect Johnson doesn’t actually have any real concerns with City Clerk Jennifer Smith. In reality he probably assumes she is capable of performing her duties, and in that case that means he publicly criticized a city employee and tarnished her record to score political points.

You want an excuse for a recall? That might be it.

But let’s assume Johnson isn’t trying to score political points and isn’t carelessly throwing around words in an effort to take the attention off of himself. In that case we have a problem that at least one city councilman is distrustful of the city clerk. In fact, there are at least two that feel that way because Cooley also made public remarks during a city meeting last year in which he questioned Smith’s ability to perform her duties as it pertained to the certification of the recall petition against him.

However, Johnson’s distrust may be valid; it’s just pointed at the wrong person. Smith followed the instructions of City Attorney Tom Ferguson but his advice on how to conduct the certification process was deemed invalid by a county judge last month. Once again, the city clerk is following the advice of the city attorney on this latest recall petition and if Johnson believes there is an error in the process he should first question the role of Ferguson before filing a lawsuit.

It has been no secret in this paper that I have been skeptical of Ferguson’s ability to perform his job as a municipal attorney. Besides the murky advice on the two recall petitions, there have been very few times when Ferguson has been able to provide the council with clear and concise answers on important issues, such as the Williams Foods contract. More than one city official – neither have been named in this column – have also stated that Ferguson can be hard to reach and is slow to return calls and email.

I think it was a loss for the city when David Davis felt he had to resign but I also understand that an incoming council and mayor that is distrustful of the past administration – whether it’s justified or not – may want to move in a different direction with certain members of the city staff, including the attorney. However, so far there has been nothing to show that the city is better off with Ferguson over Davis.

Too many times this council has been crucified for failing to vote on issues they don’t understand. Could they do a better job of researching topics before votes? You bet. But there have also been times when votes have been tabled and meetings have been postponed because a direct question to the city’s attorney was not met with a direct response. Too often the council and mayor seem to be left with trying to guess their way through the legal issues of running a city without the kind of legal advice the city is paying good money for.

This council deserves some blame for delays in the Williams Foods contract and for failing to get a deal done with the school district for a new sewer line. But there is also blame to be pointed at the city attorney.

If Johnson doesn’t believe the city is following the letter of the law when it comes to his recall he may have some valid points, but those concerns don’t deserve to be directed at the city clerk.

But if Johnson doesn’t really have any concerns and was just unfairly putting heat on a city employee to cause a distraction, then all you need to know is there might be an important election in June with Johnson’s name on it.

Have a different take? Send comments to bfelder@piedmonttoday.com or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

FELDER: Our political system deserves our best effort

Ben Felder, News Editor

This newspaper – and this news editor – does not endorse candidates. Showing support for a candidate over another can complicate the kind of election coverage we aim for, but what I will endorse is the right of our citizens to be passionately and respectfully involved in the political process.

The recall efforts against Councilmen Hoss Cooley and Wade Johnson aren’t exactly the kind of positive stories we want to put in our town brochure. But the fact that we have citizens interested enough in local politics to petition for new representation is a good thing for our town.

Citizens, with enough support, have the right to force recall elections, just as the candidate facing the recall effort has a right to defend their name and position.

Local politics are often infused with passion and can be very personal things, but our nation has earned the right to this system and millions across the world are fighting for their own right to participate in a political process we often take for granted.

As we enter another campaign season in the coming weeks it’s important to remember the sacrifices made that gave us this political process require us to be involved and demand that we be respectful. I would much rather see recall elections every year and high voter turnout, rather than an apathetic  citizen base that pays no attention to government issues and lacks any interest in being involved.

While passionate feelings and open expression are rights many have died for, it does become disrespectful towards those that sacrificed when those passions turn into unintelligent debate, harassment (in person and online) and the kind of dirty politics we all recognize when we see it.

Last year a smear campaign was waged against former Mayor Mike Fina and it was a form of political participation that insulted the hard work and lost life that has allowed us to have the system we have. Mayor Valerie Thomerson claimed she was not a participant in the flyers that were sent out and I take her at her word, but as we prepare to enter a new election season I can only hope that those responsible for the classless and insulting acts will find a more appropriate way to participate; or just stay on the sidelines.

