Eating the Bait: One

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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2000: Be Seated, Please

Steve Stewart had saved us a seat.

That was the good news, if there was any. Somebody was finally treating us like we were going to be the City Council. It had been hard going. The department heads at the various orientation meetings had looked at us like caged animals that they were hoping would be well fed by the time we were let out. The Walter Green voters -- the group hadn’t gotten smaller, but the city had grown larger around them -- looked at us after the council meetings and muttered insults under their breath. And I had some doubts myself. There wasn’t a single thing I could think of that people had specifically voted for that we were supposed to do. We’d been elected on a platform of Open and Responsive Government, which meant, more or less, that we promised not to build another golf course. And we’d promised to shut down this one.

But first we had to get into office, and on June 27, we still had four days to go. It was the final meeting of the old council, and the fourth meeting since we’d been elected, overwhelmingly. Carolyn Frank was the top vote-getter, ever, with 3,172 votes. I was the unlikely footnote, the top male vote-getter, with 2,981, and Dorn Peterson brought up the rear with 2,876 -- roughly 500 more than anybody had ever gotten before in a Harrisonburg City Council race. (Rudy, the top vote-getter among the three who lost, pointed out later that his total was fourth in city history and he was still out of a job. But that was later, when some people could laugh about it. Some still can’t.) Carolyn and Dorn had raised and spent more: I accused Dorn at one point of wasting funds, spending $1.52 per vote, when it was obvious they could be had for 64 cents, the amount paid by my under-funded campaign. He accused me of being a real spendthrift -- buying 105 more votes than I needed.

Not that we’d really needed to spend a lot of money. We were more or less elected before any of us declared. Polls and the election returns bear that out. As long as three anti-golf course candidates had one head each and no history of violence, they would win. But that’s way ahead of the story. Or perhaps way behind it. We were, after all, on June 27, 2000. 

Which was seven weeks after Steve, the city manager, hadn’t saved us a seat. And that in turn was a week after the May 2 election. I arrived for the May 9 meeting twenty minutes before it was to begin, wearing the necktie I’d mostly avoided during the campaign, thinking I’d sit through what was obviously going to be a long council meeting that might touch on the golf course. That had happened a lot over the last year, since the City Council had voted 5-0 to build a municipal golf course, ignoring the protests of the citizens who were allowed to speak that night, ignoring the citizens left standing in the hall. My wife at the time was one of those people waiting in the hall. She loves flowers and herbs and kittens and had come to the council meeting at the request of somebody who loves birds. She came home angry, disgusted, and frustrated at the fact that so many had waited to speak on a topic that was already decided before the meeting began. She described the council as smug men, "aspiring to self-serving mediocrity."

The phrase stuck in my head.

In addition to my necktie, I had a speech in my inside coat pocket. It said we were going to shut down the golf course. I had another one in my head, still forming. It said three new council members had been elected almost by accident, and we needed to get used to that idea and move on. I’d mentioned the two speeches to David Wiens, who’d later be a planning commissioner. One’s conciliatory, I told him, and the other one tells the current council to kiss my ass.

I still didn’t know which one to give. A week before, after winning by margins of 55-45 or so -- a landslide anywhere outside North Korea -- I’d said we were going to close down the golf course. It seemed the only decent thing to say. Fifty-one percent of the vote would have expressed mild distaste for the golf course. Fifty-five seemed to me a strong negative. And despite some strong impediments, we could still shut it down, if we could buffalo the contractor into going along. 

So Dorn and Carolyn were meeting with the contractor, and I was in the hallway of the Harrisonburg Municipal Building, wondering what speech to give and watching as the various golf course foes -- environmentalists, educators, policy wonks, libertarians, people with common sense -- walked to the door of the council chambers, stuck their heads in, then found a place along the wall to stand in the hallway. Inside, the room was packed with tight-lipped Eagle-Green voters who looked as if they hoped to physically prevent us from taking office by staking out the chairs early. How, they wondered in my musings, could people like me and Dorn, who’d only been in the Valley 11 and 17 years, respectively, be allowed to take their city council away from them? They had, after all, been voting for a long time, 40 or 50 years in some cases, and their votes ought to count for more than those of people who’d just gotten stirred up over the golf course. That wouldn’t have happened back when Harry Byrd ran the Valley and the state. Back then you had to register to vote six months before the election, proving you were serious about democracy in general and not just a specific election. 

