Leadership means admitting when you are wrong

Being in an elected leadership position is not an easy job. While many scoff at the professional politicians in Washington who refer to it as “public service” while seeming to fill their own pockets and expand their business and personal influence, the job at the local level truly is public service.

Sure, those who serve on boards of commissioners and school boards do generally receive some pay, as well as reimbursement for legitimate expenses incurred in the performance of their duties, but that pay is little more than a token.

The job entails long hours, often lots of criticism, and most who take elected office find they can’t go to church, the grocery store, or even for an evening stroll without being stopped by someone who has a bone to pick with the city or county or school system.

It’s even harder to make unpopular decisions and to stick to your guns when being assailed by those who would disagree. Oftentimes, those disagreements become personal, with members of the public sometimes attacking the person, rather than the view, of the public official.

Nevertheless, there comes a time when public officials who are trying their hardest to stay on course should step back and re-evaluate that course, and maybe admit they’re simply wrong.

We’ve come to that time for Mount Airy Commissioner Steve Yokeley, Dean Brown, and Shirley Brinkley with the Barter Theatre project.

It’s clear to anyone who looks at the figures — Mount Airy would be spending millions to build the proposed facility, millions more on needed infrastructure development. That doesn’t even address the agreement between the city and the Abingdon, Virginia, theater company that would likely leave the city on the hook for millions more in required operation expense contributions — which are, in reality, taxpayer subsidies for a local, private business.

The figures simply are a bad deal for Mount Airy. It would seem those with an understanding of basic economics get that, the majority of city residents (who ultimately would be left with the bill for years — decades — to come) understand that. And the North Carolina Local Government Commission resoundingly said the same thing when its subcommittee shot down the project on a 3-0 vote because of the tax burden it would impose, with the likelihood of long-term financial success almost nil.

Rather than responsibly regroup and determine if there’s another direction to go, some of the commissioners, led by Yokeley in this effort, have double-downed on a very bad bet. The commissioners parted ways with the attorney they had hired to guide them through the process, have hired another one, and are trying to assemble what best might be described as alternative facts to get another hearing before the LGC.

What makes this latest effort particularly galling is the recent words Yokeley said to commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley, two stalwart opponents of the plan who wanted to make this new set of documentation public.

Yokeley refused, then looked at Armbrister, and without a hint of irony, stated simply “There will be no covert action.”

If millions of taxpayer money weren’t at stake, that statement might be one of the funniest ones uttered in city council chambers in years.

The Barter Theatre project has been nothing but covert action, by city officials working behind closed doors with select members of our local business community and, apparently, Barter officials.

The sordid history of this boondoggle, dating back to 2014, complete with clandestine meetings and secret auction bids, have been well documented. What’s astounding is that the commission — despite having some turnover since this boondoggle began — seemingly has learned nothing.

We say that because it was recently revealed the board has continued meeting in closed sessions regarding this project, as late as March of this year, perhaps even again in April.

That this board would continue such a practice shows an appalling lack of respect for voters, for the open government process, and for any semblance of good sense.

Now, after all of that, not only is the board determined to continue beating a dead horse, hoping for a miracle chance to ram the tax bill down the collective throats of its residents, the board is still meeting behind closed doors.

Many years ago we established a policy here at The Mount Airy News of not endorsing candidates in elections. As part of that we rarely call for voters to move against an elected official, because that amounts to a tacit endorsement of his or her opposition.

But enough is enough. It is time for the commissioners to stop throwing good money after bad, and move on. And if they can’t, we hope voters in the city take note of who is still pushing this, and remember that when those seats next come up for election.