Council swearing-in historic but has echoes of past


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Last week’s swearing-in of Elizabeth City’s new mayor and city councilors was historic for a couple of reasons.

Obviously Bettie Parker’s taking the mayor’s oath was historic. Parker is the first woman ever elected to the city’s top office.

The swearing-in was also historic because it resulted, for the first time since 1991, in a majority of council seats being occupied by African Americans. Five of the council’s eight seats are now held by black citizens.

Truly Elizabeth City has come far. As late as the late 1980s, there were no African Americans seated at the council dais.

But even more historic is how this fact — the first elected African-American majority on council (the previous one happened because of a councilor’s death and lasted only a little more than a year) — has been little noticed or remarked on. Have we come so far in Elizabeth City that no one — save possibly the authors of this editorial — finds this fact of an African-American city council majority notable?

We can only hope so.

We do think Parker struck the right tone in her remarks after being sworn in. She praised former Mayor Joe Peel but said her approach to leading the city’s governing body would be her own. She also praised the governing body she’ll lead, saying it’s committed to decency, tolerance and respect. She also pledged to see that the council won’t get “bogged down or anchored to the past, but will be willing and able to pursue the objectives of the future.”

Parker then backed up her words with action.

After council deadlocked 4-4 between two members for the mayor pro tem’s job, Parker didn’t punt the decision, as several other previous mayors have, to the councilors themselves, hoping they would make the choice and save her from having to pick a side. She exercised her role as council’s tie-breaker, casting her vote for Third Ward Councilor Rickey King. Parker explained that King was the better choice over 4th Ward Councilor Johnnie Walton because King had never served in the role and Walton had.

While her decision was the right one in our view and her explanation for it completely rational, Walton wasn’t happy. He expressed his displeasure in rambling remarks he gave when it came his turn to talk about his hopes for the new council.

Instead of graciously accepting Parker’s decision, Walton appeared to accuse her of having already decided the matter prior the council meeting. Noting that King had taken the seat next to the mayor, he said “nobody had to change seats, they already had the signs down. They already knew; I already knew....”

Then apparently alluding to comments Parker made in an interview with The Daily Advance prior to being sworn in about her wanting someone experienced in the mayor pro role, Walton suggested that, by choosing King, she had done the exact opposite. He said the “only people that had experience on this council are Anita Hummer and myself.” The remark was an apparent allusion to the fact that, among the current councilors, only Walton and re-elected Second Ward Councilwoman Anita Hummer, who nominated Walton and provided one of the four votes for him to serve as mayor pro tem, have previously served in the role.

We can only surmise Walton misinterpreted Parker’s original remarks to mean “experienced as mayor pro tem,” instead of what she actually said: experienced — as in experienced in city government, which of course King, who was re-elected to an overall fifth term on council, certainly is.

Then on a night when everyone else was doing their best to be positive and project at least the hope for unity, Walton said, “you know we have a divided council” and that “right now this city is in a turmoil situation.” He claimed that he plans to give Parker “110 percent of my service” but then seemed to torpedo that sentiment by also saying, “I still ain’t going to bow to no other god, but I will serve along with her.”

With Walton it’s always difficult to decode what he’s saying, or trying to say, but that last statement suggests Parker’s got her work cut out for her when it comes to having him on board for upcoming initiatives.

But that’s OK. Parker seems up to the challenge. She also appears to enjoy strong support from the rest of council. We’re expecting both good leadership and good policy outcomes during the next two years.

As for history, last Monday night truly might have been historic if Walton, the former NFL quarterback and chronic contrarian, had been able to stifle his urge to always want to lead the team and instead just settled for being a team player. But then, maybe there’s only so much history we can hope for.