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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 14:03

Commissioners angle for piece of library glory in plaque dispute

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Jackson County leaders have decided that tradition is overrated.

Six months after the new Jackson County library opened, commissioners have decided whose name to put on a plaque in the foyer — a spot that until now featured a cardboard placeholder.

The verdict?

The names of two different boards of commissioners will be listed on the commemorative plaque for the new library, not just the board of commissioners who took the political heat when it was built.

“Can we talk about the plagues?” Chairman Jack Debnam asked fellow board members during a daylong retreat last week, a reference to a typo on the agenda sheet that was supposed to read, “library plaques.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten added, also amused by the typo, “I have not taken any steps to order those plaques. And I just need some direction, and it will be a plague I can eliminate from my agenda.”

The tempest in a teacup first burbled to public notice last summer, when Jackson County in June celebrated the opening of its $8 million public library in Sylva, a project that included renovations to the historic courthouse.

Before new commissioners and a new county manager took office last fall, former County Manager Ken Westmoreland had submitted the design for a plaque with a typical inscription used on new-building plaques in Jackson County. The plaque was to list the names of the political leaders who were responsible for funding the library; the county manager’s name leading the effort; and the names of the architect and general contractor involved.

When three new commissioners took office, that plaque design was placed on hold.

Wooten told commissioners that on his own initiative he decided that giving sole credit to the former commissioners wasn’t fitting. The new commissioners were making a substantial investment in the new library by increasing its annual operating budget. Wooten felt the three new board members should be included, too. But Wooten decided not to include the name of the previous county manager’s name, or his as the current county manager. He did opt to keep the architect and general contractor.

“At that point in time, I said, ‘Well, maybe we should take a different approach to it,’” Wooten said in explanation.

Debnam, in typical fashion told fellow board members that he’d rather take yet a different approach, an even more radical one than that being offered by the county’s manager — Debnam questioned whether any commissioners at all should attempt to claim plaque acclaim.

“Well, I for one have an issue with self gratification,” Debnam said, adding that county buildings are “built by and for the people of Jackson County.”

“What did we do?” Debnam said as he expounded on his individual theory of plaque appropriateness. “It’s not our money we’re spending. I know there seems to be a history of doing this — somewhere it started, somewhere it needs to end.”

It didn’t end this time, though. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who in fact voted against building the new public library at the site of old historic courthouse, agreed that both boards should be included on the plaque. Cowan did not touch on his opposition to where the new library was sited, even though he has gone on record recently reminding people that he had been against the site when predictions of a parking shortage on courthouse hill came true.

But that was then, and before Jackson County residents posted record numbers in library attendance and the facility won a statewide award for general loveliness and excellence.

A plaque, Cowan said as he expounded on his own theory of plaque appropriateness, “identifies who was around, and maybe who had the guts to stand up and build the building, by golly — that you are willing to stand up and put your neck and maybe your next election on the line.”

Cowan said that he believed there’s no shame in credit being given where credit was due.

“I don’t have a problem whatsoever with both boards being on there. In some ways, it’s more reflective of what has happened,” Cowan said in summation, still minus mention that he opposed the new library being built as an add-on to Jackson County’s historic courthouse.

The plaque will cost between $1,100 and $1,900, based on whether it is aluminum or brass, Wooten said, after receiving enough of a consensus from the board to combat this ongoing plague.

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