Cook: Our county leader’s mind is made up

  • Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2013 2:49 p.m.

SALISBURY — You have to admire school and city officials’ optimism in asking the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to reconsider financing a central office in downtown Salisbury, now that contamination issues have been settled.

The request is reminiscent of our collective naivete when the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education accepted commissioners’ letter of agreement in early 2012 committing $6 million toward the project. No one thought to follow through with a binding contract in case elections changed the two bodies. Isn’t a written agreement between one elected board and another — a public document available for all to see — as good as a contract?

Here’s the text of the letter, signed by Chad Mitchell as chairman in 2012:

Please accept this letter as notification from the Rowan County Board of Commissioners of our decision to provide up to $6 million toward your efforts to locate and build a new Administrative Center for the Rowan-Salisbury School System. These funds have no restrictions, and shall supplement whatever additional funds you are able to obtain through grants or gifts to build the new facility.

We acknowledge our commitment of $6 million was not the level of funding you desired, but it will fund 45,000 sq. ft. of your goal of 62,000 sq. ft. At this point, we would suggest you continue your efforts to make the best decision for the School System, students and taxpayers of Rowan County in your Central Office decision. We would appreciate periodic updates of your location decision, and efforts to secure additional funds.

Prior to making application to the N.C. Local Government Commission (NCLGC) to secure approval of our $6 million financing, we would need to have a final presentation of the Central Office location, plans, and budget. This information will be necessary for our staff to obtain our portion of the funding and approval of the NCLGC. This step is consistent with all financings the County has pursued over the past 20 years.

Jim Sides was in the minority that voted against approving the agreement then — he and Carl Ford. Thanks to last fall’s election, Sides now is chairman of the commission and did not hesitate to toss that agreement into the trash can. He has the votes of new commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey tucked firmly in his pocket.

Some cliches are in order here. To the victor go the spoils. He who has the gold rules.

Live and learn.

Just as the city of Raleigh has learned a lease signed by former Gov. Beverly Perdue means little to current Republican lawmakers, Rowan County has learned a historic agreement signed by former Chairman Chad Mitchell means nothing to the new ruling majority of Sides, Pierce and Caskey. They have the power — and arrogance, some would say.

Sides has thrown Mitchell under the bus before, or at least Sides’ mother has. Phyllis Sides used the public comment portion of a commission meeting in September 2011 to point out that Mitchell was a school system employee with the appearance of a possible conflict of interest and should not vote on school-related matters .

Mitchell kept voting.

Sides has undermined other board members, too — something Pierce and Caskey would do well to remember. In December 2007, Sides and Commissioner Tina Hall criticized Chairman Arnold Chamberlain for talking with city officials about a central office and conference center without consulting them. “Chamberlain is a good commissioner; he is a poor chairman,” Sides told a Post reporter.

At the time — 2007, mind you — Sides told school officials to wait a little longer for a central office. “In two years I’ll talk to you about a new building.”

That sounded promising.

When will we learn? Sides occasionally gets school supporters’ hopes up by saying things like “I want to be part of the solution,” and criticizing a proposed design for being too large. (Whittled down, the design immediately became too small for his vice chairman.)

The fact of the matter is he’s just against the kind of building the school board wants — new, brick, centrally located. Period. He’ll deny that and say the timing is not right. But until school officials let him lead the site selection and choose the design — we’re talking about a man who likes to be in control — he’s going to have a problem with any central office they choose. If the school board went with a prefabricated building on county property beyond the city limits — outhouse optional — he would insist it could be built for less. He wouldn’t be Jim Sides if he didn’t.

I respect Sides’ sense of principle. Once he makes up his mind, he is absolute. There’s not a wishy-washy bone in his body. When I try to put myself in his shoes, I see that he cannot back down or change course; his political persona would crumble. He can’t be anyone but who he is.

And “who he is” is a man elected by the voters three times now to be on the county commission — never consecutively, but that’s another story. Love him or loathe him, Sides is our county’s leader, and his mind is made up.

There will be no county participation in a central office as long as Jim Sides is chairman of the county commission. On that you can depend. The real question now is this: How can the city and the school board pull off this project on their own?

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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