2017-02-16 / Front Page

‘In God We Trust’ will be on council table after disagreement on action taken in Jan.

editor and publisher

A difference of understanding over action taken at the January meeting of the Washington City Council resulted in further contention between the members concerning entryway signs and a previously unmentioned plaque for the front of the council’s meeting table.

At the January meeting, Councilman Travis Armour proposed that the words “A Nation Under God” be added to signs at various entrance roads into the city. Following some worry about the legality of such action, the measure was passed, 6-0, pending approval of pricing.

During the work session prior to the February meeting of the council on Monday, February 13, City Administrator Sherri Bailey reported that she had obtained a price, $243, for the plaque for the council table, but did not yet have pricing for the entryway signs.

Mayor Ames Barnett, Bailey, and some councilmen had apparently understood the previous action to authorize the sign additions and that approval of the pricing was a separate matter. Councilmen Marion Tutt, Maceo Mahoney, and Kimberly Rainey expressed their understanding that the action was entirely dependent on approval of pricing.

“There never was an actual vote that we approved to put this sign out,” Tutt said.

According to the minutes, “Council member T. Armour requested that the city add to its entryway signs the words “One Nation under God.” On motion by T. Armour, second by Scarborough, council approved this recommendation 6 to 0.”

Quoting further from the approved January minutes, City Attorney Barry Fleming said, “‘The administrative staff will get pricing for having motto added to the signs and bring it back to the council for final approval.’ The way I would read that is you would bring it back to approve of the pricing. So the vote was 6-0 to place ‘One Nation Under God’ on the signs.”

Since the entryway signs have not yet been priced, a separate motion was made to add “In God We Trust” to a plaque for the front of the council meeting table.

“What raised high concerns for me,” Tutt said, “was the second part of [Armour’s January proposal] when he said we have refugees coming in, changing our town from this to that, and we need to make these people understand that we are a town and one nation under God. We need to have God in our hearts … but if we start doing things like this, it’s going to cause some problems down the line.”

Rainey joined Tutt’s sentiments saying, “In light of Trump’s Executive Order, we really don’t need to go there. People are really upset about this issue. We don’t need to do anything like that. I love God but in view of what’s going on in our country, I think it’s the wrong time to change our signs.” She encouraged Armour to take a walk at the high school to see that the community has already changed, “and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. We need to embrace it.”

Mahoney asked Fleming if the city would win a lawsuit on the matter if challenged, and Fleming responded affirmatively. Citing a case with one of his other clients, Fleming said especially in this part of the country, the use of such a motto would likely be allowed, although in other areas, possibly not. “It’s an area of the law that is changing,” he said. “There are more people challenging these types of things than there used to be.”

“When we spend taxpayer dollars, we are spending everybody’s money,” Mahoney said. “The things that don’t bring us together as a community divide us. If it’s going to do more hurt than good, we need to just leave it alone.”

“Don’t stand up here and pray, and bow your head, and say ‘In God we trust,’” the mayor responded. “Don’t sit up here and ask him to bless this city and then keep him out of somewhere. When the fire department goes out to get a kid out of a burning house, somebody is saying prayers. When the EMS goes, somebody’s saying prayers. Part of the problem is you’re trying to put him out of some places. God’s not going to bless this city if he knows we are not willing to stand firm and put his name out there in front.”

The motion to place a plaque bearing the words “In God We Trust” on the front of the council table passed. Councilmen Travis Armour, Peewee Armour, and Mike Scarborough voted in favor while Tutt, Rainey, and Mahoney dissented. Barnett broke the tie in favor.

There was considerable confusion over the whole matter even after the meeting was concluded and it was still unclear what the original intent was meant to be. However, according to Bailey, after the meeting a citizen raised an objection to the plaque being paid for with taxpayer money, so Barnett said he would pay for it himself. “So it will not be a cost to the taxpayers,” she said.

In other business, Kelli Eisler was appointed to replace Joey Fievet on the Downtown Development Authority; and Kay Finnell was appointed to replace Wendy Barksdale on the Health Department board.

Wilkes County EMA Director Blake Thompson brought the council up to date on progress being made with the Code Red program of severe weather notification. He said the system is free and easy to sign up for and forms are readily available. He further indicated that a test of the system will be conducted in about two weeks to check out connectivity to local phone lines.

Rainey asked about the center circle in The Square and was reminded that funds for a removable (to make way for annual Christmas trees) fountain are already in the 2017 budget.

Rainey also noted some 20 empty storefronts in the downtown area and asked, “Do we have a plan?” Bailey pointed out that Main Street Director Elizabeth Elliott is the “common denominator” among four groups which constantly work on identifying and recruiting new businesses.

After receiving no bids for the possible sale of The Pope Center, the council voted to hire a professional realtor to investigate the possibility of a sale. However, Mahoney stated that he is not in favor of selling the property and that it is his position to “keep everything.”

Mahoney also expressed deep concern for crime in the city. “It’s bad to be an elected official and have to hear about crime going on from somebody else,” he said. “We need to know what’s going on.” He mentioned that there are a number of guns unaccounted for in the city and “if we don’t do something, one of those guns is going to end up in one of the schools. We need to get our checks and balances in order so we know what’s going on.”

The council approved the use of The Square by Wills Memorial Hospital for its “Parade of Beds” on March 25 from 10 a.m.-noon.

Other matters of general business were also discussed during the regular meeting of the council on Monday, February 13, at The Pope Center.

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