Councilmen’s comments constitute an unforced error

May 27, 2014

A surprising amount of good news came out of last week’s Sussex County Council meeting. Seriously.

Most of the news was good. Excellent even.

But for many people, I’m guessing, that news was lost in the tidal wave of negative coverage surrounding the comments made by two county councilmen, Sam Wilson and Vance Phillips, about the NAACP.

(Ron MacArthur of the Cape Gazette did cover the good, the bad and the ugly from last Tuesday’s meeting, but most media outlets either ignored the good or played it down.)

Here are some highlights:

• No increase in property taxes.

• Revenue from the real estate transfer tax is expected to be up 20 percent to 30 percent over last year.

• While the real estate transfer tax revenue is expected to rise to $20 million, the county budget anticipates only $16 million from that source. That’s a cautious, conservative approach.

• The county plans to provide a greater level of service to residents despite having 56 fewer employees than it had in 2009.

In short, the county is on a solid financial footing, an accomplishment for which all five council members can rightly take credit.

This is good news, especially when many governments are struggling with their budgets. Such prudent financial management should send a signal that Sussex County is a good place to do business.

But that’s not the message that went out to potential employers last week. And that’s part of why the comments by Wilson and Phillips were so boneheaded. In sports, they’re what they call an unforced error.

For the few who might actually be unaware of the controversy, Wilson and Phillips recently decided against a county grant for an NAACP youth group. (It passed anyway with the help of the other council members.)

In questioning the group representative, Wilson asked what NAACP stood for, as if he didn’t know. When told “National Association for thhe Advancement of Colored People,” Phillips jumped in with, “What color?”

It was as if they were being disrespectful just because they could.

Later, Wilson said he voted against the grant because some of the money was to go toward members attending a national convention in Las Vegas.

That actually makes some sense. If he had said, respectfully, that he couldn’t support the grant because it would send taxpayer dollars outside Sussex County, I would have understood.

But that’s not what he said at the meeting. The whole point of Wilson and Phillips’s questioning seemed to be to annoy the NAACP.

Congratulations! It worked. Now Wilson and Phillips have compounded their error by not quickly apologizing and putting the matter behind them.

Many, of course, have accused the two council members of racism, and the speakers at last week’s meeting spoke more eloquently than I could. I was struck by Jea Street’s comments about his grandfather, who owned four or five farms around Belltown.

Street, recalling what some regard as the good old days, said he had no “memory of joy” about those times. Instead he remembered the way his grandfather was treated, about how African-Americans were unwelcome in Rehoboth Beach.

But what Wilson and Phillips don’t seem to understand is that their comments weren’t harmful just because they upset members of the NAACP. (They also upset people outside the NAACP.) They affect everybody in Sussex County.

Let’s look at some of the big issues facing our county. People want more jobs and they want well-paying jobs that will allow their children to remain here and raise their own families.

Sussex County also needs more doctors and other healthcare professionals to serve our large and growing number of older residents. In fact, the issues of jobs and healthcare are related because for every doctor who opens a practice here, other good health-related jobs are created.

That’s part of the reason behind creating amenities such as the bike and walking path now encircling the Cape Region. They’re designed not only for locals and tourists, but to lure the businesses and the professionals we need to grow and prosper.

But let’s say a doctor is thinking about coming to the Cape Region. They Google “Sussex County” and up pop stories about the NAACP demanding an apology from the county council. It only gets worse if they take the time to read the stories.

What are they going to decide? That the Cape Region looks like a nice place to live and work and raise their families? Or are they going to keep looking?

Wilson and Phillips need to apologize and try to put this controversy behind them. It’s bad for human relations in Sussex County. It’s bad for business.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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