The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Pork Rind Scandal No Longer a Laughing Matter


OPERATION PORK RIND AND THE TOWN OF APPALACHIA BACK IN THE NEWS

Once again this week, we see breaking news coming out of southwest Virginia in the little Town of Appalachia.

In the past, the Iconoclast reported on the investigation of allegations of voting fraud in the Town of Appalachia and the almost comical… if it were not so pitiful… practice of bribing voters to vote for certain candidates with of beer, cigarettes and pork rinds. Yes… pork rinds…

I guess you get the kind of government you pay for!

While voting fraud is unquestionably a serious problem, the news reports this week reveal even more disturbing circumstances than first meets the eye.

At first, this story sounded like it was about some pathetic “wannabe politicians” whose zeal for winning at all costs outweighed everything that their mommas had taught them about character, integrity, honor, and following the law. Sad? Yes. Pitiful? Yes. Stupid? Yes. Illegal? Probably.

But what real harm was done? After all, it is not like these people are running for President, or Congress or some other really important job. We are talking about the little Town of Appalachia. No real harm done. Right?

Wrong!

It seems that this story may be going well beyond that of some misguided political candidate “fudging” on the election rules.

The February 27, 2006 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch is now reporting that a Wise County judge is ordering an investigation of possible corruption of the Town’s police force. This story is particularly intriguing in that the voter fraud issue now appears to be connected to the allegations of police corruption.

Those allegations suggest that police personnel tolerate a “certain amount of illegal activity” and that police officials “seize drugs and money and keep them.” In other words, these allegations suggest that the police are…as they say… “taking a bite out of crime” in ways that may not be considered socially (or legally) acceptable.

The connection between the allegations of voter fraud and police corruption is revealed in the circumstances of who is in charge of the Town of Appalachia police department. It seems that one of the candidates for the Town Council of Appalachia dropped out of the election race, endorsed other Town Council candidates, and was subsequently appointed to head up the Town’s police department when those candidates won their election to Town Council.

Some might think this looks like “politics as usual” in the practice of giving jobs to friends and family. Apparently, Special Prosecutor Tim McAfee does not take this matter so lightly and has indicated that he would be seeking indictments from the Grand Jury as early as this week. Prosecutor McAfee was quoted as saying: “I think they [grand jurors] are going to find it disturbing, the corruption and the level of corruption that we’ve found from witnesses and the evidence we gathered…”

But before we jump to any premature conclusions, the Iconoclast hastens to add that this matter is still under investigation and has a long way to go before we know the whole story. Here in America we are all presumed innocent until proven guilty and no one has yet been proven guilty. Time will tell the story.

However, this breaking news once again reminds us that the acceptance of little digressions sometimes are symptoms of big problems hidden behind the facade of complacency. Turn a blind eye here…turn a blind eye there…it is a slippery slope…
What started out as an almost comical and definitely pitiful story about the human ego and its frailty is now turning out to be a much bigger and more serious story of systemic official corruption.

The apparent local acceptance of the “innocent” election season treats in return for votes to help get friends in office is just one symptom of a much bigger problem. The acceptance of cronyism and/or nepotism is another symptom of the disease. Putting friends and family in jobs as a political payoff or as a way to cash in on inappropriate opportunity is a sure sign of betrayed public trust and official abuse of office.

By some accounts Southwest Virginia is one of the most beautiful regions of Virginia. I tend to agree. People who live in this region have many blessings to count. While some, including the Iconoclast may have earlier made light of the “pork rind” story, this is becoming a serious matter. Let’s hope that this inquiry leads to better days for public integrity in the Town of Appalachia. The citizens deserve better.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Apparently Chairman King wants citizens to butt out of County's business!


CHAIRMAN R. M. "DICKIE" KING OF CHESTERFIELD COUNTY SHOWS NEW LAPSE OF JUDGMENT
AND TRUE COLORS WHEN QUESTIONING CITIZEN RIGHTS


The saga of the high flying Chesterfield County officials has just about run its course. Just about everyone who had a thought on the subject has weighed in including the Iconoclast and yours truly. Thanks for the lively discussion. It has been fun and, hopefully, a lesson learned in better government.

This story erupted last week when the Richmond Times Dispatch and other media outlets broke the story of an $18,000 jet-setting joy ride, by then Supervisor County Chairman R. M. “Dickie” King, and County Administrator Lane B. Ramsey, ostensibly to respond to an “emergency” involving the arrest of then Board Chairman Edward B. Barber on charges unrelated to Chesterfield County official business.

