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Opinion

‘Tis a wonder

SoVaNow.com / January 16, 2020
Do we all remember four years ago when the Halifax County Board of Supervisors self-immolated over a set of internal issues that have never entirely been explained to this day, and created a bitter, months-long 4-4 split on the board? Yeah, good times.

Things got so bad that year that your humble scribe, driven to the edge of madness from sitting through too many utterly demented meetings, wrote a marginally less demented, probably head-scratching (to the outside observer) column on the unearthed lost chapter of the Adventures of Halasz in Wonderland. Well, the hero of that tale is no longer around, nor are beloved supporting characters such as the White Rabbit (looking at you, Barry Bank). But as with the genius of Lewis Carroll, the dysfunction of local governing boards will be with us forever.

To bring the story up to date: last week, the Board of Supervisors held its first meeting of the new year (check that, new decade) and whaddaya know, the sense of misadventure is back. Board members elected a new chairman, ED-3 representative Hubert Pannell, who served as board vice chairman last year. Pannell is a fine choice for the job which, to be clear, doesn’t actually entail doing much. The chairman assigns members to serve on committees. He or she presides over meetings and calls for motions and discussions and votes and such. Occasionally the chairman gets to bang his gavel. After that, the chair gets one vote, same as everyone else. It’s not really a job worth having a power struggle over.

But, as the N&R reported Monday and again on today’s front page, the chairmanship has unexpectedly become a point of controversy in 2020. Supervisors will meet again next week to see if they can hold a proper vote on the position. What happened the first time they tried, in case you missed it, is members held back-to-back votes on two nominees seeking the job: Pannell and William Bryant Claiborne. Claiborne was the first candidate to be nominated, so he received the first vote — 3-0, with Brandon, Claiborne and Ronnie Duffey raising their hands to signify “yes.” Everyone else sat back and said and did nothing. Then came the vote for Pannell, which prompted a show of five hands: by Garland Ricketts, Jeff Francisco, board newcomers Dean Throckmorton and Ricky Short, and Pannell himself. This time it was the turn of the other three members to keep quiet

5-0 versus 3-0. Simple enough to figure out who won, right? I pinch myself as I write this, but the rightful winner of the chairmanship under the rules that the board has adopted for conducting its meetings is ... William Bryant Claiborne!

Yep, that’s what Robert’s Rules of Order says: a motion passes if it receives a majority of votes cast. “Votes cast” is the operative term under Robert’s Rules, not “a majority of board members” or a “majority of those present.” On that first ballot, Claiborne collected three “yes” votes, zero “no” votes and five stumps on a log. Since abstentions don’t count towards the vote tally under Robert’s Rules of Order (and not casting a vote is the same as abstaining on a vote), Claiborne won a 3-0 majority, and thus should be chairman. The only potentially superceding factors to ponder are whether the rules require a supermajority vote for the position (no), and if a quorum of board members was present at the meeting (yes).

So there. There’s your proper outcome. And, it must be added, a profoundly silly one. The clear sentiment of the board is that Hubert Pannell, not William Bryant Claiborne, should be its next chairman. How exactly anyone untangles this mess at next week’s special meeting (Wednesday, Jan. 22) without trampling on established procedure and protocol is anyone’s guess. In a world where rules and laws and ethical norms are flushed down the toilet faster than Donald Trump gets on Twitter (don’t dwell on that thought too long), it’s almost laughable to hang the fate of this year’s version of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors on the 
inviolability of Robert’s Rules of Order. So we won’t. Stay tuned for next week’s episode on the Bat Channel.

In the meantime, this nutty little diversion is worth pondering for what is says about a latent and not-so-latent tendency among many who seek out and hold local public office — not exclusively Board of Supervisors by any means — which has bugged me for a long time. Why do people, once they go through the trouble of winning an election, decide they don’t want to take stands on matters of public interest and importance? The sense of inertia can be pretty suffocating at times. In the case of the nomination vote for Claiborne, for reasons benign or not, it’s probably the case that the oblivious abstainers decided that rather than declare their open opposition to inarguably the board’s most polarizing member (because face it, folks, we’re still stuck in 2015), the five-member majority decided to go the Roberta Flack-Killing Me Softly route. Seems like a sorta nice way to handle these unpleasantries! Except it’s not. Unless elected officials have a clear reason to abstain (such as conflicts of interest), they should vote. That’s what the people have put them in office to do. If you want to be a nice guy who’s popular with everyone all the time, take up column writing.

(On that note, since it was earlier remarked that Hubert Pannell is a more-than-worthy choice for board chairman, let it also be said that William Bryant Claiborne was right about the former county administrator four years ago, he was more right than wrong in the not-long ago courthouse deliberations that were such a fiasco, the current forward-moving state of the project notwithstanding, and as a duly elected member of the Board of Supervisors he has as much claim to fair treatment under established procedural order as anyone. There’s nothing objectionable in opposing his bid for chairman. What’s objectionable is doing do and not wanting to stand to account.)

You know what happened at last week’s meeting that actually is significant? Supervisors did zippo on the matter of naming their representatives to a joint committee with school trustees to chart a path forward on the high school. Voters by more than a 2-1 margin passed the November referendum to tax themselves so that Halifax can fix its dire high school problem, and supervisors greeted the dawn of a new year and a new decade by not even bringing up the subject at their first meeting. By the way, time really is money, and this bit of wrongfooting on the pressing matter of the high school will cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, if allowed to continue.

So, yes, by all means, let the supervisors meet next week and settle their chairmanship issue as quickly as possible. If one were naturally beset with a suspicious mind, the idea might dawn that this current ridiculousness has been orchestrated to distract from more important business at hand. I don’t actually believe that, because fact is, serving in local office is a thankless task carried out by people of goodw .... Wait! Stop! Over there! Squirrel! No, that’s not a squirrel — it’s a white rabbit! Someone call for help — many gentle fellows have fallen down the rabbit hole!



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