October 20, 2005 [LINK]

All politics WAR is local

When it comes to following politics, the closer it is to home, the less I seem to understand it. Here in the friendly, peaceful town of Staunton, a veritable war broke out earlier this year between the City Council and two elected constitutional officers. Why? Don't ask me, I haven't a clue. The two incumbents, Commissioner of Revenue Ray Ergenbright and Treasurer Elnora Hazlett (both Republicans) were blamed for a major computer snafu, and are being challenged in the upcoming elections by, respectively, Maggie Ragon and Dolores Duncan. (There is a third candidate, Rick Johnson I believe, in the former race.) From what I can tell, it all started a few years ago when some unelected official in city hall made a huge goof, and he is now trying to pin the blame elsewhere. The city's Information Technology director, Kurt Plowman, recommended the purchase of a tax revenue collecting software package called R-MASS, even though it was only in the development stage, and had not been certified as ready to use.

When the system's performance failed to improve in spite of many months of data conversion efforts, citizens started complaining about delays, and the News Leader published a series of articles highly critical of Ergenbright, and to a lesser extent, Hazlett. Just before I went to Costa Rica in February I attended a City Council meeting at which it was decided (in the name of "efficiency") to transfer certain functions and staffers from the Treasurer's office to a different part of City Hall, even though at least ten people spoke out strongly against making such a change. The News Leader editorials scoffed at the citizen complaints about this shift, which was obviously political in nature, and a cartoon portrayed those who objected (quite earnestly and respectfully, as I can attest) as an ignorant mob. Staunton and the surrounding area of the Shenandoah Valley are strongly conservative, but for some reason, only one member of the City Council is close to the Republicans. My sense is that the majority of the City Council, as well as the News Leader editors, hold an elitist disdain for public opinion, and believe that the city's interests are best served by letting experts make all the big decisions.

I happen to know both Ergenbright and Hazlett fairly well from working with the Republican party. They are decent, competent folks committed to serving the public good, and they are as honest as the day is long. If all you knew was what was written in the local newspaper, however, you would think they were totally at fault for the computer system breakdown. Today's Staunton News Leader for the first time paid some attention to both sides in this dispute, which is at least a step in the right direction. It also brought to light a critical fact of which I was not aware at all:

[IT Director Kurt] Plowman, the project manager for the conversion to R-MASS, ... is a partner in Ragon's business, The Wine Cellar.

That's it, just one innocuous sentence, with no elaboration. The very same municipal employee who set out to tear down Ray Ergenbright has a business relationship with Ergenbright's political opponent! Now, this whole political battle is starting to make sense, as the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Does it not even dawn on the editors that this constitutes a huge potential conflict of interest, and at the very least merits a bit more fact checking? Some investigative reporting! Woodward and Bernstein? Sorry, not here in Staunton.

In sum, unless the voters in Staunton get the full picture about what really happened in the R-MASS fiasco, which will only happen if our local newspaper lives up to its journalistic responsibility to present all sides of a story as important as this one, so that voters will make a well-informed choice on November 8, there is a very real possibility that the city council members who are behind the campaign to unseat Ergenbright and Hazlett will succeed in eliminating all opposition to their finance and development plans. (Chopping down the rest of the trees on Betsy Bell Hill, perhaps?) For anyone who believes in a system of government based on checks and balances, and democratic accountability of public officials, such an outcome would be an utter travesty. Since politics can be understood as "war by other means," and since the extreme partisanship and polarization such as we have observed in recent years tends to filter down from Washington to the state and local level, perhaps this conflict should not be surprising. It doesn't have to be that way, however. Come on, Staunton, wake up!