Supervisor King has now ascended to the office of Chairman of the Board of Supervisors succeeding Barber in a routine change of chairmanship and not because of the unrelated charges involving Barber.

Happily, Chesterfield County leadership seems to be taking their lumps with reasonable grace and is acting with decisiveness to make amends. When the Chamber of Commerce gesture did not meet with immediate success, owing to questions of potential influence buying, the County Administrator stepped in with his own funds to make the County whole again. This is a meaningful indication of remorse and acceptance of responsibility.

To be fair, there is little doubt that Ramsey’s overall good reputation and service to Chesterfield County over the years will be little tarnished by this lapse of judgment perhaps during a period of emotional vulnerability. It was a mistake. Everybody knows it was a mistake. There now seems to be reasonable accountability and I see no reason why Ramsey will not be able to look back on this embarrassing experience years from now and laugh with us as a well deserved reminder in humility. It will be a minor footnote in his career.

While the big story is about ended, Chairman R. M. “Dickie” King now gives us something new to think about and another reminder of the importance keeping one’s mouth shut when you are ahead. Unfortunately for Chairman King, he may have to learn this lesson the hard way.

Apparently, the whole story about the $18,000 charter flight began when an ordinary citizen, one Ms. Brenda Stewart, a retiree living in Chesterfield County, obtained from the County through a routine request for public information the embarrassing information concerning the flight. Apparently Ms. Stewart is one of those rare individuals who takes her responsibilities as an ordinary citizen seriously and took the time and energy necessary to educate her self on what her County government was doing. This is not as easy as it may seem, as most of what happens can not be learned from merely reading the daily news. It requires some time and effort and access to public records. Without a little help from the so called “sunshine laws”, this challenge would be impossible.

The United States Congress and virtually all State legislatures have recognized the fundamental rights of citizens to participate in their governmental process and have passed laws that ensure that public business is conducted openly and that citizens will always have access to relevant documents pertaining to that public business. For citizens living here in Virginia, it is the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that guarantees these basic rights. More information on citizen rights to access public information can be obtained through the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

However, in the February 26, 2006 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch, Chairman King seems to be disparaging these basic rights by attacking an ordinary citizen for exposing some questionable official County business to public scrutiny. In this Section A, front page article Chairman King indicates his disdain for Ms. Stewart by suggesting that “he believes that Stewart’s request for information show that she and others have a political agenda.” King goes on to say: “I believe Ms. Stewart [and] her complaints are not always about the process but the fact that we don’t agree with what she says.”

Is it just me, or is it clear to everybody else that Chairman King is missing the whole point?

It doesn’t matter whether Ms. Stewart has a political agenda or not and it does not matter if the Board of Supervisors agrees with her views or not. Government has the higher obligation to be accountable to the people it serves. That is why government is required to conduct its business with high transparency and accountability through special “sunshine” laws at the Federal level and in virtually every state in America. Ms. Stewart has a right to know what her government is doing and, frankly, it is none of Chairman King’s damned business what her motives or political agenda might be.

Also revealed in the Richmond Times Dispatch article is a highly incriminating memorandum dated February 16, 2005 warning supervisors that the $18,000 charter flight was probably going to break in the news. The memo stated that “Since this could potentially become a news story we wanted to give you advance notice…”

Why…if this $18,000 joy ride was not problem… would the administration need to warn the Supervisors? Answer: it is called “consciousness of guilt.”

All this adds up to the classic “damage control” mode of thinking by public officials. While most Chesterfield officials seem to be moving in the right direction and doing what is necessary to put this matter to rest, Chairman King is still trying to place the blame elsewhere... blaming the citizen who exercised her basic right to ask for and receive public information.

While the big story is all but forgotten, the new story is the questionable attitude of Chairman R. M. “Dickie” King, the chief elected official of Chesterfield County, and his failure to recognize that he and his fellow Supervisors are accountable to the citizens…not the other way around.

Let us hope that Chairman King learns this lesson soon! Otherwise, look forward to Chairman King in the news again soon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PRINCE EDWARD ADMINISTRATOR ON THE WAY OUT?



COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR MILDRED B. HAMPTON LEAVES BOARD HANGING OUT TO DRY

BOARD WEIGHING OPTIONS?

The Iconoclast does not post raw unsubstantiated rumors. We could if we wanted to. But we prefer not to…just as a matter of principle.

Over the past year, the Iconoclast has heard a number of rumors concerning inner workings of Prince Edward County government. Some of this stuff is really interesting and rings true but for various reasons we prefer not to publish it. The information may scandalously embarrassing but not really central to the public debate. Also, some of the information is indeed related to the public debate but difficult to verify. Nonetheless, the Iconoclast greatly appreciates these tidbits of information as they provide useful background and may eventually lead to something important.