Not everyone has to get along, which is another beauty of our system. But what we are required to do – if not legally then at least morally – is to make a passion for our community and its residents the motivation for any position we take. Those after monetary gain and notoriety will always be involved in politics at every level, but it’s those that strive for a better quality of life for all our residents that should be given the most attention.

I truly believe each member of the school board and city council serves in an effort to better their community and as long as any challengers to those members share a similar motivation we can be assured that the process will lead to a stronger Piedmont.

It’s not the passionate politics that give our town a black eye but instead it’s the abusive remarks, blind criticism and self-centeredness exhibited by a vocal minority. But this column isn’t a scolding to those that exhibit those traits, rather it’s a pep-talk to the majority of citizens that value their town and want what’s best.

Put Piedmont first, let your voices be heard and rest assure the future will be bright.

FELDER:We should all follow the standards Paterno failed to meet

Ben Felder, news editor

The sexual abuse scandal out of Pennsylvania State University is ripe with lessons, ranging from what happens when athletics take a priority over a child’s welfare to how passing the buck on suspected child abuse is a problem in many institutions.

But the biggest lesson that should be learned from this truly terrible event is that when it comes to preventing child abuse the moral obligation we all have is to do everything in our power to prevent it from happening and to not rest until we are assured the abuse is no longer taking place.

Legally, Joe Paterno may have committed no crime. Paterno told his supervisor what he had heard and the university conducted its own investigation that appears to have resulted in asking Joe Sandusky, the assistant coach accused of committing the abuse, to retire in exchange for not pressing charges.

Should Paterno have done more? It appears that he should have, especially given the prominent role he played and the influence he wielded over the university. I don’t think Paterno was faced with an ethical decision that was a slam dunk. I’m sure it was a difficult decision to make and I can only hope that I would have chosen the right answer myself, but we can be sure that Paterno chose the wrong path in his decision to merely pass along the report and let it fall where it may.

When we suspect abuse of a child, especially when our suspicion arises out of visual evidence or the statement of a child, we have a duty to report the situation not only to supervisors but also to law enforcement officials.

Legendary football coach Joe Paterno was removed as head coach of Penn State last week. (Wikimedia Commons)

What makes the Paterno situation so devastating is that the former Penn State coach was celebrated as an ethical giant, a person more concerned with character than wins and a molder of men. A person with that type of reputation is expected to do more when a report of child abuse is made, especially when it involves a person on his own staff. But Paterno didn’t fail to meet the expectations that only he has, he failed to meet the expectations that we all should be required to meet.

Whether you are a legendary college football coach or a school bus driver, a little league coach or just a passer-by, any situation of child abuse should be met with vigilance in ensuring the child is safe and that law enforcement officials are aware of the situation and are actively addressing it.

The Penn State sex abuse scandal shows that we need to do all we can to protect our children and that the responsibility to do so rests with us all, not just legendary coaches.

FELDER: Moving towards some conclusions

Ben Felder, news editor

Recall elections, lawsuits and interlocal government squabbles, oh my!

A tumultuous year in local politics may appear to be getting worse, but just like Dorothy and her costumed friends; Piedmont is headed down the Yellow Brick Road with the promise of some closure on the horizon, even if a few more adventures lay ahead before we reach the Emerald City.

A group of 15 Piedmont citizens and land owners filed a federal lawsuit last week against the city claiming the appointment of Councilman Jeff Davis violates the city’s charter and the U.S. Constitution (See more on Page 1A). Lawsuits are never really a good thing. They represent a disagreement between two sides with any real hope of compromise or agreement lost, putting the issue before a judge for a final verdict. This lawsuit could get ugly and will cost the city money it could be using for a host of other issues, but the silver lining of this step, if there is one, is that some finality should be on the way.