Of course it also meant that most of the people voting in any given election were the same ones who’d voted last time, which tended to favor incumbents, which meant the Byrd machine back then. Old Harry was just supporting good government -- or maybe trying to keep black folk from voting. Which leads to one of the central premises of politics and public service: any time you do something for what you see as a good and principled reason, somebody will find a way to claim you did it for cynical, political gain; and, any time you do something for cynical, political gain, you can find some way to claim you did it for a good and principled reason. There should be a name for this rule, which explains why we always have saints running against sinners -- and vice versa.

Too bad. We could zone the city to keep somebody from coming in and building a Burger King in their neighborhood but we couldn’t do anything about new people coming in and taking over their government. Not that nobody tried. One person apparently suggested that registration forms of college students wanting to vote be lost. The Electoral Board chair reported that at a Kiwanis meeting, and I predicted it would be the lead in the newspaper the next day. It wasn’t. The lead was me at the same meeting saying that even if we were elected, we would be stuck with the golf course. That was two weeks before the election and the next day two friends -- one more conservative than Attila, the other to the left of Jesse Jackson -- both told me I’d lost the election. 

But I really did believe we’d be stuck with a golf course, both then and as I waited for Dorn and Carolyn to return from a meeting with the contractor on May 9 (a week after the election, which we won, and won big)

I’d read the Greeks after the election. Since they more or less invented elections, I thought they might have some wisdom to offer. Simonides told me to judge a man by whether he knew what was right and good for his city, and Pericles said being able to think didn’t make you weak. ("Our love of what is beautiful does not make us extravagant. Our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.") Jumping forward a couple of millennia, W.H. Auden said that, "History, to the defeated, may say alas, but cannot help nor pardon."

The Auden quote seemed to sum up what had happened -- it was too bad, but nothing could be done about it. History would neither know nor care that it was just a golf course. Eagle and Green were being thrown off council. Eagle had grown at least two successful businesses before being elected to his single term. Green has been a physician in town for half a century, served seven terms on city council, several of them as mayor. There wasn’t anything in particular that we could do better than they could, but that didn’t matter. (Rudy, who’d gotten into the race as late as I did, later said the only thing the loss meant to him was 15 more hours in his week.) Alas, and adios, but no help or pardon.

Leaving me, Dorn and Carolyn to try talking a startup contractor from Michigan out of finishing a job they’d been hired to do. That was pretty much the only thing that would get us out of finishing the golf course. Wishing wouldn’t do it. Hoping wouldn’t do it. Two parties had signed a contract and in seven weeks and four days we would be one of those parties, but we weren’t yet. And the people who were one of those parties on May 9 only had one thing to lose by continuing with the golf course and they’d already lost that. That left the city in the middle of a valley, with a ridge east and west, and a different city council rolling down each ridge heading toward a collision on July 1, a Saturday when not much would happen, nor should it, except that a new city council would be sworn in.

The hallway had become pretty full by the time the council meeting began on May 9. The police chief, who doubled as sergeant at arms by long tradition and maybe even city code, had an easy time keeping the crowd to a manageable size inside council chambers, but I’m not sure if anybody knew how many people were allowed in the hallway, where there was no air-conditioning and the only connection to the action inside was a wall-mounted speaker that looked and sounded like somebody might have stolen it from a drive-in.

There wasn’t a whole lot of clarity to anything that night. The council meeting would have the usual dull house-keeping issues -- transferring funds to buy cops Kevlar, authorizing resolutions, making appointments to boards nobody could name -- and then the council members would all make speeches about why they were going to vote for a golf course that the people of Harrisonburg had said three times they didn’t want. Then public comment time would come and everybody would bicker for a while.