And that is exactly what has happened!

Over the past month,multiple sources, including official County records, have revealed that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors is now weighing its options concerning the future of the long time County Administrator, Mildred B. Hampton.

The Iconoclast started hearing “official” rumblings about a year ago concerning problems in the County Administrator’s office. These problems included questions of “poor performance” and “inappropriate behavior” by the County Administrator. We also received some really interesting information from “people in the know” regarding the alleged problems. For the reasons cited above, the Iconoclast will not elaborate.

While Prince Edward County has experienced a number of public problems and missteps over the past few years, there was little public indication that any of the controversy was directly tied to the County’s top executive. Typically, when controversies have erupted, the County Administrator was silent and on the sidelines deferring to the County Attorney, other subordinate staff, or Board members to take the heat.

However, reliable sources tell the Iconoclast that “Susie” likes to work “under cover” and has her hand in just about everything… including most of the problems and controversies experienced by the County in recent years.

This may be causing some frustrations for Supervisors who have to answer to the public, especially since nearly all of the blame for the various controversies involving County government in the past few years has wound up falling at the feet of the Board of Supervisors. Sources tell the Iconoclast that in Prince Edward County, Supervisors come and go…but the “Queen Susie” is forever.

But maybe not this time…

In a not so surprising turn of events, sources close to the Courthouse scene have provided to the Iconoclast official County records indicating that the Board of Supervisors recently met behind closed doors on “personnel matters” and held a late-night vote of confidence / no-confidence in which the County Administrator survived only by the narrowest of margins.

While official records are silent on the reasons, sources indicate that the recent development is partially a result of continuing job performance concerns. However, more significantly, there is a growing perception that the Administrator’s management style is contributing to the declining public confidence in County government and the Board of Supervisors. As a result, some Supervisors feel that new administrative leadership is needed to restore public confidence.

While personnel records are privileged information, public records of official Board actions, even those taken in late-night meetings where no one is watching, are not protected.One final note…

The chief executive of any local government holds a position of serious public trust and responsibility. The County Administrator’s close brush with termination on January 10, 2006… over a month ago… is something that most people would consider as important news. Indeed this news is presently common knowledge with the “Main Street” crowd.

So... the Iconoclast is wondering why The Farmville Herald, the local newspaper, has elected to not report on this important matter of public interest. Just wondering… As always comments are invited and appreciated.

Note: The Iconoclast is seeking more “inside” information on this breaking news. Please contact us with insights, facts, figures, dates and opinions (you know what we are looking for). If needed, you may submit information clearly labeled as “source confidential.” Your identity will be protected. Our sincere thanks go out to our sources, past and future.

On Issues of Human Equality Compromise is Not an Option!


ON ISSUES OF HUMAN EQUALITY COMPROMISE IS NOT AN OPTION

A reader of the Iconoclast suggested that I check out today's editorial piece in The Farmville Herald (February 22, 2006). This piece, is entitled "An Important Step, Yes, But PE Should Ensure Farmville Residents Don't Score Mute Points" and can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

The Iconoclast believes in giving credit (or blame) where it is due. So it is with pleasure that the Iconoclast congratulates the Herald on its attention to this important matter of public interest in Prince Edward County and its thoughtful contributions to the debate. The Herald endorses the idea of holding joint public hearings including both the Town of Farmville and Prince Edward County on development issues located in close proximity to the Town. It also supports the idea of inviting the Town to submit input to the Board of Supervisors on matters similarly related to the Town's interests.

Perhaps most important the Herald points of that County residents living within the Town of Farmville deserve something more than these helpful but rather mechanical administrative understandings between officials of the two local governments. The Herald editorial eloquently sums it up:

Prince Edward County residents living in Farmville deserve more than a voice in their county planning decisions; they also deserve a vote - as other county residents are represented during the planning process. Just as they have votes on the Board of Supervisors and School Board. A voice without a vote can be like the volume button on a television - easily muted. Farmville's voice needs someone to push the ASAP button to create its vote on planning commission decisions.


This editorial position is certainly in line with what most citizens are telling the Iconoclast.

As pleased as the Iconoclast is that The Farmville Herald has taken this principled position on the issue of Town of Farmville representation on the Prince Edward County Planning Commission, we do have some misgivings with the closing editorial comment that "Any kind of vote would be better than none..." and with the suggestion of possible compromises short of full and equal representation on the Planning Commission for citizens of Farmville.