A lot of disagreement has raged on whether an abstention vote counts as a “no” vote and if it even really matters. Did the mayor have the authority to administer the oath of office to Davis? Did the city attorney correctly interpret the city charter? These questions have been the fuel to a heated debate, but now the issue will be brought before a judge. A courtroom decision won’t necessarily end the political division but it will allow the city to move forward. So, in a way, this lawsuit, while costly and not the kind of good press the city has been desperate for, should bring some sense of closure to the Davis appointment one way or the other….at least until the April elections.

Speaking of elections, the recall election of Councilman Hoss Cooley scheduled for February is another divisive issue that has divided many in town. But a recall election does mean the final say will rest with the voters of Ward 4, and if we can’t come to an agreement at city hall, shouldn’t the last word be given to the people?

I don’t like the recall. Not because I disagree with the petitioners or because I support Cooley. I don’t have a dog in this race or a vote. But recall elections are signs of discontent in the community, and this one has put neighbor against neighbor and distracted the city from getting down to business on several key issues.

However, the silver lining of the recall is it ends with the voters and an act of finality is only a few months away.

Another controversy on the city’s plate is trying to mend some fences with the school district. Out of all the issues this one seems the least likely to head towards a solution anytime soon, but the council has expressed a desire to improve its relationship with the school district.

But with all these contentious issues one thing that might be getting overlooked is the fact that the council took a rather big step last week in an effort to pay Williams Foods grocery store the $1.9 million owed by the city, and it appears, based on preliminary reports, that the city might have found a pretty good deal that won’t involve the occurring of any new debt.

I don’t mind that it took the council this long to get to an agreement, which is still just an agreement in theory. Many of the new leaders at city hall campaigned on the fact that they were concerned about the grocery store payment, so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that this issue was stalled. However, I believe the lines of communication could have been opened more and there were times when the council may have hid behind the attorneys in an effort to not make a decision.

But, theoretically, the council is going to approve an agreement this month that will pay Williams Foods through tax rebates. It’s a good move because the city legally owed the money, the grocery store is good for Piedmont and it puts to rest a heated issue, which is a sign that things are moving forward.

Are things perfect in this town? Not at all, but our political issues at city hall are similar to a lot of towns our size. There will always be disagreements and over the next several years there will probably be more recalls, more lawsuits and more debate on how to spend city money. But that’s the way the system works. Lucky for us the system has measures in place for when answers can’t be reached that put the power in the hands of the people, or at least in front of a judge.

Things might get worse before they get better, but many key issues are moving. Some may say for the worse, others might say for the better, but movement is far better than staying put, which has been the posture taken over the last several months at city hall.

FELDER: City’s image problem can be fixed in-house

Ben Felder, news editor

City leaders believe Piedmont has an image problem, or at least that was their claim when the council proposed hiring a public relations firm to help improve the city’s image last month. You know they must really think the image problem is a big deal because after saying the city is broke, by declining to match funds for a sewer project with the school district and providing little relief for our poor roads, the council appears willing to spend money on a PR firm for services that don’t come cheap.

Personally, I think hiring the services of a PR firm would be a waste of time and money but I do agree there is an image problem. Political fighting, recall elections, running off an experienced city attorney, firing an experienced city manager, losing your police chief and coming to a point where city hall is protected with police officers during council meetings as if it were Grand Central Station during rush hour are all things that will definitely lead to an image problem, especially when all outsiders see is the fighting and political rhetoric.

However, I think some of this could be taken care of in-house. I’ve worked in several small towns and Piedmont’s problems are not unique. I have seen cities respond appropriately to those challenges and create a solid future, and I have also seen cities fail to respond and set themselves up for even bigger challenges. I’m not a PR expert, but I do have some simple suggestions on how the city can improve its image in-house.

Transparency

I don’t have a problem with Jeff Davis being sworn in as a councilman, I just have a problem with when it happened and how long it took to be announced. Davis was voted on by the council and I believe the mayor had the authority to break the 2-2 tie. Davis should have been sworn in during the August meeting or at least at the September meeting. But Davis was sworn in three days before the September meeting and it took the city three days to officially announce him as the newest councilman.

While I don’t believe the intentions were bad, the move seemed sneaky, and flew in the face of transparency; something this council and mayor have preached since election day.

If the mayor didn’t want to wait until the September meeting to administer Davis his oath of office then a statement should have been released the day of Davis’ appointment. Use the city’s phone/text/email announcement service. Put the announcement on the city’s website, and call each council member. A press release or call to the local newspaper would have been nice, but not required.

There is a communication problem at city hall and it could be solved with a better website, a Twitter account and maybe even an outlet for the mayor to write personal messages to the citizens of Piedmont. Most newspaper editors won’t advise that because everything I just recommended actually hurts the newspaper. If the city announced Davis’ appointment on Friday with a city-wide release, the Gazette would have been scooped. But I think it’s better for people to receive timely information, no matter where it comes from. Instead an official announcement was not made until the council meeting. We had a story published online within minutes of the announcement but it should not have taken three days to become “public” knowledge.

Promote positivity

One of the biggest complaints I hear from city officials is the newspaper is too negative. In reality we are not positive or negative; we just report what happens. A newspaper is not a community cheerleader. We love to report positive stories, but it’s not our job to put a positive face on the city.

However, the city could promote more positivity. Another way to boost the city’s image might be to highlight the wonderful achievements in the town. Why not start each council meeting by recognizing a volunteer, service organization or student achievement in the community? Why not issue more proclamations to citizens that exemplify community spirit and strong citizenship? There are plenty of positive stories in Piedmont and I feel the Gazette does a great job of showcasing those stories, but the city could also do its part.

Hold more public events

This city shines during the few festivals we hold a year. Visitors to Founder’s Day, Fourth of July and the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Lighting see the best part of Piedmont: it’s people. Holding more public events that give residents a chance to rub shoulders and talk about non-political issues would be a great way for the city to promote itself.

Those are three simple ways I feel the city could do a better job of promoting itself. The list could go on and this week on PiedmontToday.com I will be asking readers for their own ideas on how to promote the city and put our best face forward.

Our town does have an image problem but not just because of the negative reports on the nightly news. No one looks good on local TV news and some of our problems are the normal growing pains that all cities our size experience. But there are some simple steps that could be taken by our city leaders to improve our image and they don’t involve spending thousands of dollars with a PR firm.

FELDER: Removal of Williams puts it all on the shoulders of council, mayor

Ben Felder, News Editor

I think firing city Manager Clark Williams was a mistake. I think you can look at the progress this city has made on several important issues and give a lot of credit to Williams. I also believe the city was fortunate to have Williams as city manager when the May 24 tornado swept through town and the recovery process has been better with Williams than without.

Williams has a vast amount of experience when it comes to state and federal legislation that can benefit municipalities and his knowledge on building standards and regulations provided Piedmont with a significant advantage. The city has a lot of spinning plates right now and I fear a change at city manager could cause some setbacks.

But, that’s my personal opinion and it’s not my call to make. The city manager serves at the will of the council and the majority of our elected officials said it was time for a change. Over the past several months I have urged residents to give our new council and mayor more time before passing down any judgement. Our city faces a lot of challenges and our city leaders deserve more than just a few weeks to try and address those challenges. But with the removal of Williams on Monday night, this council has now opened itself up for critique.

It’s possible that Piedmont will bring in a great city manager that has the right skill set to move this city forward. A year or two from now we might look back and say a change at city manager was the right decision and the city is better for it. If that’s the case then be prepared to give this council and mayor the credit. But it’s also possible that the removal of our experienced city manager could lead to further delays and missed opportunities. If that ends up being the case, and I sincerely hope it isn’t, the bulk of the blame will rest with this council and mayor.

With Monday’s 3-2 vote against Williams the council and mayor has placed the responsibility of the city’s future squarely on its shoulders. It’s not that they didn’t previously have any responsibility, but they are now firmly behind the wheel and its up to them to drive us forward.

