By Corey Friedman
Robert Johnson, an outspoken Middlesex resident who’s been known to clash with the town Board of Commissioners, calls it a “mosquito infestation.” We’re more inclined to call it summer in eastern North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean the pests aren’t an inconvenience and a health risk.
Johnson thinks the town of Middlesex ought to do something about the buzzing, biting insects. Town officials used state grant money to buy a mosquito fogger more than a decade ago. Johnson says the machine should be put to use.
Trouble is, no town employees are certified to operate the fogger, which sprays pesticide from the back of a truck. What’s more, the purchase and maintenance records for this little-used machine seem to have mysteriously disappeared from Middlesex Town Hall.
Johnson made a public records request for paperwork on the fogger and says officials told him they couldn’t find any. Maybe a swarm of mischievous mosquitoes flew away with it.
We’d be inclined to chalk the missing paperwork up to an honest mistake if the town of Middlesex didn’t already have a reputation for disregarding state public records law. In January, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a service fee of up to $26 per hour for records requests that take more than a half-hour to complete.
That outrageous upcharge — the hourly rate works out to an annual salary higher than Nash County’s median household income — isn’t authorized anywhere in the North Carolina general statutes. Attorneys for the N.C. Press Association tell us the town policy would almost certainly be struck down if it’s challenged in court.
Sent away empty-handed, Johnson phoned Commissioner Dale Bachmann, who also works as the town’s utilities supervisor. He asked Bachmann if he could see the town’s mosquito fogger for himself.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Bachmann recalled during last Monday’s commissioners’ meeting. “If I answered every request for someone to kick the tires and open the doors (on town equipment), come on!”
Now, nothing in the public records law requires government officials to let residents inspect equipment on demand. Middlesex is technically within its rights to keep the mysterious mosquito fogger behind closed doors.
Of course, we don’t see the harm in letting curious residents take a quick peek, and the whole dispute strikes us as a bit silly.
The larger issue at hand is whether Middlesex should be in charge of town-wide mosquito control in the first place. Isn’t killing and repelling household pests the homeowners’ and renters’ responsibility?
Most people don’t speed-dial their city or county public works department when they see creepy crawlies. They buy bug spray or call an exterminator. Banishing bugs doesn’t seem to us like a legitimate government function.
On the other hand, Middlesex commissioners decided years ago to buy a mosquito fogger with public money. Whether or not pest control is a responsibility they ought to have, it’s one they chose to take on.
It would sure look bad if a serious mosquito-borne illness broke out in one of the few small towns that’s made a public investment in repelling the pests. West Nile killed two people and infected five more in North Carolina last year.
Bachmann said he’s approached a Bailey-based contractor about hiring the company to spray pesticide with the town’s mosquito fogger. That option would put long-wasted equipment to good use, but it also would require spending still more taxpayer money on pest control.
Middlesex commissioners should sell off the forsaken fogger and use the proceeds for more traditional public functions. That will put one of the area’s more bizarre and unnecessary civic controversies to rest.
[This post originally appeared as an editorial in The Wilson Times.]
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