In the original CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, Article I. Section 2. speaks of representation apportioned among the several States...based on the "whole Number of free Persons... [and]...three fifths of all other Persons." The 14th Amendment of the Constitution ratified July 9, 1868, fixed that little problem by elevating those"second class citizens" who were only counted as "three fifths" to become whole people... it is called human equality.

When it comes to questions of human equality, we would hope that there is no room for compromise...even in Prince Edward County.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Chesterfield’s County Administrator in Need of Frequent Flyer Miles!


Wow, it was reported this morning that Chesterfield County’s long-time County Administrator, Lane Ramsey, paid $18,000 (in County funds) for a charter flight out of Chesterfield to pick him up and rush him back home from vacation during the holidays due to the arrest of County Supervisor Edward Barber on sex related charges.

I guess the question most folks are asking is why was it so important for Ramsey to rush back home so quick? After all, it was Christmas time and the County’s Board didn’t have a meeting until sometime in January. Realistically what could Mr. Ramsey have done at that point? Console Supervisor Barber? Also, it was pointed out today by Julian Walker of the Richmond Times Dispatch that a next day flight from Wichita would have been less expensive, and more importantly for Ramsey, less controversial.

A check of a travel-reservation Web site last night listed one-way next-day flights from Wichita to Richmond in a price range of $249 to $816 plus taxes and fees. A Continental Airlines flight leaving Wichita at 11:10 a.m. today would get a passenger to Richmond by 5:15 p.m. The price, including taxes and fees, would be $301 -- about one-60th of what Chesterfield taxpayers paid to get Ramsey back to the county.


By all accounts Ramsey Lane is a competent and professional public servant. If I had to guess this decision by Mr. Lane was likely an (expensive) error in judgment – which he seems to indicate as well. Maybe Mr. Lane could make this situation right by offering to pay the difference between what a next day flight would have cost, versus the 18K it cost to charter a plain out of Chesterfield to pick him up? (I would guess that he could afford it too) Regardless, the damage has been done; and it will be interesting to see what the public’s reaction will be once this story has more time to settle in.

I think the lesson here - as I’ve often stated - is that sometimes even good people can make poor decisions.

Note: The flight that Mr. Ramsey took was likely not as luxurious as the Concord!

WHO IS ROBERT “BOBBY” JONES OF PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY?



AN ICONOCLASTIC PROFILE

As a new feature of the Commonwealth Iconoclast, I am pleased to introduce “An Iconoclastic Profile”… intended to examine more closely persons of interest in the Commonwealth of Virginia. There is only one basic criterion for becoming the subject of An Iconoclastic Profile: the subject must be a “public personality” in some capacity. There are probably many deserving candidates worthy of this special attention, but Robert “Bobby” Jones of Prince Edward County gets the honor this month.

Who is Robert “Bobby” Jones of Prince Edward County? Obviously, the Iconoclast cannot tell the complete story of this multi-faceted man. However, we can provide a few interesting insights regarding his public life. It is our hope that through these insights, citizens may become better informed and play a more active role in their respective communities.

So, who is Robert “Bobby” Jones and why is he a person of interest to the citizens of Prince Edward County or anyone else who is interested in local government?

Robert “Bobby” Jones was featured in a 2003 article in The Farmville Herald when he announced his plans to run for re-election to represent the Lockett District of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. According to the Herald report, Robert “Bobby” Jones was a farmer in the Lockett District with ancestral roots in the area going back three centuries.

For those not familiar with the geography, Prince Edward County is a rural county about 70 miles west of Richmond. The Town of Farmville is the largest community in Prince Edward County and home of Longwood University. Farmville is a thriving and progressive community experiencing considerable change and growth.

The Lockett District is…well… out in the boonies… farm country…and home to Robert “Bobby’ Jones and perhaps his ancestors going back three hundred years.

Official public records indicate that Robert “Bobby” Jones was successful in his 2003 re-election bid against political neophyte Deborah Hicks-Shealey with a final official vote of 339 to 301.

There were questions concerning voting irregularities in the Jones / Hicks-Shealey race. However, those questions were apparently deemed insufficient to change the final vote tally. So, Robert “Bobby” Jones, on a margin of 38 votes, won another four year term to the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. Not exactly a mandate, but good enough.

As best we can figure, Robert “Bobby” Jones got his start in politics with an appointment to the Prince Edward County Planning Commission back in the 1980s. At some point in time, Mr. Jones ran for and was elected to the Board of Supervisors from the Lockett District. As Supervisor, Mr. Jones apparently kept his appointed position to the County Planning Commission. In this influential dual capacity as both Supervisor and Planning Commissioner, Robert “Bobby” Jones’ has played an important role in shaping the County’s future through the many decisions involving planning, zoning and development that he has taken part in over the years.

