MAYBE LEXINGTON County Council members should leave former Sheriff James Metts’ name on the county’s law enforcement center after all. Since the center houses not only the sheriff’s department but also the county jail, you could call it fitting irony, poetic justice or, even better, a concrete reminder of how foolhardy it is to name buildings and bridges and roads and other public infrastructure after living people — particularly still-active politicians.
Of course they won’t, for that very reason: The council members no doubt are mortified by their decision, made in 2007, well before the rumors of illegalities began to dominate the political chatter in Lexington County, and the last thing they want is a constant reminder of how badly they judged the man who seemed to have been named sheriff-for-life.
Well, misjudged might not be quite the right word. Mr. Metts might have been completely honest and trustworthy at the time. And that’s the larger point: We simply can’t know what turns a person’s life will take. We can know what that person is like today. We can know what that person has been like up until today. We can hope that the past is prologue, and it often is. But we can’t know; people who seem deserving of permanent and visible honors one day can seem quite undeserving the next.
And so we end up with the Senator Gene Carmichael Highway in Dillon County, named for a politician who later was convicted on federal vote-buying charges. And the Karl S. Bowers Bridge in Beaufort County, which honors a former federal highway administrator who went to prison on federal income tax charges. And the Earle E. Morris Jr. Highway, named after the former comptroller general who later was convicted on securities fraud charges in the Carolina Investors case. (The Legislature did rename that one, after hearing from outraged voters who had lost their life savings because they trusted his come-ons.) And the I-26/I-77 interchange named for former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who as far as we know hasn’t been convicted of anything more than running two red lights at speeds up to 60 mph on Columbia’s Assembly Street, but who was every bit as much of an embarrassment to the state as some of the convicts.
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To be fair, most elected officials whose names are emblazoned across highways and bridges and jails and schools and boat landings are never convicted of any crime. But then, neither are most ordinary South Carolinians, who never have highways and bridges and jails and schools and boat landings named for them, unless they are soldiers or police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty. Indeed, there are many deserving South Carolinians who never have anything named for them, because they aren’t lawmakers, or friends of lawmakers, or potential campaign benefactors.
And that’s the larger point still: To the extent that we name public facilities for people, it should be for people who have done extraordinary things for the public good. Not merely for people who have managed to get elected and reelected. Not merely for people who know the right people. Not merely for people to whom the namers want to ingratiate themselves.
The Lexington County jail was not the first taxpayer-funded property to assume Mr. Metts’ name. On Jan. 30, 2003, Lexington’s Sens. Jake Knotts, Greg Ryberg and Nikki Setzler introduced a resolution to “rename the Hope Ferry Landing on the Saluda River in Lexington County the ‘James R. Metts Landing’ and to erect appropriate markers or signs at the landing containing the words ‘James R. Metts Landing.’” Nineteen days and apparently no objections later, the legislation was passed.
Sen. Setzler, the only one of the co-sponsors still in office, should introduce a resolution on the first day of the legislative session un-naming the boat landing, because there’s no irony or poetry in that honor. The other senators who also now represent parts of Lexington County, Katrina Shealy, John Courson, Ronnie Cromer and Shane Massey, should join him.
Then they — and their colleagues in the House and Senate — should take a lesson from this latest embarrassment, and ban the practice of naming the taxpayers’ property after living people. No one who is worthy of such an honor would mind that change.