Editorial – Town must be transparent in filling council seats

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Smithfield Town Council should tread carefully with appointments to fill two vacancies on the seven-member body.

Anything less than a fully transparent process with robust citizen participation will further erode the community’s fading confidence in elected leadership. Two consecutive election cycles suggest that citizens’ confidence is badly shaken. A year after an incumbent mayor finished dead last in Town Council elections, a sitting councilwoman looking to make the jump to the county’s Board of Supervisors lost nearly 40% of the vote to an empty ballot last week. Throw in criminal charges against two council members in the past 30 days and it adds up to a beleaguered town governing body.

Big decisions await the Town Council in 2024, not the least of which is a vote on the retooled Grange at 10Main, the controversial mixed-use development proposed for the western edge of the historic district. The departure of Wayne Hall and Renee Rountree from the council means two unelected people will have outsized influence on town decisions for the next 12 months.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

We’re troubled that the town’s planned process for replacing Hall and Rountree includes no mechanism for citizens to size up prospective appointees and express their opinions to council members in advance of a decision. As it stands, council members Valerie Butler and Randy Pack will “vet” applicants and recommend to colleagues whom they should appoint, followed by a vote. That is insufficient.

Here’s what needs to happen:

  • The town should widely advertise the deadline for prospective appointees to express interest and for citizens to suggest people they’d like to see appointed. Names and qualifications should be made public upon receipt.
  • Councilman Mike Smith should be added to the vetting committee. If two Grange supporters are added to the Town Council and provide the deciding votes, the many citizens who oppose the development will be livid. Smith, who was critical of the Grange’s first iteration, would at least give those citizens a voice in the process.
  • The vetting committee should narrow the field of prospective appointees to four or five finalists, who then should be invited to a Town Hall-style meeting where citizens can size them up and ask them where they stand on important issues facing our town in the coming year. 
  • The council should then allow a week or so for feedback from constituents before making appointments to fill the vacancies. If that means having a special meeting to meet the statutory deadline for filling Hall’s seat, so be it.

Citizens are watching carefully, as are council members who’ve been shunned in the process as currently planned. If anything about the outcome leaves them questioning the transparency and integrity of the system, the lid will blow politically in a town where tensions are already running high, both within the council and between elected leadership and the citizens they serve.