Some background might be helpful here.

Over the past several years, Prince Edward County has experienced a series of land-use and zoning controversies. Those controversies came to a full boil in October of 2005, when citizens complained that the County Planning Commission had become stagnant and dysfunctional. Worst of all, there were complaints that the Planning Commission did not fairly represent certain portions of the County.

Given that something had to be done, Board of Supervisors Chairman William “Buckie” Fore named Supervisor Jones to chair a new committee to study the problems with the Planning Commission – the same Planning Commission that Supervisor Jones served on for many years, and the same Planning Commission that citizens were complaining about.

Given this new assignment, Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones led his committee to develop a new County policy regarding the composition of the Planning Commission. However, instead of addressing the citizen complaints, the plan took an unexpected turn to officially exclude over six thousand citizens of Prince Edward County from eligibility to serve on the Planning Commission.

Committee records indicate that Supervisor Jones held the view that the County Planning Commission had “no direct effect on the residents of the town” and that the question of representation “was not an important concern.” With only one committee member representing the aggrieved citizens, the committee was effectively a “stacked deck” to protect the status quo and to quash any attempt to advance meaningful reform measures.

As committee Chairman, Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones authored the official committee report dated December 12, 2005, and forwarded that report for final action to the Board of Supervisors the next day on December 13, 2005. On Supervisor Jones’ motion, the new policy was adopted by a split vote of 5 in favor and 3 opposed – again not exactly a mandate.

Just prior to making the motion to adopt his new plan, Supervisor Jones stated for the official record:

“We want people that are residents of the area they are making decisions on… Not people who are residents of that area… I don’t want someone living on Main Street telling me how to develop property on my farm.”

Of course we understand Supervisor Jones’ concern about his farm, but in the reference to“…that area…” Supervisor Jones is talking about the entire Town of Farmville…over six thousand people…about one third of the entire County population… and the most active development area in Prince Edward County!

Not surprisingly, community reaction to Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones’ new policy has been somewhat less than enthusiastic. Obviously, with a 5 to 3 vote split on the Board of Supervisors, at least three Supervisors questioned the appropriateness of this new policy.

The Farmville Herald, normally quite pro-establishment, published an uncharacteristically critical Op/Ed piece on the plan in its January 4th, 2006 edition. This piece painfully resurrected the old sore subject of “taxation without representation” which royally honked off a bunch of folks up in Boston in 1765 and contributed to the late unpleasantness between the Colonies and Great Britain.

Making matters worse, the Farmville Town Council passed a formal resolution on January 11, 2006 politely condemning the new County policy and urging the Board of Supervisors to instead “appoint representatives to serve on the County Planning Commission from each of the eight (8) voting districts, of which three (3) include the Town of Farmville…”

One normally diplomatic Town official characterized the County’s new policy as “clearly out to lunch.”

Regular citizens, in numerous emails to the Iconoclast, have not been nearly as charitable as The Farmville Herald or the Farmville Town Council, raising questions concerning the ethics of certain County officials and characterizing the County’s new policy as a brazen abuse of official power to protect a corrosive system favoritism and deal making in the Courthouse.

In spite of the critics, Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones remains resolute and unapologetic defending the new plan proclaiming that “…In my area, people have supported exactly what we did”… maybe the same 38 people who put him over the top in 2003?

Perhaps Supervisor Jones has a point.

Perhaps it is Supervisor Jones’ three hundred years of ancestral roots in Prince Edward County that give him a special vision and legitimacy to recognize the dangers of allowing six thousand people in Farmville, many of whom are probably outsiders or newcomers, to have a say in the future of Prince Edward County. One can only imagine what might happen if these people of questionable origins were to be allowed to have a say in the County’s future.

Right....

But seriously, maybe, just maybe, Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones’ three hundred years of ancestral roots in the area has muddled his ability to recognize the fundamental injustice and hypocrisy of this new policy.

Why would Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones think that he somehow has any more right to decide the future of Prince Edward County than any other taxpayer, including those six thousand taxpayers who live in Farmville?

The role of the Planning Commission in helping to shape the future of Prince Edward County is purely advisory but far broader than Supervisor Jones’ apparently limited understanding would suggest. The Planning Commission’s responsibilities are not merely limited to approving zoning deals.

If anything, the idea of a local Planning Commission is to get citizens involved in helping to make wise decisions involving the community’s future… not to keep citizens silenced and at bay. Considering the importance of Farmville and its environs in the future of Prince Edward County, the idea of officially disqualifying one third of the County’s population from eligibility to serve on the County Planning Commission is sheer folly and reeking of questionable ulterior motives.

The Iconoclast wonders if Supervisor Jones’ ancestors would approve of his leadership and judgment in this matter. We know that most living people don’t!

Note: Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones position as Supervisor from the Lockett District of Prince Edward is up for re-election November 6, 2007. Persons from the Lockett District of Prince Edward County seeking further information concerning election candidacy requirements may contact the Virginia State Board of Elections. The Iconoclast encourages healthy competition and the accountability of all public officials. The Iconoclast also seeks honest and fair commentary on this piece from interested parties from Prince Edward County, including Robert “Bobby” Jones.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Shootist

I've never done a "cut and paste" post on this site, but I found this piece on one of my favorite little leftist websites - the Guerrilla News Network. I thought it was a good read, so if you get a chance give it a read, and have a good weekend!


Why Cheney's hunting accident matters

by Stan Goff


Right-wing diehards are trying very hard to “move on” about Dick Cheney shooting his rich hunting buddy. But there are moralists from left of the midline who are making the demand to back off on Cheney’s mishap, albeit in a more oblique way.

“He has committed many worse crimes,” the grievance goes. “Why should we focus on this?”

I’ll tell you why.

This is the age of postmodern politics – the age of impression management. This is the time when the narrative is used to trump reality. No doubt perfidy has always characterized politics, but the good old days of no-bullshit thuggery and patrician patronage has given way to the construction of puerile caricatures. And many thought that Bush was the mediocre narcissist who liked to dress up in flight suits and caper across the decks of aircraft carriers.

This incident exposes Cheney himself as just another costumed buffoon, and not the Darth Vader figure he and his desperately insecure admirers seemed to relish.

Gender is the elephant in the political living room, of course.

This is an administration who ran election campaigns that would make a Louisiana police chief blush; and they did it by constructing George W. Bush – a besotted pampered frat boy from a wealthy political dynasty – as a cowboy.

Dick Cheney has constructed himself as a hunter…consistent with his supposedly intimidating predator image.

These are hegemonic masculinities, but only in the most theatrical sense. The cowboy and the hunter are idealized archetypes from a mythical past.

One need merely note the symbolic exhibitionism of consumer masculinity all around us to see why this has been so politically effective. Gym-rat WWF musculatures that don’t exist in nature, SUVs the size of small tanks jacked up on giant wheels, t-shirts that declare “Insurance by Smith and Wesson,” and as we scale the class ladder the more subtly stated accoutrements of masculine dominance, from the “corrective” tailoring of the man’s suit to the Valexta briefcase. Masculinity itself is more often than not a game of dress-up, a pose, the ultimate life sentence of tough-guy theatricality for men.

In an era when even the American male working class is as commonly found in an office cubicle as a factory, when we spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in our homes with televisions on, drinking in this cognitive data stream of fantasy gender-norms, when we live in places called Fox Run with no foxes, Deer Park with no deer, Sleepy Hollow
that is in fact a bulldozed lot built over with masonite boxes, its little wonder that even the old oppressive masculinities—at least actually connected with where one lived and what one did for a living—have given way to costume-consumer masculinity. It is also little wonder that people can successfully run for king of the country in this reverse-drag as one of the mytho-erotic archetypes.

Cowboy. Hunter.

The Bush campaign mounted a billboard in Texas during the Bush-Kerry contest. One one side of the billboard was a pair of cowboy boots. On the other, a pair of shower shoes—also known as… flip-flops. The designer of this billboard had tapped directly into the American white male psyche, and these two sets of footgear were positively wading in gendered (and racialized) subtexts. The archetypical impressions defeated the comparative military records hands down.

Cowboys and hunters, lest we forget, in the American mythology are white archetypes, too.

The Republican Party snatched the mantle of “party of white supremacy” from the southern Democrats with Nixon’s Southern Strategy. But it was also the mantle of white male supremacy. This has been its core organizing principle ever since—even though it has to code this principle to avoid throwing its constituents into open polarization with the rest of society.

White men with big hats and guns have seldom been a welcome sight to Black men or women.

Dick Cheney loves photo ops with guns, whether accepting a Dan’l Boone muzzle-loader at an NRA Convention or having the cameras chase him around while he shoots farm-raised animals on hunting preserves. Cheney shot 70 confined, semi-domesticated pheasants in one day at the Rolling Rock Club and Game Preserve in Pennsylvania, a place for men who wear those power suits to demonstrate their ability to kill and dress up like “woodsmen.”

