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Right decision but done terribly wrong

The Farmville Town Council’s decision to take down the Confederate soldier statue was exactly the right decision, but the way it was carried out should cause great concern for the future of open and citizen-participatory government with this town council.

The Machiavellian plan to quickly remove the statue without an opportunity for any input by a divided citizenry showed just how sneaky this council can be. As happy as many people are that the statue has been removed, it is hard to celebrate that great sign of progress without being at least a little concerned the fast-tracked process used to remove the statue could be used for other issues in the future that may not be deemed a safety concern.

Farmville Herald reporter Crystal Vandegrift was ready to watch Thursday’s town council meeting on Facebook. It was advertised as a simple vote to approve the town’s budget. The phrase, “Discuss and take possible action on any other business that may come before council” was the only thing one may take as a suggestion that the council was there for other business. Vandegrift was waiting at 7 p.m. for the town to begin broadcasting the meeting on Facebook. It never happened. All of the other public meetings held by the town council had been on Facebook. A notice in the town’s June water bill said the town’s public meetings would be broadcast on Facebook and YouTube due to the public not being able to attend the meetings.

It is unclear why the Thursday night meeting was not broadcast on Facebook or YouTube like the others. The only supposition that can be made by the absence of the broadcast is that the town council did not want anyone to know what they were doing. That is not the way our government should work for big decisions or small decisions.

Even if the meeting had been broadcast on Facebook, a recording of the meeting revealed that the council discussed removal of the statue in closed session using an exemption typically reserved for buying or selling town-owned property. It is rare to see the exemption used for discussion of items already on the property, such as the statue.

The recording made it clear how fast the town aimed to move in taking down the statue. Even before the vote to adjourn, Mayor David Whitus tells someone in the room, “Roll, you’re good.” That was apparently the order to have the statue removed right then.

We found out about the town’s decision because reporter Alexa Massey was having dinner downtown and heard the rumor floating about that there was a crane near the statue. That’s how we were able to quickly get the pictures and story. The only credit we can give the town for this is that they didn’t do it at 3 a.m. or some other hour when they could remove the statue without anyone knowing what happened to it.

It is easy to understand why the town made this decision. Confederate statues are being taken down by towns or by protestors all across America. The statue was a growing liability and it was becoming clear that it was only a matter a time before it would come off its pedestal one way or the other.

By having a crane standing by after the unanimous vote to quickly cart the statue away, Farmville avoided the potential for protests while the decision was made and court injunctions to keep the statue where it is like is happening with the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond. From an aspect of getting the job done, it was a brilliant plan.

The problem is, this very effective plan completely short-circuited the democratic process our country is built upon. No matter how large the concern for safety is, the town council should have taken the time to do this the right way.

The lasting effect of the decision for Farmville’s Town Council will be a loss of trust. That was clear at the statue Friday morning from both supporters and detractors of the decision to remove the statue.

In this time of strife and discontent, we are all Americans. And as Americans we have a right to have input into the decisions of our government. When those avenues for input are muted, we cease to uphold the values that make us Americans.

ROGER WATSON is editor of The Farmville Herald. His email address is Roger.Watson@ FarmvilleHerald.com.