Eating the Bait: Four

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.

Friday, June 30, 2000: Executive Sessions

Steve was giving us hell.

The consummate staff man was looking at the five people who'd be his bosses the next day and complaining mightily about the way things had gone for the past two months. I figured that was a good sign he'd probably decided to take the other job he'd been offered.

Nothing else in the meeting was a good sign of anything.

Steve's theme was that the campaign hadn't ended with the election. Which was true because we'd promised open and responsive government and that meant we wouldn't build another golf course and we'd promised to shut down this one. And so an effort to shut down the golf course had turned into something else. And the best way I could think of to describe it was a two-month post-election scramble for each side to prove the other one wrong, in order to nail down future rights to say I told you so.

But ultimately, nothing got done to shut down the golf course. On the other side, nothing much got done to make it easier for the five of us to behave like a council instead of a street gang. And now it was seven weeks and three days after the election, we took office the next day, and it was pretty clear the city manager was moving on, because staff people don't talk that way unless they are.

Which left us with the question of who was going to be the city manager. And who was going to decide that question. But first Steve wanted to tell us all we'd done wrong. And I admit – now it can be told! – that I missed most of it. I spent the time looking around the room and wondering just exactly who was going to run things. Carolyn would be mayor. But she couldn't run things and everything would revolve around the golf course. Dorn could break things down to a level of detail that included the valences of the relevant atoms, but missed something when it came to the big picture. Larry had just plain ticked off too many people, sometimes needlessly: "He's a politician," people would tell me with a Gallic shrug when I tried to figure him out. Hugh, I was rapidly coming to realize, was the bench. He'd been second string on a five-man council and wasn't ready to play in the championship game.

And I didn't want it. I didn't need the glory. I didn't need the extra fifty bucks a month. I didn't need the headaches. And as long as I was pushing it away with both hands I knew that freed me up in two ways. One is that I could view myself as the compromise candidate without feeding my ego. And the other is that I could refuse the job if the offer didn't include Carolyn's agreement.

But thinking about that was still a half hour away, which seemed like an eternity that particular week. Time went in weird increments, too fast or too slow. The Eagle-Green voters had tried to slow it down by taking all the seats, and we'd drawn it out by wasting the interregnum, by focusing on the golf course and little else. Other times it went by too fast because too much happened at once.

Like when we decided to put together a citizens' committee to advise us on what to do about the golf course. I came up with the idea at a CHANGE steering committee meeting in late May. As I explained it to my colleagues, we were too close to it and too emotional about it. I knew I was too emotional when my voice cracked twice while I was explaining it to the state attorney general, after Walter used his jet to fly us to Richmond and his influence to get us an appointment. Sometimes it was the golf course itself and sometimes it was what the project had done to my life and to the city. Regardless, I was pissed and none too happy. And as I explained the situation to the AG, I wondered why I was doing all the talking and why my colleagues were letting me. Not that it mattered. "That cow's left the barn," the AG told us a couple of times by way of starting toward ending the meeting. There was an aide in the room who suggested getting us sworn in early, the way they do it in Tennessee, he said, and I found myself hoping he was a political aide and not a legal one because we weren't in Tennessee and the law won't let you do that in Virginia. I hate being in a room with people who are making that much more money than me for something I know more about.

 Walter was involved in a legal action with a former employee at the time, and Carolyn and Dorn tried to find out something about it on the flight back. Walter said he couldn't talk about it while it was still going on.

"But you can talk about it, can't you?" Dorn asked me, half playfully.

"I signed so many non-disclosure agreements while I was working for Walter, I can't remember half of them."

Walter volunteered that one of them said I'd give half the money I made for the rest of my life to him.

"That's the part I don't remember," I told him.

Later in the flight Dorn was talking about all the things we'd do as soon as we took office. I couldn't quit thinking about the aide to the AG. He worked for the top legal officer in Virginia and knew Tennessee's law. I wondered how many more of those were there out there. Councilmen, supervisors, aides, administrators, delegates and state senators who didn't quite know what was going on but didn't run into anybody who knew more. I glanced over and saw Walter deeply considering me while Dorn spoke. I remember wondering if Walter knew what I was going to do, why didn't he tell Dorn and Carolyn? I don't know if he heard me.