The council and mayor were vague on their reasons for ousting Williams, except to say there was a lack of trust. The only person to offer any specifics was newly appointed councilmen Jeff Davis who said the city had lost potential grants and stalled on needed infrastructure projects due to Williams’ incompetence as a city manager. In that case we should expect a wave of projects over the next couple of years because Davis and the council will now have an opportunity to prove the city manager’s job could have been done better. At the very least we should expect a new stoplight at the intersection of Edmond and Piedmont in the near future, according to Davis.

One thing is for sure, hiring a new city manager will be the most important decision yet for our elected officials. These are important days for Piedmont and we need a person that can help carry this community from sleepy rural town to a bustling suburb that reflects the kind of quality of life its residents want. My opinion was that we had the right man for the job but the council thought otherwise and will have the chance to prove they are right.

We need to be aggressive in hiring a new city manager. Some will say Piedmont is a tough job because of the political climate, but I believe we have a lot to offer. The search for a new city manager shouldn’t simply consist of local interviews but we should expect the search committee to think big. Look for the number two person at a city twice our size, possibly in some of the booming suburbs of Dallas. Piedmont can be an attractive place for an experienced city manager and if the salary is not high enough forget about hiring a public relations consultant, as was discussed on Monday, and use that extra money to hire the best person available.

The decision to oust Williams was made because a majority of the council and the mayor believe it will make Piedmont a better place. Some might say it was a decision based on political motives, and woe to Piedmont if that’s the case, but it won’t take long to figure out if this move was the right one to make.

If Piedmont is a better place with a new city manager then credit goes to these leaders. If the town suffers because of this move then the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of our council and mayor.

Small town newspapers still doing their job

Small town newspapers thrive with local news, especially local sports coverage of high school teams.

The journalism industry is in turmoil, but not weekly newspapers, according to Judy Muller’s recent piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Where newspapers thrive.”

Muller spent some time recently exploring the world of small town newspapers and said they are an example of journalism success in an era when many have already pronounced he death of newspapers.

“At a time when mainstream news media are hemorrhaging and doomsayers are predicting the death of journalism (at least as we’ve known it), take heart: The free press is alive and well in small towns across America, thanks to the editors of thousands of weeklies who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is,” Muller said.

Muller does a good job exploring the challenge many small newspapers have when it comes to covering a beat where many editors are neighbors, or at least closely work with those they are required to hold accountable. It’s easy for a daily newspaper reporter to slam the mayor of a small town or school district superintendent, but for small newspaper editors like me, you want to be careful not to burn bridges while also practicing good journalism.

Muller also identifies the reason many small town newspapers are thriving, which is they are hyper-local, publishing stories readers can only find in the weekly newspaper. However, local news is personal news. Local business, schools and crimes are extremely personal issues to many people and its not uncommon for readers to respond passionately to the issues they read. Take for example the Williams Foods grocery store issue, which is only news in Piedmont. The story has been an important one for about a year as it deals with millions in taxpayer money, but many readers have made the issue extremely personal because it deals with their neighbors, family members and the future prosperity of their town.

But for all the challenges our industry faces, and we do face many, there does seem to be hope in many places, including the small town newspaper, where many of the founding pillars of journalism still live.

“I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict the future, not in a media landscape that is constantly shifting,” Muller said. “But when we engage in these discussions about how to “monetize” journalism, it’s refreshing to remember a different kind of bottom line, one that lives in the hearts of weekly newspaper editors and reporters who keep churning out news for the corniest of reasons — because their readers depend on it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The deletion of comments

Readers of Piedmont Today may have noticed that comments have been taken off of the site and some have emailed the newsroom asking why. The simple reason that comments were taken off the site is because there was no longer enough time for the Gazette newsroom to moderate the high number of comments that were being left. Inappropriate comments were being deleted, but for the most part conversations appeared to be spirited, yet relatively civil. However, it was difficult to moderate every comment and insure the news room’s standards were being met.

However, it is our hope to have an interactive website. We are developing a new format for leaving comments and in the coming weeks readers will see the addition of several reader blogs that will provide more voices to Piedmont Today.

Over the past several weeks hits to Piedmont Today have reached numbers in the several of thousands each day. As the growth of this site’s readership grows we will also be working on ways to enhance Piedmont Today with more multimedia features and increased coverage of local news and events.

The tough is about to get tougher for mayor

Ben Felder, news editor

Monday was a tough day to be a city councilman. Hoss Cooley saw a recall petition filed against him, Wade Johnson faced public statements of criticism from citizens during the council meeting and Bill Sharp offered his resignation because he felt the hassle and abuse he had experienced since being elected just wasn’t worth it anymore.

I have a feeling the ousted council members and mayor from April’s election understand what the council is going through.

But for as tough a day as it was for the council things might be about to get a whole lot tougher for the city’s newly elected mayor. Not that things haven’t already been challenging and difficult.

In reality, the mayor is a tough position to be in. You have a lot of power, but at the same time you have very little. The mayor signs agreements and conducts meetings, but nearly all the decisions made by the mayor begin first with council approval. In most cases the mayor doesn’t have a vote. In short, the mayor often gets the majority of the blame without the majority of the control.

I suspect Mayor Valerie Thomerson is someone who likes to play the role of peacemaker, or at least prefers less conflict and controversy than has been the norm at city hall these past few months. There is nothing wrong with that, but conflict and controversy is what she has and you could make a strong case that the next few months will be a time that will make or break the mayor’s administration as she juggles a few hot issues.

With Sharp resigned from the council, Thomerson is faced with appointing a replacement. She already understands that whoever she appoints will need council approval and Thomerson told me after Monday’s meeting that she is still reviewing precedent from previous mayoral appointees to determine how she will proceed. Her goal is to have a nomination for the seat by the next meeting and I can only suspect that she will be looking for someone she believes will receive support from the majority of the council. It will be an important nominee because with a council that currently stands two versus two on some controversial issues, including the grocery store contract, the next councilman could provide a tipping point.

It would seem to me that the logical choice would be to appoint Ron Cardwell, the only other candidate in  April’s Ward 3 election. Cardwell received 93 votes, versus Sharp’s 134. Would Johnson and Cooley vote to accept Cardwell? Maybe not, and it’s possible the mayor would have to break a tie. At the very least the mayor would be wise to reach out to Cardwell and speak to him about becoming a possible nominee. The mayor has said the most important quality in a nominee is a willingness to get involved during a controversial time and Cardwell might be the only one who fits that mold.

I spoke with Cardwell this week and he expressed a desire to fill the Ward 3 seat. He said he has already spoken with Thomerson about it but she expressed concern over the fact that he is not currently living in Ward 3. Cardwell lost his Ward 3 home in the May 24 tornado and is in the process of rebuilding. Construction is underway but until his home is complete, he is residing outside of the city limits. Without being an expert on city charter interpretation, you have to believe that if the mayor really wants to make Cardwell the nominee there would be ways around this issue. Cardwell is still a Ward 3 resident, at least according to his utility bill and his taxes, which he still pays on his Piedmont home.

In the meantime a vacant seat may mean the mayor might have to cast a vote on any issues that results in a tie, which I’m assuming she would rather not do. Mayors don’t typically vote and I don’t see Thomerson chomping at the bit to get the opportunity to do so. But despite the lack of voting power from the mayor’s seat, citizens still demand for her to resolve issues. The majority of the criticism concerning the grocery store contract at Monday’s meeting was directed towards Mayor Thomerson, not the council, which will actually cast the vote on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean Thomerson is powerless on this issue and she is taking steps to find a solution. Thomerson reported that on Thursday she will be meeting with Jeff Williams, president of Williams Foods. Williams has also expressed his optimism in meeting with the mayor and while no decision will come out of the meeting, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s delivering on a promise to improve communication.

I don’t blame Sharp for resigning but it was an easy solution to a tricky situation. Was there a part of the mayor that envied Sharp as he walked out of the council chamber on Monday with the weight of his council responsibilities now off his shoulders? I’m sure there was, especially now that she is left with an even bigger mess.

On Monday night the mayor’s job just got a lot harder but it was never an easy job to start with.

Best of times and the worst of times

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.

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