Eating the Bait: Five

The whole sick, sad, silly, sorry, sordid story of the destructive, polarizing, maddeningly frustrating and ultimately hilarious battle over whether a city in the Shenandoah Valley -- where little happens, nor should it -- should build a golf course. Caution: the story is carefully doctored by a key player to make it more exciting and occasionally uses 4-, 11-, 12, and 7-letter words to express frustration and drama.

Saturday, July 1, 2000: Eating the Bait

Somebody had to run the city, and somebody had to decide who it was going to be. And we had until 10 a.m.

It was simple, really. The council didn’t have the credibility to run the city without a manager or with an interim one during the six months it would take to find a new one. That meant we kept Steve or promoted Roger. Six months later it would have been different. In six months, we could have suggested to Steve that he move on, just as we had discussed during the campaign. But it was time for some level of stability. Two members of council thought Steve leaving was a good thing, and were too obtuse to realize what turmoil the city was in. Two members were too obtuse to realize the turmoil had been brought on by their obtuseness on the golf course. Knocking their heads together would only hurt the air between them.

Somebody had to do something, even if it was wrong.

And much of what had been done so far had been wrong, in one way or another. At our May 30 meeting, Hugh had said the course could be an asset to the city, even if it cost $100,000 a year. Just another recreation option, he would say. Larry went the same route, saying the purpose of the course was primarily to give the opportunity of golf to those otherwise too disadvantaged to play. They would both often make the point that $100,000 was not all that much in a budget of $100 million or more, never seeming to get that council realistically has complete discretion over about $5 million or so. Eventually, it would become clear that the course was never expected to make money. That was one of the mistakes the opposition made. Our argument that it would not make money failed because the other side already knew that.

A year later, just before the thing opened, an outgoing recreation director whispered to me at a public hearing on greens fees that council had been telling the Recreation Commission all along that the thing would lose $100,000 a year. I always found it telling that the amount was always 100K. It lent no small amount of credence to the idea that some council members had been less than forthcoming in their discussions of the project. Apparently the thing was never supposed to pay for itself. Which is probably a good thing, since it was down by a third of a million at the end of its first year, and had eaten up all of two reserve funds and part of a third.

Did they screw up by building it? Yes, royally. Did I screw up by saying we could shut it down? Sure I did. For one brief moment on May 2, 2000, realizing what the election win would mean for my family, I wanted it to mean more than it did. So I said we’d shut down the golf course and started looking for a way to do so. Did Carolyn realize that I wanted it to mean more, and take advantage of that sentiment, when she lied to me about Turf Drain’s intentions a week later? If she did, she’ll have to work out the depths of that betrayal with God. If she didn’t, then she was just lying for political purposes.

Regardless, I led the others into a rash promise, and couldn’t lead them back when I realized how wrong I’d been. I can live with that, and I hope the others can live with any ethical shortcuts they may have made.

About Dorn, I can say he never flat-out lied to me, a blessed rarity in that super-heated time. He wanted me to run for the office and then give it up, but that’s on a different level. Bersson, I ultimately feel sorry for. Apparently the most committed activist in the bunch, he turned out to stand for the least. “Just win, baby,” I could get from Al Davis.

Ben and Warren conducted themselves as gentlemen, for the most part. And I tried to. Ben was Democratic Chair in the city at the time, and even after the election people in his own party couldn’t credit him with getting a Democratic councilman elected. Instead they blasted him because they saw Dorn and Carolyn as closet Republicans. Many of the critics had been on the sidelines when Ben was elected chair, just as they were four years later when Ben secretly and sneakily organized a campaign to get me thrown out of the same job. But, again, a story for another day.

When I arrived at the municipal building the morning we took office, people were already gathering in the meeting room, and it felt like standing under transmission lines. I went to Steve’s office and asked him point-blank if he was planning to leave. He said something but didn’t really answer the question. I took that as a yes and asked him if it would make a significant difference in his decision if a different person were going to be mayor.

He thought about it just long enough to make me fairly sure that had been behind a lot of Hugh and Larry’s push to make me mayor. The status quo suited them, and a different mayor might make it easier to keep it. Steve and Carolyn didn’t get along. Like many government administrators he secretly felt elected officials had to prove ourselves. Every few years we came crashing, ignorant and full of ourselves, fresh from fooling the public or fueling its bloodlust, into the ordered world of government offices. Carolyn must have been his worst nightmare. Shrewd but unschooled, buttressed by the top vote-count ever in a Harrisonburg election and judging the entire government by a project that Steve had never seen the problem with. Maybe 60 percent of the people in the city didn’t want a golf course; but in his profession, adding a golf course was a win.

“What about Dorn and Carolyn?” he asked. Somehow we both knew he was talking about the vote of confidence and contract extension he wanted from the city council.

“There are going to be a lot of 3-2 votes the next couple of years,” I told him.

