The Surry County Board of Commissioners was taken to task earlier this week by county resident Steve Noga, who has taken issue with the board’s April 16 resolution supporting the marriage amendment. The amendment, overwhelmingly approved by state voters last night, now puts a clause in the state constitution which bans gay marriage.
Noga spoke to the board Monday night, and has filed a complaint against the board, alleging the members violated the county’s code of conduct for employees and commissioners by passing the resolution. He also said he believes his constitutional rights were hampered by the board’s vote.
On the night of the resolution’s passage, the commissioners were vocal in their support of the amendment, stating they believed marriage should be limited to a union of a man and a woman, several times citing their religious beliefs as the reason for their stand.
We find no fault with the commissioners holding that view individually, nor do we believe it wrong to publicly voice that opinion. However, we believe Noga is correct, to a point, in that the commissioners had no place to consider the resolution as a local governing body.
The board may have violated the county ethics policy by taking up a political cause, then again, it may not have. The county ethics policy clearly sets out that employees cannot do such a thing, yet in the employee section of the policy it makes an exception for county commissioners. In the portion of the policy specifically dedicated to the commissioners, it seems to refer to the employee section as to what should govern the behavior of the board, so it seems the ethics document might be a little fuzzy.
The larger issue here is why was the board making any statement on the amendment? That question has nothing to do with whether a person favored or opposed the proposal, but on the role of local government. We would respectfully submit the board had no standing to consider this resolution — it had no effect on the county budget, did not address any state mandates that would cost county taxpayers, nor did it have any effect on any governmental entity within the county borders.
We suspect a careful reading of the commissioners’ statement that night will bring most reasonable people to the conclusion that the vote was simply political pandering, trying to win some brownie points with what the board members believe is the majority view of their constituents.
Noga has asked the board members to acknowledge the vote was a mistake, recant the resolution and apologize. We believe that would be a proper course of action. Again, that is no statement on the commissioners stated views, but a reflection that it was not in the board’s purview to make such a vote — and we believe the same for various other commissioner boards around the state that passed resolutions in support of and in opposition to the amendment.
Noga also asks that the board members reimburse the county taxpayers for the labor, supplies, and utilities during what he called “promotion of your personal political agendas,” and pass a resolution prohibiting future boards from endorsing any election or ballot initiative.
We believe these last two would be improper. First, elected officials make mistakes all the time. While we tend to hold them to a higher standard, and rightfully so given their position of public responsibility, they are human. They make mistakes. Their penalty, if voters believe their mistakes warrant a penalty, occurs next time there is an election.
Second, there are legitimate times for a board to take a stand during an election or ballot initiative. When such an action has the potential for directly affecting county taxpayers, or placing a work burden on the county without accompanying funding, then the board should be free to pass resolutions opposing such. Similarly, a board should be allowed to pass resolutions of support for ballot initiatives that can have a direct benefit to county taxpayers.
As for the threat of legal action, that is something Noga will have to decide, but we hope if he does he targets that action at the state, and not the county. Taking any sort of action against the county would be pointless, we believe, because the actions of the board, while ill-advised and possibly inappropriate, did not trample on constitutional rights. If anyone has an issue with the so-called marriage amendment, we suggest action be taken against the General Assembly and the state as a whole, or perhaps through a legal challenge to the amendment itself. A challenge against the county simply hurts local taxpayers, with nothing to gain for the plaintiff.