Opinion: His actions tarnish every public servant

Steve Rogers
By: 
STEVE ROGERS
Staff Writer

The vast majority of people who run for and are elected to public office do so with great intentions. And the vast majority of those who win and serve have their hearts in the right place, even if they mess up from time to time.

And almost all understand that by serving, they are representing not just themselves and their communities but also the reputations of everyone who has and will hold public office, a reputation that too easily is stereotyped by the words graft and corruption.

That's why it's hard to know what to make of Aberdeen Mayor Maurice Howard, a minister who was elected two years ago.

In case you missed it, from all indications, he drove his city-owned car, complete with "Mayor" plastered all over it, to Linden, Ala., on April 4 and left the car there for a week while he drove an 18-wheeler load or loads of wood chips around. In addition to being a minister, that's another one of his jobs -- truck driver.

That alone begs the question how he has time to be mayor.

And he used a taxpayer-funded gas card to pay for the fuel to make the trip.

I guess it's possible the car flew itself the 142 miles to Linden and 142 miles back and stopped and got gas on its own.

Or I guess the mayor could have loaned the car and the gas card to someone and they drove it to Linden.

In two out of those three options, he's committed a number of violations. And we still haven't addressed the whole mayor's salary issue.

If the third scenario is true, we all missed a heck of a story.

At Tuesday night's Board of Aldermen meeting, he tried to cut off any talk of the situation. In fact, he tried to limit the agenda. The fact that some city business needed to be conducted didn't seem to matter to him.

Fortunately for Aberdeen residents, the board wasn't having any part of it.

When Alderman Doug Stone brought up sending the question of the mayor's activities to state agencies for investigation, Howard childishly tried to turn the tables, accusing Stone of being behind a scheme to give away city water.

Too hear the mayor talk, it sounded like the entire city was having car washes and bubble baths on utility customers' tabs.

Fortunately, as the discussion progressed, it became clear the issue was over a downtown fire hydrant that was being used by a business woman and Main Street Aberdeen to water the flowers in city planters in the downtown area.

It's a practice used in many communities.

But rather than thanking the business owners and volunteers for doing what is done by city employees in many places, the mayor tried to make them sound like they were taking part in some kind of criminal conspiracy.

At another point in the discussion, the mayor used the word "allegation" three different times to refer to his car incident. He didn't offer an apology, an explanation or even a denial, no hint of contrition, just arrogance.

It was little different than last fall when he was confronted about driving the same city car to Columbus numerous times to work out at a fitness center there.

"Get a life," he said after inviting me to meet and discuss it and then not waiting for me to arrive.

It's the same person who, since being elected two years ago, has started two non-profits that would appear to potentially benefit from the city's name. One is the Aberdeen Utility Electric Cooperative, created on Nov. 14, 2016, with him using the name Maurice Jackson listed as the CEO.

Another is the Aberdeen Bulldog Committee, registered on May 17,2017 with Maurice Howard listed as the director and registered agent.

Public officials need to be careful not to cross the lines that divide their responsibilities -- legal and otherwise -- and their personal interests. Those potential conflicts of interest are serious.
Wednesday, he was not at City Hall, or at least he hadn't shown up by 2 p.m.

If I were paying someone $44,000 a year, which is what Howard is paid by the taxpayers, I'd expect them to make an appearance sometimes.

Mr. Howard may one day do great things for the city. He may be already and just no one knows it.

That said, the public can stand mistakes. Hard-working citizens can even stand bombastic behavior. Just look at how President Trump behaves sometimes.

But what they can't tolerate is someone who thinks the rules don't apply to them and then make up stories and excuses or try to blame everyone else when they are questioned.

Viewed as an isolated incident, the mayor's road trip is not an expensive deal. But it is the principle of the matter he doesn't seem to get. And that, along with his fitness club jaunts and finger-pointing on other issues, raise much bigger questions.

Furthermore, he doesn't grasp that by ignoring the rules, he's only re-enforcing the unwarranted stereotype that every other public servant does the same thing.

An investigation may somehow clear Howard's actions. But I doubt if taxpayers will tolerate much more of his shenanigans.

IN THE WORDS OF JAKE BRIGANCE

In a critical scene in the 1995 hit movie, "A Time to Kill," actor Matthew McConaughey, playing lawyer Jake Brigance, asks a jury to close its eyes and imagine a scenario as he spells it out. He closes it out by saying, "Now imagine she was white."

The line drives home a point about race, racism and segregation in then old South. It's the underlying theme of the movie.

I grew up in Alabama, deep rural Alabama. Weddings were and are a big deal.

I recently read about a beautiful one. A former beauty queen married a lawyer, The beauty queen turned doctor attended Baptist-affiliated Samford University.

Hundreds attended at the Museum of Art. The couple are honeymooning in Ireland.

Sounds typical, old South.

To borrow Jake Brigance's phrase: "Now imagine it's a same-sex wedding."

It is ...and it's turning some heads in Alabama. It likely will even more once People magazine, which has the exclusive, tells the story.

Former Miss Alabama 2004 and Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs Gunn married her girlfriend, attorney Abbott Jones, in a ceremony Saturday.

Gunn, a UAB obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, and Jones shared their joy from their honeymoon in a statement to AL.com on Monday.

“When we turned to recess down the aisle after the ceremony and really took notice of all of the family and friends who had gathered to celebrate our marriage, we felt so blessed to be surrounded by so much love and support,” they wrote in a joint statement.

It may take awhile to set in. And I am sure many won't accept it. I am sure some in my family are aghast.

But as one who grew up in the Civil Rights era, was among the first to integrate in the Deep South, endured the harsh stereotypes when I went away to college, and watched friends start a domestic violence shelter in a culture that 25 years ago thought domestic violence was OK, I take some pride in seeing this small step toward progress.

Steve Rogers is the news reporter for the Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the newspaper or its staff.

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