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Parker wrong to suggest columnist leave EC

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

We can certainly understand the impulse to tell someone who’s unhappy with you to go someplace where they will be happy.

Parents certainly feel like doing it all the time. So do spouses, friends, co-workers, bosses and merchants. Suffice to say, if you have interactions with people, at one time or another you’ve felt like telling someone to just go.

Elected leaders certainly feel the impulse all the time. Every decision they make, be it good, bad or indifferent, is subject to scrutiny in ways decisions by the rest of us never are. They can be criticized, unfairly or unjustly, for things over which they have no control. If life is unfair, it sometimes can seem doubly so for elected leaders.

That’s no license, however, to ever tell a constituent, even one who is criticizing you in a highly public way, to leave the community.

But that is essentially what Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker did when, at a recent council meeting, she suggested to Holly Audette, a columnist for this newspaper, that “maybe you have resided here one decade too long.” Parker didn’t mention Audette, a local conservative activist, by name in her remarks, referring to her only as “Madame Columnist.” However, it was clear from the context she was referring to Audette.

Parker was apparently responding to an Aug. 12 column published in this newspaper in which Audette said she is “exhausted over almost everything about the city’s governance.” Noting that she has lived in Elizabeth City for almost two decades, Audette appeared to suggest that nothing about City Council has changed since then — if it ever will. “Every column I have written about this subject and its challenges could just be republished every year or so and still apply,” she wrote.

Audette proposed in a couple of her columns in 2018 that others fed up with City Council should join her in pursuing local legislation to allow parts of Elizabeth City unhappy with the council to "de-annex" themselves from the city. She appeared to revive that idea in the Aug. 12 column: “If you knew you could stay, keep your resources, pay less taxes and not have to deal with a city government, would it encourage you to say yes?” she asked. “No more circus embarrassing us on TV. No more ridiculously self-serving decisions holding an entire community back. No more us versus them mentality. Just imagine the possibilities of success.”

De-annexation is a terrible idea, and would do far more harm to Elizabeth City than the on-camera or off-camera antics of any individual city councilor or mayor ever could. But proposing bad ideas is no reason for the mayor to say someone has outlived their welcome and ought to move on. If it was, there are quite a few of us Parker could have given the same advice.

Parker also noted in her remarks that Elizabeth City has become a more inclusive place in the seven decades she’s lived here, and she’s right. But inclusivity creates challenges — challenges that are often given expression by members of Elizabeth City City Council. We should all want city leaders who vigorously debate, in public, what the community’s priorities should be. What we can’t have is a council that takes its personal grievances behind closed doors, and then is so uncivil to one another that members decide an armed police officer needs to be posted outside the door — not for protection from outside the room but for the safety of those inside it. Audette is right: that’s a circus. And not one you’d want to take kids to.

While each councilor is ultimately responsible for their own behavior, Parker, as mayor and the council’s leader, has a responsibility to call out and condemn behavior that leads council to take the extraordinary step of protecting itself from itself. If, on the other hand, the behavior of councilors in closed session is being mischaracterized, the mayor has a responsibility to say that, too. She should also urge council to stop wasting taxpayer money by posting a police officer where one's not needed.

As yet, we haven’t heard anything like that from the mayor. What we have heard is her suggestion that a newspaper columnist critical of council pursue a new zip code if she’s unhappy in Elizabeth City.

Parker’s advice to Audette comes, of course, in the wake of President Trump’s tweets that two Democratic congresswomen should leave the U.S. if they’re unhappy with his presidency. Trump, of course, was doing more than just expressing annoyance with people who have publicly criticized him and his policies. He also was stoking fear and resentment of people he considers less American because of their last name or religion.

We’re sure Parker didn’t have those same motives in mind when telling “Madame Columnist” that she may “have resided here one decade too long.” But that is the kind of company you keep when you make such intemperate remarks.

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