Eating the Bait: Two

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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2000: TAGS to CHANGE

There were seven of us in Benís living room. Or family room, I guess. The one with the fireplace, and the view of the pool, and the decorations and memorabilia from his time in the Foreign Service. And there was, for me at least, a tension and a disorientation. The next time a city council met in Harrisonburg, Va., three of us would be on it. The rest wouldnít. Iíd already given Ben a letter resigning from the CHANGE steering committee as of the day I took office. Iíd also, in a radio show, credited him with being the godfather of our election win. The man did a horrible Marlon Brando imitation, and was consequently insufferable for a week.

We hadnít always met in Benís living room.

Hillandale Park was a popular spot in the early going. So was Johnston Hall at the church. Hillandale was a symbolic meeting place. The park was either 288 acres, our story, or 110 acres plus 178 set aside for a golf course, their story. Either way it was 2.6 percent of the land in the cityís 17.3 square miles, and some of the last relatively wild-like land. It was a good place to spot deer, the occasional snake, and lonely men looking for a gay pickup. The latter led to a police substation there, which came in handy when they started cracking down on trespassers.

The hall at the church, Blessed Sacrament, was another symbol. Most of the Hispanic folk in town attended there, and the burgeoning immigrant population was one of the major issues the city had more or less ignored while spending too much time arguing about the golf course.

OK, itís a stretch, but so was so much of what we argued that year. We put out two editions of a newsletter, mailed to every voting household in the city. In one of them we predicted the golf course would sink out of site because of the limestone geology beneath it. Much more of the stretching was on the other side, though. The course was supposed to begin paying for itself in five years, and it still might. But there would be enough from the bond issue that financed the course to pay any shortfalls the first five years. (That didnít even last for one.) The dirt was for the golf course. Unless it wasnít. Bond attorney costs were to cover the golf course, except when they werenít. The police patrolling for trespassers on the golf course site were just doing their jobs when we complained about harsh enforcement, the city said, but then when it was time to list the expenses, it wasnít routine enough not to list. So it went. When the taxman comes to the door, the house looks like a rummage sale.

But first there was a meeting in the basement of the library. Ben led it, with Bob Bersson the power behind the throne, which is just an expression in this case, because Ben wasnít the king of anything. A retired diplomat, heíd served with the Foreign Service in Saigon and Dublin when they were places where it was easy to get shot. Ben had taken a Jesuit education and a liberal philosophy into failing runs for Harrisonburg City Council and Virginia House of Delegates, and would be a lightning rod for those on both sides of the golf course debate. A local businessman who would spend thousands of dollars (and claim he spent more) trying to stop the golf course blasted Ben for trying to use golf course opposition to further his political ambitions. A city council member, in one of the more blatant demonstrations of contempt for the democratic process, would accuse Ben of grandstanding because he dared ask questions at a council meeting.

Bersson on the other hand never seemed to anger anybody. Not then, anyway. When he spoke that evening of the wound the golf course had opened in the community, not even the three council members present argued with him. His sincerity for some reason went unquestioned. Possibly because everything he said was calm and measured and delivered with great Ö well, sincerity. Sincerity which I never personally doubted right up until the day he ordered $400 worth of yard signs, charged them to my campaign, and didnít tell me until afterwards. I suppose that was to free up my mind to think about the great issues of the campaign, which should all, in the opinion of some steering committee members, be decided by consensus, while the expenditure of my meager campaign funds was being decided by individual fiat.

Good thing Iím not bitter.

While Bob was being sincere at the meeting in the library basement, I was being incensed. Mayor Rodney Eagle and council members Larry Rogers and Walter Green had come to the meeting, but werenít saying much. They had scheduled a meeting the following week at Harrisonburg High School, during which they would face several hundred golf course opponents from tables lined up on the stage, looking in Benís uncharitable opinion like the Politburo. Pending that meeting, the Green-Eagle faction was being polite, but not giving away much. "Come to the meeting," Rodney told us. "And youíll all be enlightened."

"We donít need to be enlightened," I remember yelling. I pointed out, in righteous anger or immature rage, depending on where you were sitting, that weíd all been studying the facts and figures about the golf course, that we had all come to different conclusions about what would happen, that we wanted an opportunity to discuss the golf course before it was decided, not after. I pointed out that the opportunity to be enlightened might be valuable if we knew less that they did, but under the circumstances it was just silly.

There was some uncomfortable shifting and Eagle, mayor at the time, mumbled, "Iím not going to try to answer that." Someone told me later it would have been a nice piece of righteous anger if I had come up with a better word than silly.

Eagle was referring to my rudeness, but it was pretty much how they dealt with the dispute. When the meeting at the high school finally came, Rodney called the golf course a "done deal" and Larry Rogers said he wouldnít change his mind on the golf course if 112 percent of the people were against it.

Six out of five council members had trouble with math back then.

Because one poll, sponsored by a private benefactor of the golf course opponents, had shown that 61 percent of the citizens of Harrisonburg were opposed to any tax dollars being spent on the course. The vice mayor at the time smugly assured the Daily News-Record that the poll was meaningless because the course would be self-sufficient and no tax dollars would be spent on the project. And he was almost right -- the course was all of 11 months into its first full year of operation before it needed an infusion of general fund revenues, that is to say, tax dollars, in the amount of a third of a million dollars. How much in tax dollars was the central question back in 1999. That was why the early organization was called TAGS -- Taxpayers Against Golf Spending.

It was under that name that we first met at Blessed Sacramentís Johnston Hall, drawing about a hundred people to a meeting advertised only by a tiny ad on the back of the newspaper. One member of that group was a businessman building a private golf course. He didnít think the city ought to build one to compete with him. Also in the group was Walter, a fine fellow, self-described as being to the right of Attila. It was the first time Iíd seen him since I quit working for him, specifically, since six weeks before when I got ticked off and walked out over something having to do with politics. He noted that evening that he was sitting on the left side of the hall and I was on the right and that was wrong.

Behind me was a woman whoíd previously run for House of Delegates as a Green party candidate. She leaned forward and asked, "Who is that guy?" when Walter said heíd pay for the legal fight. It sort of reminded me of Butch and Sundance continually asking, "Who are these guys?" before finally deciding to jump off a cliff. Rodney Eagle and Walter Green werenít Butch and Sundance but they had to wonder after a while who was chasing them. The TAGS group kept growing: Democrats, Republicans, Greens, left, right, environmentalists, educators, soccer moms, college professors, an ex-newspaper editor -- that would be me -- putting out a viciously overstated newsletter that was mostly true except for the part that said the golf course would sink out of sight because of overuse of groundwater. (And even that was true and scientifically accurate until I rewrote it for more effect.)

I remember another meeting at Johnston Hall when Ben made me get up and talk about some of the PR efforts around the time of the second newsletter. I was explaining the poll, and what it meant that 60 percent of 13,000 registered voters were against the course. "There are 7,800 of us and itís our money," I told people. Of course the voting list had grown since I last checked and not everybody showed up at the polls anyway, but that wasnít the point, at least not that night at the church hall. The point was that was when I realized Ben thought I should run for city council.

But I couldnít just run as an anti-golf course candidate. Neither could Dorn and Carolyn. That meant we would need something besides TAGS for an organization and something beside "No Golf Course" for a slogan. And after just enough meetings and emails, long before I ever decided to run, somebody came up with CHARGE -- Citizens of Harrisonburg Advocating Responsible Government. Worked for me. But then a committee got hold of it and it became CHANGE -- Citizens of Harrisonburg Advocating New Government for the Electorate. Not the whole city, mind you, but just the electorate. And not responsible government, but new government. The cynic in me suggested that nobody would get reelected under that scheme, but I figured the name would last for a couple of years, because nobody would win under the groupís banner the first time out, but we could still be looking for some new government the next time. Or they would. Iíd be gone, to Charlottesville most likely.

That was the legend anyway, and when the legend becomes the fact, you print the legend. Thatís what the newspaper editor explained at the end of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And although I worked for newspapers for 12 years, I only met one person who could recite that line off the top of his head. He was, by the way, covering the golf course debate for the DNR, and would later tell one of his fellow reporters that I'd made a campaign promise to shut down the golf course, which is a pet peeve of mine since I didn't, but the legend became fact again.

What the Charlottesville issue boiled down to was that I was married to a wanderer, and I was prepared to move on with her to a city across the mountain that she saw as a city on the hill. But not just yet. I was too southern, too home-bound, too wedded to the dirt beneath my feet, and too reluctant to walk away from a fight. Which is about enough of that story, because it involves the privacy of somebody no longer in the public eye. Suffice it to say that I married her because I loved her and we produced a beautiful son together.

Then I decided to run for city council. But thatís later.

In the TAGS days, I probably looked like a candidate. I could be eloquent in print, if I wasnít being too much of a smart-ass, and I could state things clearly and precisely in discussion, if I wasnít thinking out loud or being too much of a smart-ass. But my politics probably werenít all that obvious to the people around me. A libertarian Democrat is probably a contradiction to a lot of people, especially to those libertarians whose cause is a religion and whose saint is Ayn Rand. But those people have the political disadvantage that theyíre never going to be elected very much. I still remember the excitement in Virginia when somebody was elected after running openly as a Libertarian -- to the Soil and Water Conservation Board.

Thatís an upper-case Libertarian. I was lower-case. Thereís too much government, it doesnít do things well, most of what it does is inefficient, and God help us when itís not. (It doesnít help that the trains run on time if theyíre going to Treblinka.) But upper-case Libertarians canít compromise and I can. If thereís so damned much government and itís not going away regardless of which partyís in office, we ought to try and do something with it. Democrats acknowledge that so long as government is funding the highways, the schools, the police and the utilities, government should  try to do those things well. Republicans begrudge the necessity of government doing these things, and would solve everything by cutting tax rates.

Or, in this case, by building a golf course, which made a certain bizarre logic from the standpoint of those who thought all the things wrong with government didnít apply to them. One of the council members noted in 2003 that there were a lot of golf courses in the area, counted in holes by the consultants and others who tried repeatedly to make the debate unintelligible. But he pointed out that none of them were in the city. They werenít in the 17 square miles that made up the city of Harrisonburg, but rather in the 850 or so square miles of Rockingham County that surrounded it. Provincial is too cruel a description of people like Eagle, Walter Green, and John Byrd, who voted for the golf course because they thought it was good for their city. And the fact that none of the public holes were in the city limits is too simplistic a description of why they wanted the course. Councilman Hugh Lantz thought it would be a revenue source, and Walter Green remembered thereíd been little or no public recreation when he came home from the Navy almost half a century before.

Nor were the arguments on the other side simple. The golf course would suck up water from the earth and give back pest- and weed-killing chemicals. It would suck up money better used for legitimate municipal purposes. It would eat up half of a semi-wild park.

All of which was, to many people, secondary to the main issue. The main issue was that City Council had voted 5-0 to build a golf course that 60-70 percent of the people in the city didnít want, and only 25 percent did want.

Democracy sometimes has a lot to do with numbers.

But then democracy has to start at the grassroots. That would be the meeting at Hillandale when Dorn and Carolyn were introduced as potential candidates. Dorn, a physics professor, had gained some notoriety when, as speaker of the James Madison University Faculty Senate, he became embroiled in a minor personnel dispute, that I donít have the time, space or heart to go into here. Suffice it to say that he angered the university administration enough for them to try eliminating the physics department. Dorn resigned the speakerís post when he felt the focus on him was detracting from what the senate ought to be doing. I have always admired his ethics -- on that narrow issue anyway -- even when I wanted to strangle him over some of his policy approaches or the frequency with which he can't see the forest for the leaves..

Carolynís claim to fame at that point was her creation of a childrenís soccer league that had exposed hundreds of children to the game. It had also shown that the lack of recreation Green had found decades before had been resolved without a golf course. His determination to push on could be viewed as stubbornness or dedication, depending on whom you were talking to, and nobodyís saying it couldnít be both. Later when she pointed out that the golf course was hemorrhaging money, golf course supporters, particularly Hugh, would point out how much soccer cost. How irrelevant an accusation was didnít particularly phase some golf course supporters. Golf is good, read their mantra, and anybody who felt otherwise was unpatriotic, if not sacrilegious.

