For nearly 18 years, John Blanton has served this county well as a commissioner, and we’ve no doubt, health permitting, if he returns to his chair before relinquishing it in December, he’ll continue to serve with the same integrity and diligence he’s always exuded.
Yet that doesn’t mean we were in favor of him casting a vote in abstentia on the 2012-13 budget Monday night. In fact, we were not. And while he might have been present on a hard-to-see video screen or heard on a long-distance phone call, he was not present so Sampson citizens could truly witness him voicing his thoughts on the fiscal plan and voting for or against it.
And that’s one of many reasons we didn’t favor such an unusual and unprecedented move in this county.
While we wholeheartedly want Blanton to be able to cast his vote for the budget, we want him to do so having a full understanding of the month-long discussions and debates that have taken place on very important issues, such as employee salary bumps, a capital reserve maintenance account and where the tax rate should rest, at 78.5 or a commissioner recommended 77 cents per $100 valuation. And we want him present to do so.
As it stood Monday night, Blanton could not have made an insightful decision, having been absent from every budget work session held by the board, as well as June’s regular meeting.
For his part, Blanton could not help the absences. He’s recuperating in the VA Hospital in Fayetteville, where he remained Monday night when some commissioners made the attempt to waive the county’s rules and procedures to allow him to vote from his hospital room, either via telephone or video-conferencing.
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland and chairman Billy Lockamy pushed hard for Blanton to be allowed to cast a vote; colleagues Albert Kirby and Jarvis McLamb, likewise, pushed, but in the opposite direction, standing firm that the commissioner not be allowed to vote in such a manner.
In the end a deadlocked 2-2 vote prevented Blanton breaking what became a budget stalemate and forced a call for — and vote on — an interim budget, which passed unanimously, giving the ailing commissioner until July 17 to be restored to good health, study the budget, listen to tapes of previous work sessions and make an informed decision.
Anything short of that would have cheated Sampson County citizens and John Blanton, himself. We simply do not believe that’s how he operates, and his record backs up that decisions he’s made over the course of his tenure have come with thoughtful debate and a care for how residents in his district feel on issues.
Strickland’s impassioned plea to allow Blanton to vote because “this is his last chance to vote on a budget after the years he has given to Sampson County as a commissioner,” shows, perhaps, compassion for the man but little regard for what is at stake. And Lockamy’s rebuff to those opposing Blanton’s vote as “downgrading” also misses the point.
So, too, does Kirby’s intent to hone in on whether such a move would open the county up to a lawsuit.
The truth is every commissioner should vote in person and with as much information as possible on whatever issue is at hand. Blanton could have done neither Monday night.
It is what citizens should expect, and it’s what many government leaders have done.
Take for example, former U.S. congresswoman Gabbie Giffords, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, who returned to the House floor to cast a vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling. Then there was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who returned to the Senate to cast a vote for the Medicare overhaul bill, though he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was in poor health.
Giffords and Kennedy were in extremely ill health, yet they didn’t cast a vote by phone or video-conference; they showed up in person.
We believe that’s what Blanton wants as well. We believe his comment Monday night attests to that fact. “I want to be on that board to represent myself,” he said before the board recessed and shut down the video-conference equipment.
And so it should be.