WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Our Opinion: Public pressure is the key to ending animal fee scandal

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Concerned citizens packed the Rocky Mount City Council chambers this week as officials met behind closed doors to consider the fate of embattled City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

After Rocky Mount Telegram journalist Lindell John Kay’s dogged investigative reporting revealed Small-Toney pushed out seasoned department heads to hire her friends at six-figure salaries and approved a $90,000 renovation to her office without the council’s knowledge, residents are calling for her ouster.

No action was taken following a two-and-a-half-hour closed session, but another meeting is planned Monday. It’s expected to be standing-room only as Rocky Mount residents turn out to demand reform.

Either Small-Toney will be sent packing or council members will likely be unseated in the next election. One way or the other, expect heads to roll.

A groundswell of complaints from city taxpayers forced Rocky Mount’s elected officials to contemplate their hired executive’s continued employment. When it comes to motivating politicians to take action, public pressure still works.

Closer to home, constituents convinced the Wilson City Council to adopt a zoning amendment that protected artist Dave Matthews’ mural at Brewmasters from erasure a year ago this week. Supporters of artistic freedom filled City Hall and made passionate, persuasive pleas to leave the mural in place. When the dust settled, Wilsonians won.

Parents scored a victory for open government and free speech just last month when the Wilson County Board of Education rescinded restrictions on public comments at school board meetings. After months of denouncing the previous policy in this space, we applauded our school board for restoring access to the people’s podium.

When voters unite and speak out, elected officials listen.

After 10 years of collecting pet registration fees, Wilson County commissioners are still dragging their feet on building the new animal shelter those fees were supposed to fund, and the county’s still misappropriating roughly half of the revenue stream for general services. Perhaps part of the reason for this embarrassing, decade-long delay is that our commissioners simply aren’t feeling the heat.

Animal privilege fees have long been a sore spot with Wilson pet owners, but inexplicably, the sheriff’s office has taken the brunt of public criticism. This agency collects the annual bounty and issues registration tags for dogs’ collars, but it’s not up to the sheriff how the money is used or whether and when a new shelter will be built. Commissioners hold the purse strings.

Few have made the effort to hold the Board of Commissioners to account. For the Love of Dogs owner Max Fitz-Gerald has made regular public appeals, but politicians can easily write a lone advocate off as a gadfly and tune him out.

We wonder what would happen if pet owners, taxpayers and rescue group volunteers showed up in force at the next commissioners’ meeting — scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4 — and demanded the new animal shelter they were promised when pet fees were authorized in 2008. Faced with the sincere concern and displeasure of the people they represent, we think our commissioners would finally act.

The Board of Commissioners’ bait and switch — authorizing pet fees to build a new shelter, diverting those fees into the general fund and then years later, agreeing to save only a portion of proceeds for the fees’ stated purpose — is no less a scandal than financial mismanagement in Rocky Mount.

Taxpayers there are holding their city council’s feet to the fire. Where are our protests? Where are Wilson County’s concerned citizens calling for change?

You have the right to demand action from your elected county commissioners. They work for you. You have the collective power to change fee allocations and secure a new animal shelter.

Will you harness that power, Wilson County? Will you choose to hold your Board of Commissioners accountable? Or will too many taxpayers stay silent and allow the shameful pet fee scandal to simmer on the board’s back burner?

CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS

• Chairman Rob Boyette, District 5 — 6634 Governor Hunt Road, Lucama, NC 27851; 252-289-0762; rboyette@wilson-co.com

• Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson, District 1 — 101 Branch St., Elm City, NC 27822; 252-650-1046; latkinson@wilson-co.com

• Sherry Lucas, District 2 — 2105 Sandy Creek Drive SW, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-291-9302; slucas@wilson-co.com

• JoAnne Daniels, District 3 — 406 Bruton St., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-363-3484; jdaniels@wilson-co.com

• Roger Lucas, District 4 — 4020 Wiggins Mill Road, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-6340; rlucas@wilson-co.com

• Chris Hill, District 6 — 1128 Woodland Drive, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-8855; ckhill@wilson-co.com

• Bill Blackman, District 7 — 4109 Stratford Drive N., Wilson, NC 27896; 252-243-1474; bblackman@wilson-co.com

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