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Pyles: Staunton council members should be chosen by districts, not at-large elections

Pyles: Staunton council members should be chosen by districts, not at-large elections

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It appears the cancer on the rule of law in Augusta County has metastasized into Staunton.

Tracy Pyles column sig

Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.

Representative democracy, guided by the best traditions of the peoples’ right to know and long established legal standards of process, has been abandoned in favor of what this country was founded to reject: kingships.

Monarchies were rejected because they generally used their power for their own good. Of course what good is having power if there isn’t a little vigorish for the family? Mark Robertson is a newly elected councilman and vice-mayor. His brother, Matthew Robertson, is the city’s sheriff. He leads a squad of nine primarily tasked with court security and document delivery.

Staunton also has a police department of 57. They are city funded and entrusted with the responsibility to serve and protect all 25,000 Staunton residents. Curiously the police have been told they are unneeded for council security. Instead the vice-mayor’s brother’s office is being paid to provide the service. If this were done openly, after consideration for, and input from, the police vhief and the sheriff; there is no problem.

But during this time of “defund the police,” insults hurled at peace officers just doing their jobs, there needs to be more respect for those tasked to risk their lives for our safety. I expect the men in blue to salute smartly, and carry on professionally, but will they now doubt the council having their backs?

They are not alone when it comes to feeling marginalized. Consider the personal slights and disrespect for some council members; as well as disregard for the people’s right to know, now occurring.

When published “Agenda Items” are deleted at the last minute, to avoid embarrassment, government becomes less trustworthy. When surprise agenda items are then inserted, unbeknownst to the city manager, the council reeks of evasiveness.

Mayor Andrea Oakes used her gavel to rule former Mayor Carolyn Dull “out of order” for questioning a council action. When councilmen can neither formally advance matters for discussion, nor raise issues spontaneously for review, one has to ask: “What is the majority afraid of?”

Pettiness seems to be replacing professionalism when one councilmember’s choice, to both represent their constituents and be safe, is questioned. During this time of COVID-19 there are differences of opinion as to how far to go in self-protection. Some wear masks prophylactically, others don’t philosophically. People choose differently and most understand personal decisions are, well, personal decisions.

And yet one of the new members, Steve Claffey, has asked that two members be denied virtual participation. Although such interaction has been universally accepted as safe and useful during our pandemic, Mr. Steve Claffey doesn’t agree. Fine, but only a monarch requires adherence to his every thought bubble.

The rationale is also a bit perplexing. Consider the council members, that Claffey wants in the room, are the same ones his side chooses to silence. As the two are ladies; I can’t help but think of a 1950s belief that women were expected to simply “shut up and look pretty”.

The unsettling comportment of this council has not gone unnoticed. Wednesday night a citizen group gathered to consider how to “recall” the newly elected. The city attorney has resigned less than three months after the establishment of this council. All is not well.

Fortunately for Staunton residents none of this is more than annoyance. No significant funds have been wasted, no new, harmful, ordinances have been enacted. This is more a cat fight than armed combat. It is, however, a call for public vigilance until this council matures.

It may also be a time to rethink how Staunton elects its representatives. The city is not divided into smaller magisterial districts. Instead everyone votes to choose the seven at-large representatives.

Consider that U. S. Representatives are elected by just those in their individual Congressional districts. U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, is elected by rural folks in a rural district. If Virginia were to copy Staunton it would mean all 11 congressmen probably being Democrats as are all five of those now elected by statewide votes.

This would not serve us well. Nor would all Republicans. And I don’t think it serves Staunton well either. But it will not change until those in power are willing to risk their own seats in pursuit of the model devised by our founding fathers.

Seven council districts, with seven members separately elected, has proven value. It may be worth trying to insure that the Queen City is always by, for, and of the people.

Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.

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