“Well, see there, I can’t …” he said, waving his hand toward the middle of the table, like the answer to his question was there as plain as day. I didn’t see a thing, but I understood that he did.

I found Roger in the hall downstairs and asked him if he'd take the city manager's job on a 3-2 vote. He said he would without hesitation. Either he'd thought about the issue, or he'd take it any way he could get it.

I went back outside to stand under the tree. For two months we’d come back to the tree. Before council meetings, after orientation sessions. We’d plotted and fretted and worried about the golf course. The tree didn’t seem to have noticed.

Carolyn was the first to show up. I met her under the tree to tell her that I planned to nominate her for mayor and to vote for her. I also told her that after the campaign we’d been through, she and Dorn were closer to me just then than anybody outside my family had ever been. I suppose I could have told her about everything else that was swirling around, but what I did tell her seemed more important.

Larry showed up next. "Sun's still shining, birds are still singing," he noted. It was a beautiful day. For playing golf, I guess. I walked in with him. "Look here, Joe …" he started out as we headed up the stairs. He asked me what I thought about Roger Baker for city manager. I told him we'd have to think about it. I told him I was going to nominate Carolyn for mayor and vote for her. He nodded and said OK. He said he understood.

Arguably the worst meeting in the history of the Harrisonburg City Council was about to begin.

There's a temptation to simply tell people to go back and watch the tape, or to suggest they look at the minutes. There's a temptation to write than nobody could understand what that meeting was like and to let it go at that.

Then again, there was a temptation not to write this damned thing at all.

Larry opened the nominations for mayor by describing why he couldn't vote for Carolyn. He described a conversation with her wherein she had called to say she was raised poor white trash and he was just a poor black and they ought to be able to work together. I was never clear in later years whether Carolyn ever actually denied it, or if it was one of those conversations with Larry where things went in one way and came out another. Carolyn looked like she'd been slapped. Wearing a blue suit that looked brand new, she sat at the center of the table on what should have been a day of triumph. Someone had brought her a corsage.

Steve was holding the gavel. Someone in the audience gasped and a low rumble of noise went through the room. Steve banged the hammer a couple of times.

I was sitting in Walter Green's old chair. The podium for speakers was behind me. To watch somebody, I had to twist around. I eventually found a comfortable position for it, but by then I was mayor and got to sit in the center chair. Back then I was just a junior member of council. I had noticed that the two-foot fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling were sometimes blue and sometimes not, and there was no pattern to which was which except when they'd worn out. On the wall across from me were the maps of the city – zoning, streets, plans – and sometimes art from the city's schools. I would stare at it during the meetings until they made me mayor and moved me to the middle of the table.

But that day I looked at the crowd. Ben and Betty Anne sat a few rows back, but other than that I didn't see a whole lot of friendly faces. I would come to think of the unfriendlies as the Teutonics, the German immigrants who came up the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania, instead of across the Blue Ridge from the East, where Virginia really was. Baja Pennsylvania. Too traditional, too strict, too penurious. We could make changes but it would be turning a battleship. Later I would try explaining it to a CHANGE activist. A man comes along and finds a cupboard door unlocked, and every night he comes back and takes out just enough to feed his family for a day. It's years before anybody notices and locks the door. Or the same man comes in the first night and takes out all he can carry. The next night the door is nailed shut and there's a guard on it.

I knew my argument had failed when the activist looked back at me and said, "But, Joe, we're putting things back."

We could have closed the golf course, we could have begun a search for a city manager, we could have emptied the cupboard. But not that day. Any changes had to take into consideration that we had been elected by default. Not because of who we were or what we offered but because of what we weren’t and because we were against the golf course. In an even uglier and more vicious campaign two years later Larry and Hugh would be reelected not because of who they were but because of successful efforts to demonize Ben and Warren – who weren't even on the ballot.

Somebody later read the rules of order and found out a nomination didn't need to be seconded. But that day nobody had read them yet. Hugh seconded my nomination and made a big deal out of my inviting them to our swearing in. He described it as a gesture of healing and said I was the only one who could bring the city together.

Dorn brusquely nominated Carolyn. I seconded her, noting that she'd led our election effort and had started a soccer league from scratch.

We voted on the nomination in order. When my turn came to vote on my name I paused a couple of seconds before saying No. I was thinking about how easy it would be to take the job and see what I could do with it. And two years later I would, without a whole lot of real work. The sum total of my campaign for mayor in 2002 came when Larry and I went to Jess’s Quick Lunch for a hot dog after a Dems meeting. I told him then that if he and Hugh made the same offer they’d made in 2000, I’d accept. That seemed to me as mild as I could make it. I didn't ask for the job and I didn't talk to him or Hugh about it between then and the election.

Carolyn would resent me for a year for each second I paused. Later she'd be angry at me on two different occasions for voting with her on land deals. I can't say there was a whole lot of incentive for backing her.

Electing her was anticlimactic. Steve gave her the gavel and we applauded. It must have tasted like sawdust to her.

