Suffolk is bigger than its politics

Published 10:31 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In this new era of divided government in Suffolk, where 4-4 votes on the City Council might be common over the next couple of years, it’s important that participants and observers not confuse dissent with disloyalty.

Linda Johnson, the city’s passionate, hard-working but sometimes thin-skinned mayor, clearly loves her city. But so do new council members Leroy Bennett, Don Goldberg and Tim Johnson, who will be thorns in Johnson’s political side for the next two years. They just happen to think — like the two-thirds of voters in the Suffolk, Holy Neck and Cypress boroughs who shook up the City Council in November — that city government can be better.

Johnson’s mistake — one she best correct if she intends to seek re-election in two years — is to inflate city government’s importance in a city that is thriving because of the contributions of many people and institutions. In Johnson’s world, city government is Suffolk. By extension, anyone who questions or criticizes city government dislikes their “city.” Such is the mindset that led Johnson, in a guest column on this page last week, to charge that “our hometown paper continually works to put a damper on our city.”

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Johnson’s supporting evidence for such a serious allegation against the Suffolk News-Herald? That we wrote an advance news story and commentary about an ill-fated, divisive and unnecessary effort to change the City Council’s Code of Ethics.

The mayor’s angry response to our narrowly focused coverage — and cheap shots about our newspaper’s motives — was my first encounter with the arrogance that has pervaded top leadership in city government and that voters are revolting against.

The city government and City Council that we dare to cover and, on occasion, criticize are but two of the institutions that make up this wonderful city. Doing our job in covering those institutions is no more putting “a damper” on Suffolk than Johnson’s emotional attack on our newspaper, another important institution in Suffolk.

Suffolk, a thriving city of 90,000 strong, is bigger than its public servants and the eight people who sit on its City Council. Political debate and dialog have nothing to do with how the participants feel about their city. Using Johnson’s logic, one who criticizes the General Assembly dislikes Virginia. Or one who criticizes Congress is a bad American.

Johnson is in for a long two years if she doesn’t flick the chip off her shoulder, engage her new council colleagues, listen to the electorate, and help make city government more responsive and transparent. Her adversaries — both real and perceived — love Suffolk too. And they won’t stand for having their loyalty questioned.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is