Letter: Pitting neighbors against each other

Mayor John Fox Sullivan’s cackling defense and characterization of folks who dare to speak in opposition to him and the town council reminds me of the sentiments expressed by some local elected officials from a bygone era.

In the 1960s, small town mayors and sheriffs across the South railed against the influx of “outsiders” — mostly young and from northern States — who descended on their jurisdictions and caused “trouble” by leading protests and demonstrations to end segregation.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the lengths to which these officials would go to blame these outsiders — or “agitators” as they were usually called — for disturbing their sense of normalcy and way of life.

At the time, I was struck by how incredibly intolerant, belligerent and oblivious these authorities were to anything and anyone who was willing to challenge the status quo. They were better at making excuses than governing. In the final analysis, it was the outsiders who made the difference and changed things for the better.

It it deja vu all over again here in Rappahannock County?

To be sure, I would not equate the turmoil in town to that earlier time when we were divided by race. However, the mayor’s words are nevertheless incendiary, and evidence an attitude more befitting a monarch than a democratically elected official. Try as he might, the mayor’s diversionary tactics as well as his uber, self-righteous and indignant tone and choice of words will not quell the dissent. Just the opposite.

The town’s elected officials will, and should, bear the ultimate responsibility for creating deeper and wider fissures in our community. The mayor’s rhetoric may well have the effect of pitting one neighbor against another — rhetorically and politically speaking — simply based on where they reside.

That’s a real shame, but the town council and the mayor will have only themselves, not Rappnet or a bunch of concerned outsiders, to blame for such an outcome, since it is their actions which have stirred the pot and created this mess in the first place.

At the core of this problem is their conduct. They, not the disgruntled minority, have chosen to conduct the public’s business in a manner that has bred distrust and disrespect from more than a few of us who call this place home.

Process matters; dissent is part of democracy. Snickering at and demeaning opposing voices in public or in print is nothing more than an adult form of bullying. We teach our kids not to behave this way. Regrettably, the mayor and his other visionaries on the council have apparently forgotten that lesson.

Frankly, I am not sure if the town’s charter should be revoked; it is not a real priority for me. In the meantime, however, the mayor ought to refrain from accusing residents of the same county in which he resides of being a disgruntled minority.

Finally, for those interested in reading how history has a tendency to repeat itself, I would recommend a very interesting and provocative article written for the New Yorker magazine in 1999, authored by former Rappahannock resident Tony Horwitz.

In it, the author details the origins of some the issues that go to the heart of today’s debate, as well as the leading antagonists in this real-life drama. One can read for themselves what these visionaries thought of the town back then and the people who inhabited it.

Nothing I have seen or heard indicates that many of the same people, who are quoted in the article and are still opining today, have altered their vision or plans for the town’s future. Same old, same old.

And while that article was written long before the current mayor’s term, he and the rest of the council, as well as the residents of the county and the town, would benefit from reading or re-reading it.

It may also contribute to a better understanding of what lies in store for the town — especially if the voices of outsiders, or anyone else for that matter, are silenced by the king and his court.

Mike Ferrell

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