We spent 20 minutes appointing one another to various boards and commissions. It was long enough to satisfy the governmental rule that no meeting can remain interesting for its entire course. That ended when Bob Heath stood up to present the conclusion of his committee. Not a recommendation, he pointed out, but a conclusion. If you choose not to shut it down, these are the reasons: the chance it might succeed, the money spent on it, the bond issue. The issue is not whether the golf course should have been built but whether it should be completed, he said.

Dorn thanked him for the work he'd put in. I thanked him too, said we couldn't thank them enough, said I'd try anyway.

And I said I was going to make a motion, but then I stopped, because what I was going to say didn't make sense to me and I had to examine it for a moment, with a television camera pointing at me in front of a hostile crowd. I was going to make a motion in ten days to continue the golf course, to finish it, and I couldn't imagine anything that would change my mind. Because I'd promised to wait, but I hadn't promised not to tell anybody what I was going to do.

Meanwhile I thanked the committee for bearing up well under the controversy that greeted their formation. They did the job anyway, and they bore the brunt of a storm that should have focused more on us.

Spirit of the promise or the letter of the promise? I’d said I’d wait 10 days to make the suggestion, thinking at the time that’s how long the Heath committee’s report would take. Under the rules of whatever, what exactly had I promised? Certainly Carolyn felt I’d promised to keep up the pretense with Hugh that we were going to shut down the golf course. But this commitment was taking on a life of its own, and I was starting to wonder if I wasn't like Conrad's Lord Jim, giving up reality for some vague ideal, keeping a vow not in service of the vow but in service of my own ego. The ten-day wait became important not because of anything about it, but only because of me.

When this committee was formed, I told them, I'd have been the first to admit I was expecting one result and hoping for another. But I added, you can't always get what you want. So there it was again. "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose." Screw you, Mario. You campaign in classical. You govern in rock and roll.

It'd time for the healing to begin, I told them, and it's time to reach a conclusion. And I moved to accept the committee's report and finish the golf course.

The next twenty minutes were a street fight. Roger said later he couldn't remember any of it. He said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress about it, and I never asked him if he was kidding or not. At one point I snapped at Dorn, my voice cracking in a way that still embarrasses me – cracking with rage and frustration that like Wyatt and Billy in “Easy Rider” we had blown it. Larry was growling, Hugh bordered on sarcastic a couple of times. Carolyn was refereeing a meeting where she was one of the most engaged fighters. The vote was 3-2 to continue the thing, a meaningless vote actually since that's what we would have done if no motion and no vote had ever taken place. Completely meaningless, except that it has defined everything about my political career since then. And I had been right to tell Steve there'd be a lot of 3-2 votes. Forty or so in the first two years.

Many people – well, the radicals in CHANGE – later said they were betrayed. Oddly enough, they didn’t say it over the golf course vote. But later, when I didn’t vote with them on issues we’d never discussed, they accused me of betrayal and based it on the golf course vote. That is, they couldn’t make a case that I had gone against them on things that had never come up during the campaign, so they decided that the golf course must have been bigger than it seemed at the time. Or some such. I have to admit I never followed it, except that people disappointed because I didn’t agree with them on issues we’d never discussed had to believe it was my fault.

But what can you say to a boil that doesn’t know it’s been lanced? Would they have found a way to shut it down? Almost certainly not. But we’ll never know and they can always believe they would have found it if not for me. Maybe that was my final gift to them.

After the vote we took a break, before going into closed session to talk about Steve leaving. While I was waiting for the meeting to start the golf course supporters started coming up. The depths of the relief on their faces reflected the fear they'd known. The Realtor who'd been one of the biggest supporters and had tried to get onto the Heath commission. Hugh's wife. They thanked me. Bob Heath told me I'd done the right thing. The Green who'd sat behind me at an early meeting came up. Walter called a few days later. They didn't thank me but they understood.

Steve walked over to where I was. I'd turned away to look out the window. He was going to say something but hadn't decided what yet. "Sun's still shinin'," I told him. "Birds are still singin'." I'm fairly certain he didn't have any idea what I was talking about.

I started writing this in 2000, soon after my minor political miscalculation threw my life and my family’s lives into turmoil. I started working on it again in the summer of 2002, just before I was elected mayor. It's a patchwork of the things I remember most sharply and the things I think were important. Some things in the narrative just flat out won’t make sense because I felt like a conversation from back then ought to remain private. No rules on that, just intuition. Keep in mind, this is my version. It may or may not have looked exactly like this to the rest. Memory may fail and what seems unimportant to me may have been a defining moment for someone else. But the facts are here. This is what happened and this is what people did. None of it is fabricated and none of it is invented. “Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line.”

Omar Khayyam said so. You could look it up.

I will gladly post the emailed responses or comments, so long as they are non-libelous and not too silly, of any person mentioned by name in Eating the Bait

Last Revised: 04.12.07    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald