The civic pride of yesteryear

Published 7:55 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016

    There has been much discussion of late over the future of Smithfield, particularly of how it is being governed. Personally, I have no big complaints about the Town Council or its staff. There’s always something to disagree with, but that’s because most every issue has two sides.

    But apparently, critics of the town are also quite satisfied today, despite recent complaints.

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    Here’s why I’ve come to that conclusion. A week ago Tuesday was the deadline for interested town residents to file as a candidate for Town Council. Any qualified voter was eligible to circulate a petition and get on the at-large ballot. There are three seats up for election and the three incumbents — Randy Pack, Mike Smith and Denise Tynes — all are seeking re-election.

    As the deadline passed last Tuesday, zero people had challenged them. In a year that saw large delegations attend Town Council meetings and complain, sometimes bitterly, about both staff and council members’ handling of town zoning matters, no one chose to run for a seat on the council.

    I’m sure that’s fine with the incumbents and I certainly wouldn’t blame them if it were. Who would want to go through the inconvenience of having to campaign for public office when, as an unchallenged incumbent, all you have to do is show up?

    And this isn’t unusual. In towns here and elsewhere, it’s difficult to find enough people to fill available seats, much less challenge incumbents.

    How different things were a couple of generations ago. County resident Frank Meeker, a collector of all types of things, this week passed on to me a copy of the election results of the 1947 Smithfield town elections that he had found somewhere. There were six Town Council seats available back then and apparently all council members were up for election at one time. That year, 12 Smithfield residents, all of them prominent business members of the community, stood for election.

    All of them are dead now, but it seems worthy of their memories to mention who they were. The six winners were the late Howard W. Gwaltney, who led the balloting, W. H. Sykes Jr., J. Wilson Ames, J.W. Luter Jr., J.E. Turner and Cecil W. Gwaltney.

    The losers that year were Robert A. Cox, Frank G. Berryman, R.J. Delk, F.M. Fulgham R.E. Clay and L.L. Knick.

    But believe me, none of those gentlemen were losers. Their names read like a Who’s Who of Smithfield in the mid-20th century. They all thought that governing their little town was important and they were all willing to stand up and offer their services.

    Thus, at a time when the town of Smithfield only consisted of what we now call the Historic District, with a population of 1,180, a total of 12 people offered their services.

    Today, with a population of more than 8,000, the town can only field enough candidates to fill the seats on Council.

    The difference? Too many Americans today would rather complain than do something positive to resolve their complaints. It’s a whole lot easier to complain that firefighters didn’t get the fire out quickly enough than it is to pick up a fire hose and help.

    Maybe it is true that there are no disgruntled residents in Smithfield, but that’s doubtful. It’s also not the point. Even if the current members of Council are doing a superb job, they often do a better job when they know that other residents are likely to challenge them during every election cycle.