Stone's reticence on bill is to constituents' detriment

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

By filing a bill aimed squarely at Sanford and Lee County, yet failing to be forthcoming with local leaders, Rep. Mike Stone is once again in the eye of a self-made storm.

In essence House Bill 490 would require those seeking seats on the Lee County Board of Education and the Sanford City Council to declare their political party affiliation.

Typically, bills concerning local jurisdictions are requested by their leaders — and supported by their governing bodies through resolutions. In contrast, not only did several Sanford and school officials say they did not ask for such a bill, they claim they were not even consulted prior to Stone's filing of it.

The Sanford City Council went so far Tuesday as to officially oppose the measure by a 5-1 margin.

As a former Sanford councilman himself, Stone should appreciate the value of clear, complete and consistent dialogue with local leaders. Why then, was no mention of this bill made to them, especially when city council members traveled to Raleigh recently to take part in a Town Hall Day — an occasion designed to foster rapport between municipalities and the General Assembly?

Whether or not the proposal is warranted, or requested by constituents as Stone claims, this lack of communication is troubling. Local officials don't necessarily have to like all of Stone's ideas, but he should make informing them of his intentions a priority.

And in this case, it's is more than just a matter of courtesy. According to Councilman Sam Gaskins, this bill has the potential to cost Sanford $35,000 or more every two years — if the city had to conduct primary elections. Particularly with the county contemplating a sales tax distribution change, moving about $1.3 million from the city's coffers, this is no small sum.

If the people demand partisan school board and municipal elections, then certainly Stone should start that discussion. However, rather than vetting the issue publicly, it appears the legislator didn't even bounce the proposal off of local policy makers. By not doing so, he has demonstrated a clear disregard for both this aspect of his constituency and his office.

And while this proposal appears to be on the fast track, and was on its way to the Senate floor as of Thursday, Stone had previously declined to submit at least one bill that local leaders did ask for — which concerned an occupancy tax for tourism.

Despite his own lack of communication with other officials about the bill, Stone told The Herald its purpose was to provide voters with more information about candidates — allowing them to make more educated decisions. However, it's worth noting that citizens have access to a wealth of information about prospective public servants in Lee County — in the form of multiple candidate forums, in-depth printed profiles and campaign literature and websites — among other sources.

Lee GOP Chairman Charles Staley, who was one of the few who seemed to have advance notice of the pending legislation, echoed Stone's statements about “little information” being available to local voters and praised the proposal by name as a “great bill” for Lee County — even as elected officials were left in the dark. Surely, the local party is confident that identifying candidates' ideologies will give them an edge in upcoming elections.

If the Republicans want to populate the council and the school board with like-minded leaders, there's a more practical way of going about it — find worthy candidates willing to serve, and trust that their platforms will win over the electorate.

Undoubtedly, some voters want a telltale “R” or “D” beside every hopeful's name, but others feel just as strongly about keeping politics out of education and the municipal realm as much as possible. They, and those who represent them, should have input in that debate. And what can be made of the fact that only seven of North Carolina's 547 towns and cities have adopted such a policy, according to the N.C. League of Municipalities?

Is Stone's bill the will of the people? Judging from the response of the city council, and the fact that partisan races for cities and school boards are not common in the state, we'd think not.