Editorial – Always let the  people speak

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

For reasons that baffle us and unnecessarily cause great distrust and discord in the community, Smithfield and Isle of Wight County officials too often muzzle the very people they were elected to represent.

The county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have adopted ordinances preventing citizen comments on matters that have previously been the subject of public hearings. The change facilitated a metaphorical sucker punch to the gut of citizens in central and southern Isle of Wight when the three supervisors who represent the other end of the county reversed course and foisted a deeply unpopular solar farm on one of the county’s most heavily traveled and scenic gateways: Route 460 between Zuni and Windsor.

Without even any statutory justification on his side, Mayor Steve Bowman declared that citizens won’t be heard during an Aug. 31 work session on one of the most consequential projects in the town’s history: a mixed-use development on the western edge of downtown that would more than double the population of Smithfield’s historic district.

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Town Manager Michael Stallings confirmed to us on Monday that no state statute, town ordinance or written policy forbids citizen comments at the Grange at 10Main work session.

So why would town officials shut citizens out of such an important conversation? Councilman Mike Smith, who threw the brakes on an effort to rush a recklessly premature decision on the Grange earlier this month, specifically noted, during his motion to table, the need for more dialogue between the developer and the citizenry. Yet, barring a last-minute change of heart, no such dialogue will occur, citizens having been told instead to email their comments and questions.

Were no lessons learned from the Mallory Scott Farm debacle of 2021? A housing project even more unpopular than the Grange was forced on the town’s citizens, who chose the only recourse available to them and tossed out of office the mayor who was the face of town arrogance on the 800-plus-home development.

Bowman, who succeeded Carter Williams, ran and was elected on a platform of more transparency and accountability in town decision-making. But this month’s public hearing on the Grange felt like Mallory Scott all over again.

Bowman and perhaps others on the council don’t comprehend just how chapped citizens are by the secrecy and manipulation that have plagued the Grange since its inception. It’s a worthy project that could have succeeded on its merits, but instead the developer and certain town and county officials have worked repeatedly to keep taxpayers in the dark. 

When Isle of Wight Supervisor Don Rosie said in 2022 that it felt like a taxpayer-funded farmers market at the Grange was being forced on the county, he didn’t know the half of it. Our Stephen Faleski’s exhaustive reporting on the backroom scheming of Grange boosters in recent months should turn the stomach of anyone who believes that transparent, accountable government is an ideal to be practiced, not just a campaign slogan.