But one moment that night still has a crystalline unambiguous clarity. Carolyn came back from her meeting with Turf Drain and made her way through the crowd to where I was standing near the door. I wish for the sake of posterity I could remember exactly what I asked her. Was it something as simple as, "What’s the story?" Was it as specific as, "Is Turf Drain ready to pull out of the contract?" I don’t know. What I remember is the reply. She grabbed both my hands in hers, squeezed them like we’d won the lottery and told me, "Turf Drain wants to go home." 

There’s a particular way that a native southerner can say the word home. The fricative and the vowel explode and extend, fading just before they’d become a second syllable and ending with the definite hum that begins mother and mine. There’s also a particular way that same southerner can say "want" so that it’s not quite "won’t" but not quite what it’s supposed to be either. For some reason, the wielder of that accent is given credit for sincerity. I know I gave that credit that night. Combined with the emotion of the time and place, the closeness of the campaign, and how much I wanted to believe it, I knew then and there that Turf Drain wanted to go home.

As part of the public comment period, I went in and made my speech, quoting Pericles and telling the city council we were going to shut down the golf course. When I came out, David Wiens wanted to know which speech it was. My next-door neighbor said that was probably the first time Pericles of Athens had been quoted in that room. It had been a schoolhouse before it was city hall, so he was probably wrong, but I knew what he meant. They didn’t think about the principles of what they were supposed to do. That had all been settled years ago. They thought about what they could do, what nobody could stop them from doing, what they could get out of government.

And maybe, about what they could give back to the community. They could give us their business experience. They could give us their valuable time. They could give us their wisdom. And all that, added together, meant they could give us something that people who hadn’t soared in the heights of small-town commerce could never enjoy. They could give us a golf course.

That same night, Steve Stewart outlined the costs of the golf course to date. The new council, the one in the hall, had asked for the report. He managed to bring it in at more than a million by including a quarter-million dollars worth of fill dirt. Six months before, when the city was asked how it was spending a quarter-million dollars on fill dirt before the golf course contract had even been signed, the answer was that the dirt would be used for all city projects. The list also included payments to a bond attorney that city officials had pretended ignorance about when Carolyn asked about them at an earlier council meeting. Essentially, the people running the city at that point would tell the story whatever way benefited the golf course, which they said they had to build now because it was a matter of integrity. (The costs also included the price of defending a lawsuit some of us had brought to try stopping the course. I would have argued that was just the cost of bad government.) 

I told Carolyn later that evening we should wait six months until we had a grasp on the reins of government, then fire Steve Stewart. She agreed, based on the way he’d re-interpreted the numbers. I told her I didn’t mean for that. I meant for not saving us a seat. 

Seven weeks later, I didn’t care. Not about saving us a seat, anyway. We had that. Chairs in the front row, each with a piece of paper saying it was reserved. I wondered if Steve had just not thought to save us a seat two months ago, or if he was such a pragmatically consummate staff man that he wasn’t going to begin being obsequious until he had a contractual obligation to do so. Credit the man with loyalty, but a part of me will always wonder how much was for the masters he served then and how much was for his paycheck. I’d have to wait and see how much that shifted to us after we were sworn in.

Because presumably we were going to do things differently. We were going to have more open meetings, with more public comment. We’d promised that. As part of that, we’d all said publicly we’d support the Chamber of Commerce initiative to televise council meetings. The old council had rejected the idea, saying it would disrupt the meeting. I always thought they just didn’t like the idea of being watched. Without cameras, knowledge of their meetings was effectively limited to thirty seconds on TV and 800 words in the News-Record. With cameras, anybody who wanted to could know what their government was doing. 

And the CHANGE candidates had embraced that idea, as part of the idea that it was indeed the people’s government, and not the property of whoever did the best job of fooling the voters in the last election. Councilman Larry Rogers, one of the two not up for reelection in 2000, hijacked that, making a motion a month after the election to begin televising the hearings. He claimed it was necessary in order to let the people keep an eye on us. It was a duplicitous cheap shot, but the Irishman in me had to admire anybody who could be that shameless in public. 

Carolyn focused more on the wiring for the television. The legally required vote on televising the meetings would be held that night. But she’d been in the municipal building earlier in the day and technicians were already stringing wires for it. The pragmatic reason is they needed to get the building wired before the July 1 meeting -- so they could keep an eye on us -- and they knew the vote would not change. The problem, the issue of principle that was and would be often ignored on this and other topics, was the treatment of laws about votes and public hearings as inconveniences.

Carolyn asked Eagle before his last meeting. She asked Steve Stewart. She asked Roger Baker, the assistant city manager. She asked enough times to make her point but not enough times to get an answer. She asked how they could be stringing wire they hadn’t voted to pay for yet. She referred to it the next night as her "dumb blonde" act. Everybody she asked was a better actor than she was.

That was at the beginning of the meeting. At the end were the details of the golf course again. Two months of orientation had pushed a lot about the golf course aside. The orientation sessions had painted a picture of a financially secure city, but one with overcrowded schools and overworked cops. The city needed tens of millions in capital improvements and faced the possibility of a dwindling middle class. (Traffic was seen as getting bad, although in all honesty, if D.C./NOVA is a 10, Harrisonburg is a 2.) And the newly elected council had squandered its transition time, if not its credibility, on the golf course.

So there’s a certain symmetry in the fact that the old council squandered its last meeting on the same topic. Eagle said the election loss stemmed from a PR failure. The old council apparently still believed the golf course was such a good idea that the citizens of Harrisonburg would have gone along if they’d only had all the facts. Green closed by telling Ben Fordney to watch the British Open that week on the world’s oldest public course.

It would have been a good time to go home. But one more speaker had to get up and say something. The speaker was a hanger-on. He did little or nothing in the campaign, but he spoke loudly and publicly in ways that we wound up having to answer for. That’s part of the problem with a people’s coalition -- everybody’s voice is equal but nobody wants to be the little red hen. The final speaker that night had to say that he disagreed with something or other that one of the council members had said. God knows what and the minutes don’t say, but when the meeting ended, Green got up from his chair and headed for the speaker, a retired professor of some non-traditional discipline. It was just the sort of gaudy theater that had kept the golf course debate from being taken seriously in a lot of quarters until after we’d won the election. A retired professor who thought the golf course was not just wrong, but criminal, and a former mayor noted for his temper. I stepped between them, but wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. Maybe I could threaten to cut off their Social Security, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have the authority to do that, any more than I had the physical acumen to stop a fistfight if it came to that. Not that it would. The police chief was across the room and would be there in a couple of seconds. All I had to do was wait. 

I glanced back and forth a couple of times between these two very angry people. They were threatening things they wouldn’t and couldn’t deliver, they were accusing the other of too much, they were making sound without communication, they were yelling and not listening -- the entire golf course debate in microcosm. I glanced back to see if the police chief had arrived yet. He was watching, but he hadn’t moved. I wondered what the hell he was waiting for. These two old guys hadn’t come to blows yet but how long could it be? Four days before I was supposed to take office I was going to wind up punched out between two people who couldn’t let go of the small details of a year-long argument. The police chief still hadn’t moved. I was sort of reminded of the story of the man who’d fallen off the cliff and managed to grab hold of a ragged branch from a spindly bush as he fell. Hanging there, he called out, "Is there anybody up there?"

The wind turned chill and a thunderous voice told him to let go of the branch.

"Do what?" he said, trying not to think about the ground hundreds of feet below.

"Trust me, my son. Let go of the branch," said the celestial subwoofer. 

"Is there anybody else up there?" asked the climber.

A guy with a gun and handcuffs was waiting for me to decide what would happen next. I stood there long enough for the two to shout themselves out and walk away, leaving me wondering if there was anybody else up there.

Wednesday, June 28, 2000: TAGS to CHANGE. Acronyms come and go, acrimony doesn’t. Why don’t we just wait?

 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: 08.22.03

Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald