If you were elected to public office; what would you do first? Would you think it time to settle scores and take care of political debts? Or would you take the time to gather yourself and think, “What can I do to be worthy of this responsibility?”
Doing the former is typical of people for whom controlling the levers of government power is about self-service not public service. Or perhaps acknowledgement that their election was purchased by their funders, not earned by their own qualifications and vision.
Instead of preparing for the job, by diving into the mechanics of government, they cannonball into the swamp of donor whims and wishes. While this might be the norm in Washington; it is sad to realize this particular cancer is locally metastasizing.
Doing the latter, preparing for the job, is less viscerally satisfying and more labor intensive. Respecting the rules for transparency, and against secrecy, show a maturity of thought while also evidencing a person of character.
The result of being wayward will often lead to the result we see now; leaders being found with their hands in the cookie jar. When four Staunton Council members held a meeting and made decisions concerning public policy, without including the public or the other members of the council, they acted in disregard to long held rules for council meetings.
For the supervisors the meeting was meant to be assured a majority of the council would overrule any courthouse construction denials as anticipated from the Historic Preservation Commission.
Absent any other explanations one might assume the purpose for the councilmen was to demonstrate their deep appreciation to generous donors. How else to understand the inclusion of their largest campaign contributors; as well as a local political party chairman, when working on these otherwise private, sensitive, county-city negotiations?
How fair is it for three self-supposed local VIPs to get an inclusion, and outsized input, for a meeting that could end Staunton’s Historic District while adding millions of dollars of cost for Augusta taxpayers? This while leaving all the rest of us in the dark.
Unsurprisingly, the people are fighting back. A full-page ad in another paper gave initial thoughts on why this plan is flawed. They called on folks to pack council and Historic Preservation Commission meetings. A rally is planned for Sunday afternoon at Augusta’s Courthouse.
I’ve seen this play out before when other rich and powerful members of the ruling class counted their chicks before they hatched. Think Atlantic Coast Pipeline — reluctant property owners, protesters and adverse court decisions.
None of this is meant to say the people do not have the absolute right to reconsider earlier decisions. The importance and value of the Historic District rightly needs to be revaluated from time to time. One man’s historic structure is another man’s drafty old house. The question as to what to keep and what to get rid of is age old.
However, the answer is not a secret meeting where a public decision is privately decided before the public has its fair say. People can accept losing a fair fight but will not easily get over a fixed fight.
These council folks, Mayor Andrea Oakes, Vice-Mayor Mark Robertson, Councilman Stephen Caffey and Councilwoman Amy Darby, are caught in a trap of their own making. They can no longer make a decision based on the totality of evidence, even if they change their minds, because they have already surrendered their vote.
If they go back on their word; Augusta County taxpayers will lose about $100,000 spent by supervisors for property options they will have no reason to exercise. But in sticking to their promises they insure the demise of Staunton’s Historic District as well as a $15 million penalty on Augusta taxpayers. (This is the added cost to shoehorn the new Courthouse onto a minimal city lot instead of on open acreage in Verona.)
All public hearings should have the ability to move a council or a board to its best decision. Not by the numbers, but by the quality of the advocacy. To know four of seven council members have already made a commitment to the wealthy and the politically powerful, before giving their citizens a say, is disheartening. But not something unique.
Unique would be to go against self-interest by putting the people first. Again if this were you, what would you do? Recuse yourself or dance with the one that paid for the night?
Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.
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