Warren had been our representative to Walter during the legal fight, which ended two months before the election when a circuit court judge couldn't quite find a reason to stop the golf course. In late May, Warren became our representative to the Heath commission. We had six members: two for the course, two against it, and two neutral. They met in Warren's living room. Their charge was to tell us what to do about the damned golf course. Technically, as a group of private citizens using no public funds, they weren't subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, an argument that sounded lame, bordering on mealy-mouthed, when Warren refused to let the press into his living room. For months we'd been arguing for open and responsive government and for our first official act, Warren told a reporter he'd close the door in his face.

Virginia's Freedom of Information Act is referred to as the F-O-I, or the FOIA, pronounced Foy-uh, sort of like a tidewater pronunciation of the room where you come into the house. It lists a half a dozen exemptions when a public body can close its meetings, and says the doors have to be open the rest of the time. When I was a reporter, the closed meetings were called executive sessions, although most of the people in the rooms were not executives. Later most of the terminology changed to call them closed sessions, but the earlier name had stuck by then for several of us who showed our ages by using it.

 My experience as a reporter, editor, and public official has been that the longer people are in government, the more they will do their best to find a way around the FOI. The mind-set seems to be that the law itself does enough to restrain them and they don't need to do it to themselves. It's probably the most important law that's administered by the people most likely to break it, with the possible exception of medical and legal review boards. Occasionally a reporter or disgruntled citizen will invoke it and take somebody to court and the council or board that's embarrassed and inconvenienced will behave for a while.

We got our embarrassment before we ever took office. We deserved it, thought not necessarily for what went on in Warren's living room. Because until such time as we were sworn in, the FOI didn't apply to the new council. Two members of a board or council could meet in secret, and Hugh and Larry were the only ones who were already on council. I took advantage of that to suggest a meeting on May 30. The council met on the second and fourth Tuesdays, and a few times a year there'd be a fifth Tuesday. They were handy for joint meetings with other bodies and for special sessions. I pitched the idea to Hugh. The idea would be that just the five of us would meet, with no staff and only one ground rule: The golf course was off the table. We would discuss anything else, but not the golf course.

We made it about 20 minutes. Larry was the one who brought it up. I pointed out that we'd agreed not to discuss the topic. Larry ignored me, and the others helped him. It didn't take long to get out of hand. They argued over the pennies in the greens fees, and how many golfers had to rent a cart to make the thing pay. They argued over the cost of a soccer field, and how much it would cost to pay off the bond.

I tried to moderate and mediate, at least until Larry took a cheap shot concerning family. By the time I got back from an explosion of temper, I'd given up on the meeting. They went back and forth, bickering over details, trading accusations, not looking for any solution beyond the next gotcha. At one point Hugh and Carolyn had an extended exchange about her meeting with the contractor on May 9, the first council meeting after the election, and about the council's meeting with the contractor that same night, in executive session, naturally. I didn't follow all the details but one thing was clear and uncomplicated. Hugh had caught Carolyn in a major inconsistency in something she'd said, and she confessed that maybe she did exaggerate what the contractor had told her that night.

So here it was May 30, three weeks after I’d stood before a council meeting and said we’d shut down the golf course, and I apparently had a new fact to deal with.

Turf Drain didn’t want to go home.

In the immortal words of Scooby-Doo, “Ruh-Roh.”

But if one problem developed that night, if it finally became clear that only in the wildest dreams, enhanced by half truths, of the fiercest golf course foe, did we ever have a chance of shutting it down, then one other thing at least became crystal clear. For months the question had been, Why a golf course? We'd scoured land records to see if any council member or anybody who gave them money owned property adjacent to the course. We'd theorized the content of back-room deals we could only imagine. We'd looked at council votes to see if anybody had supported anything that looked like an unlikely fit for him, that we could present as part of an obvious vote swap.

But in the end it sort of reminded me of Randolph looking for the chain pull in "Free Willy." If he could just find one in Glenn's borrowed truck he and Jesse could save the stolen whale. Then Glenn showed up and eyed the situation for a while and said, "There's a chain pull behind the seat of the truck."

As Randolph goes off to get it, he mutters under his breath, "That's the one place I didn't look."

So that was it. It wasn’t to enhance adjacent land values. It wasn’t to gain more tax revenue. It wasn’t anything nefarious, conspiratorial, or under-handed. These people just really did believe the city would be better off with a golf course.

It's the one thing I never would have guessed. It's the one place we didn't look.

I took the time on the way out of the meeting to stop and tell Hugh and Larry that whatever happened over the golf course in the ensuing days, I respected their position. They were polite, but obviously waiting for me to go so they could talk about what had happened during the meeting. Dorn and Carolyn were in the parking lot, maybe waiting for me to stop and talk about what had happened during the meeting. I didn't, because nothing had.

It wasn't the first time the five of us had met. The week after the election, we got on a bus to tour the golf course. It was a short bus, an activity bus for the schools. The golf course was a moonscape, and the ravage inside was not much better. Steve mentioned some unbilled concession by the architect or the contractor and Carolyn said, "That's mighty white of them." She showed the proper amount of chagrin later, but not to Larry. Later in the same trip, Paula, the recreation director and our driver for the day, was backing up to turn around and asked for help from those in the back of the bus. Dorn, for reasons that escape me to this day, decided to start talking about the Amos and Andy records his family listened to while he was growing up in North Dakota, and about the "C'mon back" jokes. Larry, for reasons that pass all understanding, did not knock their heads together.

Larry had grown up in Bluefield, thirty miles east of where I'd spent the first five years of my life in Richlands, and sixty miles south of where I'd started school in Mount Hope, W.Va. I was always aware that many of the black folk in eastern Tazewell County were there because they were all driven out of Richlands after a lynching in 1898 following the murder of my distant great-uncle John. It wasn't that I felt guilty about it or anything, as I was still 58 years shy of being born at the time, but I was aware of it. I was also aware that some people are still touchy about racial issues and will remain that way until white Americans have spent a few generations proving our hearts are really in the right place.

Some people are less aware, and that's a good way to piss off black people. For the six weeks that followed I wondered if some of Larry’s nastier comments were because of Dorn and Carolyn’s miscues that day. Later I found out he just liked to make nasty comments, which was kind of a relief in a way. At least it was nothing personal.

The commission we’d appointed to look into the golf course had meanwhile come out of Warren’s living room. A former mayor, Bob Heath, agreed to be chair, and a few other members were added who punched up the credibility a little bit. They met two or three times a week in June and practically every day the last week before we took office. They rehashed and they read and they photocopied and they argued and they talked and they wondered. Larry meanwhile was telling the newspaper we’d only set up the commission to find a way to shut down the golf course and that once we did we were going to sell the land to build townhouses. There was a certain consistency to his actions and like any hustler who knows how to play the system, he knew just what to say to a reporter in order to force a story. At one point I told a reporter we didn’t need political cover to shut down the golf course. That’s when he should have asked if we needed cover to keep it open, but he didn’t ask and I didn’t tell.

Heath opened the meetings to the media, who didn’t find them nearly as interesting as when they couldn’t get in. I called Heath one night to thank him for taking the job. He thanked me for the call, and told me I might not get the result I wanted from the commission. I told him to tell the truth and shame the devil. I knew he would anyway, but I liked pretending it was my idea. Heath would lead an honest commission. And it wasn’t hard to guess which way it would go. The bond had been passed and signed. The contract had been signed and the land had been stripped. And they’d spent $2 million on it and we didn’t have $2 million because we’d spent all our money on the campaign. But with ten smart people sitting in a room, with open minds and a sense of how divisive the golf course had been, maybe lightning could strike.

And it did. The city manager got a job offer the same day the Heath commission voted, ten days before the CHANGE rep said it would, to recommend that we keep the golf course open, and oh by the way, Larry said he’d nominate me for mayor. And now we were sitting in an office in the municipal building with the city manager complaining about our efforts to shut down the golf course. He complained about the cost and time that went into our lawsuit to shut it down, and about Warren’s numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act. And it was good to hear our efforts had been so effective, but it made me wish we’d known more at the time about what was working. Apparently everything was, and we might have succeeded if our opponents hadn’t been so deeply into denial. We thought the problem was their willingness to go on despite the opposition. They thought the problem was the opposition. What we saw as citizens petitioning the government for redress of grievances, they saw as irritations.

I made mental notes as Steve told us what we’d done wrong. I missed some of the details, but caught the gist. Mostly I was watching Hugh and Larry. These guys had been the bench. Now they had to go first string with no coach. Somehow I’d had the idea they’d be more help once we were on council. But our encounters in the ensuing weeks had suggested that we had five council members who weren’t fully ready for the responsibility. I saw two choices. One was that Steve would remain at the job. The other was that we’d replace him with his assistant, Roger Baker. Roger was a staff man, who’d been passed over for the top job eight years before when Steve was hired. Now he might get the job, but it would be by default, because the city couldn’t stand the uncertainty of a search right then. If things had calmed down after the election, maybe. But we’d gone from skirmishing to full-blown civil war. Everybody anywhere in the fray was telling what was wrong with somebody else. One side was angry because they were getting a golf course they didn’t want, and the other side was angry because they’d gotten a city council they didn’t want. CHANGE had sudden opposition from a group called CARING, most of whose leaders lived close enough to the golf course to see their property values enhanced. They did a good job of sowing the same seeds of distrust we had during the campaign. I often referred to them as SCARING, and said the NG in their name stood for Neighborhood Golf.

Meanwhile Steve had left the room, leaving five council members to deal with their first crisis. But it was interrupted by a formality. The three new members had an appointment to be sworn in so that we could take office the next day. I invited Hugh and Larry along and if anybody had needed a cause for optimism they could have watched their city council walking along Main Street to the courthouse on a sunny day in June.

Before the swearing in, I briefly pulled Ben aside at the courthouse to tell him I’d been offered the job of mayor, and that if he thought it was a worthwhile project, he could make it happen. I let him think about the implications. Anything else would have wasted his Foreign Service training. Then the council went back to the municipal building and picked up where we’d left off in our argument about what to do next.

Seeking a city manager could have frozen the government for a year. If I’d known we weren’t going to accomplish anything that year anyway … but no second guessing at this point. If I’d known our meetings were going to turn into howlers … but no second-guessing at this point. If I’d known my life would be shifted in unexpected ways … but no second-guessing at this point. If I knew then what I know now, the only thing I’d do differently would be to bet on four Super Bowls.

I don’t know if Hugh was thinking so much about freezing the government as he was wondering who’d run it while we looked for a city manager. He was making arguments for trying to get Steve to stay on the job, and at one point he began a sentence with, “If you shut down the golf course the way you’re saying you will …”

“That’s not going to happen, Hugh,” I snapped at him. I said it because I wanted to keep the conversation on track, on the issue of who’d run the city. Carolyn was more upset about that afterward than about anything Steve had said. Somehow I had given away something about our strategy, which we were apparently going to develop before July 11 because I still wasn’t sure what it was. We stood under a tree after the meeting, arguing, harking back on all the details of greens fees and number of holes and everything else that was wrong with the city’s plan, with me trying to point out that the plan was already halfway carried out. It didn’t seem like the best time to tell her about the offer of the mayorship. Ben would have to decide how to handle that.

He called later to say he wasn’t even going to mention it to Carolyn. With the stress of taking on the job the next day, she had enough on her mind. Later he called back to say she’d heard about it anyway and was too upset to discuss it.

Carolyn said she’d be humiliated. She had no native political instinct to tell her that if she moved for a compromise mayor she’d be seen as the greatest lady in the city. She could only think about the idea of losing a 3-2 vote.

Larry called to tell me he thought I was the man for the job and to ask what it would take for me to take the job. Carolyn’s vote, I told him. He said he was going to make some calls to see who could talk to her.

Tom Miller, our city attorney-designee, called to tell me he’d pull out of consideration for the job if it would make the task of settling things down a little easier. If he wanted to nail down the job for sure, he got my vote right then.

And I still had one vote for mayor that I could do anything I wanted to with. “Do you want to be mayor?” Hugh had asked earlier that day.

“I didn’t want to be on council,” I answered.

It wouldn’t be the last time Hugh would look at me and pause for a beat or two, uncertain if he was supposed to laugh or not.

Bob Heath came by at 10 o'clock that night with the committee's final report. It said if we did decide to continue the golf course, there were several good reasons to do so, and it listed them. I looked for the part where it listed the reasons if we decided to shut it down. I couldn't find that part. The circuitous expression of the conclusion was a compromise to get the entire committee on board. I told Bob about the offer of the mayorship and the choice I was facing. He told me to listen to my conscience and I'd do OK as a councilman. It was the first suggestion I'd heard in two months that was advice and not a demand.

Saturday, July 1, 2000: Eating the Bait: At the end of the day, it was just a golf course, but we had to meet in the morning.

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: 12.03.05    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald