Manteo group shows mutual respect can still get things done

By on September 9, 2018

Manteo Citizens for Open Government member Bebe Woody addresses the Manteo board. (Russ Lay)

At a time when political discussion and disagreement have deteriorated into nastiness, accusations and recriminations, it’s refreshing to see a grassroots citizens group take the high road in a quest to reverse a local town policy.

Last March, Mayor Bobby Owens of Manteo brought up the possibility of Manteo joining every other municipality in Dare County by televising Board of Commissioners meetings on the local cable public access channel, CURRENT TV.

Under Manteo’s rules, the mayor cannot introduce a motion to bring an item up for a vote, nor can the mayor cast a vote unless the board members are tied.

So Commissioner Eddie Mann made the motion that Manteo join the other five municipalities and Dare County and televise their board or council meetings.

Mann did not even receive the required second to bring the matter up for discussion and the matter died.

Many Manteo citizens, joined by business and out-of-town property owners, clearly did not and formed an ad hoc, grassroots group called Manteo Citizens for Open Government.

Their purpose, in their own words, is “to facilitate open and transparent government and to enhance communication and broaden participation in decision-making for issues the Town of Manteo confronts.”

The group decided its first task should be to go into the community and collect signatures for a petition calling for the meetings to be televised.

And collect they did. More than 500 names were gathered, setting up the events that transpired at the Sept. 5 Manteo Board of Commissioners meeting.

Televising meetings was not on the agenda, but the board set aside a specific comment period, separate from the customary time for general public comments, so attendees could speak directly to the issue.

The small meeting room was packed, and a dozen citizens, led by Bebe Woody, owner of the White Doe Inn in downtown Manteo, spoke first.

She was followed by a contingent of prominent Manteo citizens and those who feel a kinship to the town; Gina Owens, Eddie Green of the Christmas Shop, Betty Mann, Hunt Thomas, Ben Reynolds, Lee Tugwell.

By the time Malcolm Fearing came to the speaker’s podium and physically presented the petition and its 500 signatures to the board, he remarked how the supporters included past mayors, current and former Planning Board members, senior citizens unable to make it to the meetings, members of the African-American community, business owners, property owners and many others.

In short, Fearing was telling the commissioners that the entire community wanted to see televised meetings become a reality and doing so in such a way that no one on the board felt chastized or scolded.

And it was the tone and tenor of those dozen remarks that were most commendable.

Not a single speaker attacked the board members for their March rejection of televised meetings.

There were no ugly words, no finger pointing — in fact, not a single speaker expressed anything that could be described as a negative comment.

Instead, they accentuated the positive and told the members why they wanted the meetings televised.

Some don’t drive at night. Others who could not be present are shut-ins and those who could come spoke on their behalf. Many have family obligations that conflict with the 6:30 p.m. meeting times. Out-of-town property owners and non-resident business owners wanted a way to stay in touch and learn about board decisions that might affect them .

If one believes in the adage that one good turn leads to another, the group’s approach succeeded wildly.

Rather than being put on the defensive or feeling pummeled by attacks, the Manteo board responded with equal civility.

First, the mayor asked the board to vote on the matter as soon as the public comments concluded, even though the it wasn’t on the agenda.

When Mann made a motion that the town televise meetings going forward, not only was his motion heartily seconded, it was amended to expand televised coverage to include the Planning Board, the Preservation and Architectural Review Committee and the Parks Committee.

The vote was unanimous and not a single board member appeared to take offense that a large number of citizens disagreed with a decision they had made a few months earlier. In fact, they accepted the dissent gracefully.

Given the acrimony in the past on issues ranging from beach nourishment to tree removal and even housing, it was a pleasure to see a policy reversed by a grassroots group where the citizens and the governing officials acted without malice and put the community before their own beliefs.

Let’s hope this is a trend that continues not only in Manteo, but in all of Dare County on thornier issues such as housing, climate change, flooding, septic and sewer, water quality, traffic congestion, economic diversity and a host of other challenges that will face our leaders over the next decade.

Kudos to the citizens and elected officials of Manteo.

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  • Anne Petera

    A victory for real representative government – and a great reminder of the importance of courtesy in civil discourse.

    Sunday, Sep 9 @ 11:32 am