The fact that this is a country where a large number of men—many who vote Republican—actually do have more than passing familiarity with firearms, and actually know the basic safety measures that are required to properly handle them, is now a problem for Dick Cheney. Many of us learned firearms in the military, and since the mid-eighties there have been very sharp penalties in the military for “accidental discharges.” The military learned, slower than most, that there are two simple rules that will prevent the accidental discharge of a weapon and the collateral damage that can result.

(1) Never place your finger on the trigger until you have aligned the sights on a target.

(2) Never point the weapon at anything until you have identified it as something you intend to shoot.

However pathological the macho death-cult of guns is in this country, the people who have taken the trouble to learn anything about firearms at all now know that Cheney is what my dad used to call a pig-hunter and a fool that traipsed around after his “one beer” lunch on the quail preserve with his finger on the trigger. He’s no more a hunter than Bush is a cowboy.

He’s just another stupid, pampered, autocratic narcissist like Bush—bullshitting his way through high office—and leaving bodies in his wake with as little concern for them as he does for 70 pheasants. In the age of postmodern politics, when the impression is sovereign, the gendered spell is broken for a moment when the costume slips.

That’s why I relish every jibe and joke, and I hope people milk this incident for all its worth. I oppose male power, and white power, and the reign of narcissists. With every grant of legitimacy, we grant power. Ridicule is a potent political weapon. It is a form of resistance.

Stan Goff is a retired Special Forces Master Sergeant. He is the author of Full Spectrum Disorder – The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Press, 2004), and Sex & War (Soft Skull Press, 2006 [to be released soon]). He is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Veterans for Peace (VFP), and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). His son is in the active duty army and is in Iraq now for the third time. His blog is called Feral Scholar.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is Prince William's Sheriff Above the Law?


FORMER SHERIFF OF PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY RISES ABOVE THE LAWS OF THE LAND
AND DODGES THE BULLET


One of the cornerstones of a civilized society is that nobody is above or below the law. We as Americans pride ourselves in this basic principle. This principle applies equally to the rich, the poor and especially to those who hold positions of public trust. At least most of the time.

So, yesterday’s report in the Washington Post concerning the plea agreement of former Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III, of Prince William County, Virginia is another black eye for public servants everywhere.

It seems this plea agreement saves the former Sheriff from having to face serious felony charges that could have produced real jail time. In return the former lawman enters pleas of “no contest” to misdemeanor charges, returns $16,500 in missing money and gives back an expensive civilian version of the military M-16 assault rifle that he took with him when he left office. News reports suggested that some of the missing money was used to pay for the Sheriff’s “retirement party” after he lost his re-election bid!

While the plea agreement required former Sheriff Stoffregen to sign an agreement acknowledging that “the evidence against me…is sufficient that a trier of fact could convict me…” the deal mercifully would wipe Stoffregen’s record clean in six months so long as he repays the money and gives back the gun.

This brings me back to the basic cornerstone of a civilized society: the idea that nobody is above the law.

For what ever reason, Mr. Stoffregen may be the exception to the rule. Maybe some people in high places are above the laws that apply to everybody else. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances.


I am just wondering how many other citizens of Prince William County would be allowed to pilfer the public coffers of $16,500, steal an expensive gun, get caught, forced to confess, and then in the end, have the record wiped clean when the stolen stuff is returned.

Think about it! How many bank robbers would like to have that same opportunity to give the money back after they get caught?

Mr. Stoffregen… you are one lucky man that the laws of the land may not always apply equally to all persons in every case. Maybe this is “justice” of a sort. But it would seem that the prosecutors would have some explaining to do to the rest of us regular folks who may not enjoy such “forgiveness” when we break the law.

Readers of Prince William County… your thoughts please!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Is Blacksburg becoming "Bongburg"?


It appears that Blacksburg is becoming the “hippy lettuce” capital of Virginia. Today the Roanoke Times reported that agents from the New River Regional Drug Task Force once again seized marijuana plants – and get this – a check for $1,000,000 in a Blacksburg apartment. Wow! I didn’t realize that the drug dealers these days were scratching out checks? Are debit cards next?

Just a few weeks ago agents from the task force seized 331 “trees’ from two different Blacksburg apartments. According to a spokesman for the NRRDTF this find was likely largest of its kind in Blacksburg. One agent from the task force stated, "That is just pretty much the drug of choice in a college atmosphere, alcohol then marijuana." I guess things haven’t changed that much since the late 1980s…

One would think that the demand for high quality “tree” would have decreased in Blacksburg since the dismissal of Marcus Vick from Virginia Tech’s football team (yes, I’m a VT fan, but I couldn’t resist), but apparently this isn’t the case. But seriously, possible the reason why there has been a recent surge in marijuana related bust in Blacksburg is due to increased enforcement activities? (i.e., New River Regional Drug Task Force).

