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Cook editorial: Openness and diplomacy joust it out

King Arnold III and his court of county commissioners are rattling their sabers ó at least the quorum that showed up without public notice at last week’s Rowan County Tourism Development Authority is. How dare one of their colonies suggest a hotel occupancy tax without getting their permission first?
There are no innocents in The Four Years’ War that has raged between city and county under Arnold Chamberlain’s rule. But there is a decided contrast. On one side, county commissioners publicly strut and fret, eager to expound on the audacity of the city to act without bowing before them. On the other side, city officials quietly work behind the scenes, away from the commissioners’ hostile glare and the public’s eyes until everything is agreed to and all-but-final.
The commissioners are dead-on right about the need to conduct public business openly, but the imperious attitude with which they regard the city óand, let’s not forget, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education óhardly inspires cooperation. They skillfully stoke fires of animosity and pander to anti-city attitudes among county voters. As for city voters, all we can do is roll our eyes. There they go again.
Talk about taxation without representation. City residents get to vote on county commissioners; technically, that’s representation. But city ballots are far outnumbered by those cast out in the county and there is no city voice on the county commission ó nor representatives of any of the county’s nine other municipalities. Together, they make up a sizable part of the county’s constituency and its tax base. In county eyes, though, we’re outsiders.
Unlike previous boards led by Newton Cohen, for example, today’s county commissioners like to lord their power over others. Under some unwritten protocol, they are the only people who know what’s right and must be informed first ó with deference.
Here are some headlines and excerpts from the Post:
– Dec 19, 2006: Commissioners seeking answers. “Chamberlain took the opportunity to do a bit of venting, expressing his displeasure that commissioners had to learn about the state of the school system by reading the newspaper.
“Chamberlain said school officials told him they didn’t ‘understand protocol,’ and apologized for the lapse in communication.”
Feb. 6: Commissioners denounce annexation plans: “County commissioners have fired a warning shot over the city of Salisbury’s latest annexation plan for the Mooresville Road area. …? ‘I’m opposed to involuntary annexation, especially involuntary annexation of me. I’m in that map,’ said Chamberlain. … Chamberlain added a thinly veiled warning that the annexation could affect other projects requiring cooperation between the county and the city …”
May 14: Local leaders unhappy about tax hike effort: “Chamberlain said there has been ‘chit-chat’ between some tourism board members and commissioners over the years, but there has been no official request and no presentation to the Board of Commissioners.
“‘If you want the 6 percent occupancy tax, have the guts to make a presentation to us,’ Chamberlain said. …?
“(City Council member Mark) Lewis said he apparently made a protocol mistake by not calling Commissioner (Tina) Hall and Chairman Chamberlain to ‘ask for an audience.'”
Chamberlain and Commissioner Jim Sides have both been heard to say they didn’t want to pick a fight with Salisbury ó but only when they wanted something from the city. That was when they had the keen idea of suggesting Salisbury de-annex the airport, much of which has been in the city since 2006. (That annexation was a complete surprise to them, too, they said.)
To their credit, City Council members did not laugh in commissioners’ faces. They respectfully declined to surrender that tax base. That probably surprised commissioners too, though it should not have. It’s hard to win people over when most of the time you’re charging at them with a lance.
City Council suggested city and county drop taxes in the airport area to encourage development. That seems to have been the end of that.
Then annexation happened, or didn’t, and further diplomatic overtures seem unlikely for now.
This rift is not all the county’s fault. City officials tend to take their trial-balloon stage of exploring an initiative to near-enactment before they take some proposals public ó the hotel occupancy tax, especially. That was a collision of bad timing, lack of communication and distrust.
City leaders apparently are too subtle when discussing ideas; commissioners seem to forget those talks or misplace the reports. Or maybe they’re not paying attention. Chamberlain, for instance, said he met with city and school officials to talk about a central office and civic center, but didn’t think anything of it. Other commissioners and school board members felt left out of the loop.
In the long run, we’d all be better off if both boards could blend the current commission’s passion for openness with the city’s desire for diplomacy.
Early on in the process of exploring an idea ó as a proposal takes shape and more than two or three know about it ó the public needs to know. It’s a matter of trust.
But remember, people are watching ó prospective businesses, state leaders and small, impressionable children. Leaders should make Rowan and Salisbury proud, not embarrassed.
– – –
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post and a resident of the city.

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