The CHANGE group was a more fractured bunch, held together by our dislike of the golf course and by something we called "open and responsive government." We eventually developed a six-part steering committee that gathered weekly or so in Benís living room to discuss the campaign. There were the three candidates, and then there were Ben and Betty Anne, two people so much a couple it was hard to think of them separately. There was Bersson, the ultimate behind-the-scenes organizer. And there was Warren, who came to us from the far side of the Republican Party, referring to the golf course supporters throughout as "these guys," in much the same way Robert E. Lee was said to refer to the Yankees as "those people."

We would gather and eat popcorn, apparently the official snack food of CHANGE. And we would have very serious conversations about how to win an election -- conversations that donít seem as serious in retrospect because the election was won going in. It was won because one side supported a golf course that the voters didnít want. Then weíd won and we had to figure out how to govern, but first we had to figure out what to do about the golf course. And first we had to get into office and we still had three days to go.

Carolyn has some sort of plan that included selling some of the equipment already purchased for the course, and selling the land. Weíd floated the idea of selling the land before, and Larry had responded by telling the newspaper we were planning to build townhouses there. There was absolutely no evidence to support the statement, but that generally wasnít how he operated. His standard was instead whether he could get away with saying something. Reporters loved him because he was good copy, but all of them figured out after a few stories that his stories were one-day cheap shots and they could throw away the notes.

But the fact that Larry was against something didnít mean it would work, much as we all might have wanted it to. The biggest problem with her plan, although not the only one, was that nobody had floated it by the Heath Commission, a citizens group headed by a former mayor that weíd put together to advise us on what to do about the golf course.

It was pretty clear by June 28 that the Heath committee was going to come back with a recommendation that we continue the golf course. But the talk around the room was how to work around that. We could still shut it down. At one point I noted angrily that weíd appointed a committee to look into the issue and we were sitting at a secret meeting in Benís family room trying to come up with a way to avoid listening to the committee. Everybody looked at me funny, like somebody who doesnít get the joke, or is still doing the responses in Latin.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It was the final meeting of the steering committee of TAGS/CHANGE, and it was taking on, for me, a strange sense of unreality as the clock ticked toward 11 p.m. At another point in the meeting I suggested that we finish the Turf Drain contract, then examine the rest. Finishing the contract would mean we would have an asset we could sell or lease. The others argued that we could still stop it. They asked me to hold off until July 11, instead of making the suggestion on July 1, the day weíd be sworn in. The Heath Committee wouldnít have come back with its report until after July 1, Warren assured us. Just hold off for ten days, they said. I finally, reluctantly, agreed and we all went home. I might not have been so annoyed with the late hour, and correspondingly with my TAGS colleagues, except that the meeting went into too much detail. I wanted to settle the thing based on its political merits, not on its molecular structure.

I knew we had lost the golf course fight and lost big, and that weíd have to build the damned thing; but I didnít really have any idea how to get it across to the other people in the room. I probably could have passed for sullen that night, which was a way I passed a good deal of the next year, every time I felt like people were arguing for the fun of it or trying to push their view on somebody else without giving the other person the benefit of listening. But the sullenness was a problem Iíd often had, when the answer to something was so clear to me I couldnít get why anybody else didnít get it. Iíd go ahead, with no real idea that everybody hadnít caught up, like the time I was trying to show a co-worker how to do something in Excel. Heíd asked me a couple of times before, so he knew I could do it, and he needed it done for this report that was due immediately, because the contractor we worked for tended to work to deadlines. So I was trying to tell him how to do whatever it was, so heíd know the next time, and he just wanted it done, so I fought back with aphorism. "Give a man a fish and heíll eat today," I reminded him, with smug reproach. "Teach him to fish and heíll eat forever."

The co-worker didnít want to fish, he wanted to send the file to the client. "Iíd eat the bait," he told me.

Thursday, June 29, 2000: Prose and Cons: A colleague lightens up enough to make me an offer, but the mood continues to darken.

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: 02.20.04    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald