Editorial – Sun shines on town governance

Published 7:42 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

Smithfield voters last fall made clear their expectation of a more open and accountable town government.

New Mayor Steve Bowman and his colleagues on the Town Council are responding.

The council’s February meeting, just the second since Bowman and fellow council newcomer Jeff Brooks were elected, was a breath of fresh air for reasons both substantive and symbolic.

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For starters, citizens could observe the meeting without being physically present at the Smithfield Center. The Town Council meeting was livestreamed (the internet equivalent of a television broadcast) for the first time in history, fulfilling a campaign pledge by the candidates on November’s ballot.

Vice Mayor Valerie Butler had been calling for the technology for years, but her appeals fell on deaf ears. We commend Bowman for making it a priority and town staff for accomplishing the task inexpensively. Meetings of the Town Council and Planning Commission will be livestreamed going forward.

We also commend Bowman’s push for changes in the way closed sessions are conducted.

No longer will citizens be told to leave the room when the council chooses to go into closed session. Instead, the council will relocate to a different room, then return to the main room to go back into open session.

The mayor also plans to move closed sessions to the beginning of the meeting. We wholeheartedly endorse the change. When closed sessions were the last thing on the agenda, all but the most determined citizens (and news reporters) were likely to go home, not knowing how long the board would be behind closed doors.

Controversial decisions like the 2022 vote to invest taxpayer money in a new farmers market happened in the dark of night, after a lengthy closed session, with no one watching. (We at the Times learned our lesson, for the record, and will never let the council conduct business again without us watching.) 

With open sessions now being livestreamed, and with state law prohibiting votes in closed session, citizens will never have to worry again about the town sneaking through a controversial decision.

The Town of Smithfield, albeit many years too late, will soon be in step with other area elected bodies, including Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors and School Board and Surry County’s governing bodies.

We encourage the Town Council to embrace Bowman’s citizen-friendly reforms.