EDITORIAL: Playing by the rules isn’t optional for city officials

EDITORIAL: Playing by the rules isn’t optional for city officials

City councilors cleared up a seemingly innocuous oversight Saturday, waiving a height restriction for the sobering sculpture overlooking the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.

Under normal circumstances, this action would barely warrant notice. Unfortunately, city staff got the necessary approval weeks after it went ahead and erected the memorial — even though doing so violated an obscure regulation.

The official explanation is that city staff didn’t discover the restriction, which required securing a special-use permit from our top elected officials, until workers were preparing to install the artwork. Since putting the sculpture in storage and waiting for approval would have added to the project’s overall cost — city councilors were enjoying their summer recess at the time — the decision was made to forge ahead.

Yes, you read that right. City staff, according to Planning Director Faroll Hamer’s account, knowingly violated local regulations.

Now, there are a few important caveats that need mentioning. Since the city is leading the effort to turn the once-forgotten cemetery into a memorial for the refugees interred there during the Civil War, there was little doubt that the project would have received the waiver. And we are — almost always — in favor of City Hall saving money where possible.

But this goes to a deeper philosophical issue: The people we put in charge of enforcing our laws are not above them. They cannot just flaunt them — no matter the circumstances.

In this case, officials bent the rules for a deserving and widely supported project. But it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Maybe next time it won’t be for such a small infraction or in the name of such a positive proposal.

The violation also comes at a particularly bad time. Public trust in City Hall has ebbed during the incessant and divisive fighting over major land-use and development projects. Given the accusations that officials have played fast and loose with the city’s laws — just look at the litigation surrounding the waterfront redevelopment plan — perhaps staff should have thought twice about openly ignoring this restriction.

We appreciate City Councilor Paul Smedberg’s inquiry into the oversight — he said it raises issues about the project — but he and his fellow officials should have gone further. Residents should be able to trust that their elected leaders and public stewards will play by the rules, regardless of who’s in the game.