Justin Jennings was a promising athlete at Greenbrier High School, busted last week after cops found brass knuckles in his vehicle on campus.
The rules couldn't be clearer. Bring a weapon to school, get busted. No exceptions for honor students or athletes or "good kids," no loopholes for sob stories.
It hasn't always been this way. Not so long ago, students could pay or play their way out of trouble. Respect for authority hit an all-time low, especially among those without access to power.
Such things are rarely the case these days, and are more a matter of rumor than reality.
Just imagine, then, a return to a system in which the rules could change based on the wishes of the leadership. Some people would still get busted, while others would get off by pleading a sufficiently sympathetic case.
Eventually, respect for the rules would erode because no one would trust exactly what the rules are.
Sadly, we seem to be moving in that direction in our county government. Led by Chairman Ron Cross, Columbia County commissioners are bending over backward to be "friendly" to some businesses, failing to understand that playing favorites in the end succeeds only in making the county less friendly to commerce in the long run.
The latest act is a vote pushed through by Cross -- abetted by commissioners Tom Mercer and Lee Anderson, who should know better -- to allow a new restaurant to expand its parking lot without meeting county regulations.
Fatz Caf in Evans needs more parking to handle its crush of opening business, and sought a hardship exception to the rules so it could spread cheap gravel on its overflow lot instead of paying for asphalt. Cross bought into the sob story, pushing through the vote to bend the rules in Fatz's favor.
Some "hardship." As one observer pointedly notes, if the diner is so successful that it needs more parking, its owners are obviously making enough money to pave their lot.
"I don't understand why we can't help them," Cross said before the vote to do just that. Fine. Let's educate him -- though County Commissioner Steve Brown already did in arguing against the favor to Fatz.
"If you're going to approve it for one, then you need to approve it for others," Brown said. It's significant that Brown came to the commission as successor to Jim Whitehead, who was adamant during his time on the board that no such precedent-setting exceptions be made.
Regulations exist to keep every business playing by the same rules, and to protect the quality of life for the county's citizens. Every time an exception is granted, the fabric of those protections is weakened. Eventually, businesses begin to get the message that the rules don't really matter as long as you make your case to the right person -- and citizens, already cynical about government, begin to believe that we have a government of men, not laws. And men are easily corrupted.
Columbia County's Chamber of Commerce, too, had best unloosen its tied tongue if it expects to be the voice for the business community. There is nothing business-friendly about a good-old-boy system -- and even a hint that our county is headed in that direction will be enough to spook future business.
Don't like the rules? There are procedures in place to change them. Cross is a businessman and a good, strong leader, and certainly could be expected to champion changes when he believes the pendulum has swung against commerce.
But failing to follow those rules, or bending them on a whim, only makes all the rules less meaningful. If Cross can't see that, perhaps he needs to head back to school.
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