Our Opinion: Why is Lucama’s mayor alienating a state lawmaker?
Dave DiFilippo cartoon
We don’t think Cooper-Suggs would hold the mayor and commissioners’ incompetence against Lucama residents if the board sought her help to improve town services. But why go out of your way to bite the hand that feeds you?"
More than two dozen North Carolina cities and towns pay lobbyists to advocate for their interests in the General Assembly. To our knowledge, only one of the state’s 532 incorporated municipalities is actively trying to sabotage its relationship with a legislator.
That disturbing distinction belongs to the town of Lucama, whose mayor interrupted Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs and forced her to abbreviate her remarks during the town board’s meeting last week.
Mayor Jeff Johnson told Cooper-Suggs her time to speak had expired, depriving the residents in attendance of valuable information on the state budget and other goings-on in Raleigh.
Cooper-Suggs, D-Wilson, spoke during time reserved for public comment where each person receives three minutes to address the Lucama Board of Commissioners. She had no personal ax to grind, nor was she giving a stump speech for her anticipated reelection bid next year.
As reporter Drew C. Wilson wrote in Friday’s edition, “Cooper-Suggs came to update the board and Lucama’s residents on the state budget process along with the General Assembly’s work on redistricting, education and affordable housing.”
Bob James, a representative of the NAACP’s Wilson Branch who spoke later, said Cooper-Suggs shouldn’t have been subject to the three-minute time limit. We agree.
That’s not to suggest, of course, that speakers should receive preferential treatment because of their status as elected officials. If Cooper-Suggs wished to weigh in on a matter before the board or raise an issue for Lucama commissioners to consider, she’s due the same amount of time as anyone else. That wasn’t the case during the board’s Sept. 13 meeting.
Cooper-Suggs gave what’s commonly known as a legislative update. It’s standard practice for city, town and county boards to provide state House and Senate members with time to discuss official business. This occurs frequently in council chambers throughout the state.
Though the lawmaker signed up for public comment, commissioners could have voted to add a presentation from Cooper-Suggs to the agenda. The subject matter of her remarks, not the mechanism she used to address the board, is what differentiates her from other speakers.
Local governments try to maintain good working relationships with their legislative delegation, whose members can introduce bills that councils and commissions recommend and secure state funds for local projects. For mayors and board chairs, building rapport with legislators is part of the job.
Twenty-eight cities, including Wilson, Rocky Mount, Greenville, Fayetteville and Charlotte, currently employ lobbyists to act as their liaisons in the General Assembly, according to the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State’s most recent 2021 lobbying directory published Sept. 14. A dozen towns and 16 of the state’s 100 county governments also have registered lobbyists.
These governing bodies believe support on Jones Street is valuable enough to enlist others’ help beyond the advocacy they already receive from the North Carolina League of Municipalities and North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
Lucama may not need its own lobbyist, but at bare minimum, commissioners ought to work collaboratively with the town’s representative and senator.
Whether Johnson’s politics align or clash with Cooper-Suggs’ is irrelevant. Most municipal matters that require legislative support are nonpartisan. Though Lucama received a $2.2 million grant from the N.C. Division of Water Infrastructure to replace the corroded pipes and aging infrastructure that delivers residents’ drinking water, legislators can seek earmarks outside grant funding cycles.
In neighboring Nash County, Bailey and Middlesex are in line to receive $5 million and $1.5 million, respectively, in budget allocations for sewer system projects courtesy of support from Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Nash, and Rep. Matthew Winslow, R-Franklin.
When Barnes and Winslow address town boards, they aren’t given the bum’s rush.
We don’t think Cooper-Suggs would hold the mayor and commissioners’ incompetence against Lucama residents if the board sought her help to improve town services. But why go out of your way to bite the hand that feeds you?
At least one Lucama board member showed some basic courtesy and common sense. Commissioner Peggy Lamm thanked Cooper-Suggs for “caring enough to come and talk to us.”
Perhaps that’s a start to repairing the relationship Johnson needlessly fractured.
We call on the mayor to apologize to Cooper-Suggs and invite her to deliver a full, uninterrupted legislative update at Lucama’s next regularly scheduled meeting.
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