How Clyde became a public official

Friday, October 10, 2008

Now the story can be told.

Years ago, in another county, I asked the mayor how Clyde became a member of one of the town's advisory panels.

Howard swore me to secrecy to spare the man and his family any embarrassment. Howard's not been with us for more than a decade. His appointee was about a decade older than Howard when he told me the story.

Exact repetition of the story isn't necessary to make the point that's relevant to Lewisburg and Marshall County today, so here's what I remember being told about Clyde, which is not his real name.

The Widget Committee had some business to conduct every once in a while and there was a vacancy that hadn't been filled because the town had trouble finding someone who had a demonstrable interest in widgets.

It didn't matter, but when state grant money was available, the panel had to officially make a request to the city council so the mayor could be authorized to file an application. Attendance wasn't too much of a problem, but it became clear that someday they might not have a quorum and the town might miss out on state money, or fail to do something else like pay a bill or hire someone to do something at the widget facility.

Howard had the city manager, Jimmy, make a list of candidates. Then, over coffee one morning at the "Meat and Three" restaurant across from the Courthouse, Jimmy told Howard he'd not gotten anywhere with that list.

Jimmy had to get on with other duties that day and Howard was joined by Mr. Bill at the breakfast table. They were the only customers in the dining room and both sat looking out the window onto the public square. It was a beautiful day and Howard shared his problem with Mr. Bill.

"Why don't you appoint the next person who walks across the street?" Bill asked.

Shortly thereafter, Clyde walked across the street. Howard spoke with him that afternoon to verify his residency and willingness to serve on the Widget Board. Clyde said yes and the board's problem with getting a quorum was solved.

Nearly two decades later, there have been resignations from several town and county panels here. Residency and the ability to walk across the street are not good qualifications for public service. And the conditions of public service shouldn't be such that there are only a few willing candidates available for service on local government panels, according to a man on the Marshall County Board of Public Utilities.

That man is at the center of controversy now. He was hired by another man on the board to help sell a purchase option on farmland where a landfill was proposed. Allegations of ethical misconduct were made against both men. The Realtor's been vindicated since he never had authority over whether a landfill could be developed at Cornersville.

Public reaction against landfills is to be expected. Opposition can be mustered sooner than support for virtually any issue, but if opposition makes public service dangerous to panelists, then it may be hard to find people who will conduct the public's business.

Fortunately, the Widget Board served a contingent of people with the where-with-all to afford a widget elsewhere, back then years ago and somewhere else. Here, everywhere, now and every day, people drink water.