When you consider the insane profits that can be derived from “grow operations” – since high quality marijuana has essentially the same value as gold per gram – it’s easy to see why certain individuals are willing to risk it all for the allure of easy cash. Unfortunately, a whole host of other activities (illegal guns, robbery, organized crime, violence, etc) can be a by-product of this industry too. Regardless, I’d be willing to bet that underground operations – similar to the recent busts in Blacksburg - exist in close proximity to almost all of the Commonwealth’s university communities.

Just maybe the General Assemble would better serve the citizens of the Commonwealth by focusing their energy on evicting a real danger – commercial drug operations - from close proximity to our Universities rather than an occasional – and probably rare - illegal immigrant that might matriculate. Then again, without access to high quality hippy lettuce, there might not be any students enrolled in Virginia’s public universities?!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hello

Hello

I'd like to thank Will for extending an invitation to share ideas and discussion.

I look forward to participating.

Lowell

SHOOTING ITSELF IN THE FOOT AGAIN?


PRINCE EDWARD BOARD OF SUPERVISORS SEEKS LEGAL ADVICE

WHAT HAPPENED?!


The ongoing story, previously covered in the Iconoclast, continues in Prince Edward County with new revelations of confusion and dysfunction in the County government.

This past December, the Board of Supervisors adopted a new policy to reorganize the Prince Edward County Planning Commission. This new policy will effectively exclude the nearly one third of the entire County population from eligibility to serve on the Planning Commission in an apparent attempt to limit the influence of the Town of Farmville citizens in County related planning matters.

The story continues.

Front page headlines in the February 10th edition of The Farmville Herald read “Commission Still Intact?” The central question is: “Does Prince Edward have a planning commission?” The answer, according to the Herald: “Apparently no and yes.”

“No and yes”…? How can they have it both ways? What is going on?

According to the Herald, County Attorney Jill Dickerson gives this explanation of the December 13, 2005 policy to address Planning Commission composition: “They still continue as planning commission members, it’s just… trying to determine when each individual planning commission member’s term ends, other than (Lockett District Supervisor Robert (Bobby) Jones who serves as the board’s representative on the Commission) which is set by his position as a board member.”

Gosh, golly… that makes things really clear…right? According to Attorney Dickerson, seems quite sure about Supervisor Jones still being on the Planning Commission but not too sure about everybody else.

What part of the official records of Prince Edward County that read “all terms end as of December 31, 2005” does County Attorney Jill Dickerson not quite understand? Did the Board specifically name any appointments or reappointments to take office January 1, 2006? No. There is no evidence that they did and the Board certainly can not presume that specific appointments are somehow implied by their action. Fact is, all members of the Planning Commission ceased to exist at midnight December 31, 2005.

Lawyer Dickerson’s clearly equivocal “legal opinion” does not get the Board out of this mess…namely the dissolution the Prince Edward County Planning Commission as of January 1, 2006, and the complete stop of all legitimate planning functions for Prince Edward County. Since the Board made no new appointments, there are no members of the Planning Commission! Since Planning Commissions are mandated by State law and required for certain legal functions, the consequences of not having a Planning Commission can be quite serious.

But there are other obvious questions…

County Attorney Dickerson suggests that there may be questions about Planning Commission terms “…other than (Lockett District Supervisor Robert (Bobby) Jones who serves as the board’s representative on the Commission) which is set by his position as a board member.”

Really?

Why does County Attorney Dickerson have such clarity of understanding that somehow Supervisor Jones is still a serving member of the Planning Commission? Where is that written?
Why Supervisor Jones?

Wouldn’t any one of the other Board members have the same right to serve on the Planning Commission? Are all the other Supervisors unqualified? Has anyone bothered to ask? What about the policy to advertise the expiring terms? Does anyone else have a right to apply?

So, why does County Attorney Dickerson just assume that Supervisor Jones holds a position automatically with no evaluation of his qualifications and no official appointment? Indeed, according to the Board’s new policy, what real “knowledge” or “background” does Supervisor Jones possess that would qualify him over all other board members to serve on the Planning Commission?

While Supervisor Jones may indeed have some good qualifications, how does the Board really know that Supervisor Jones is the best Board member to serve on the Prince Edward County Planning Commission if it makes no attempt to look at its options? (I promise there will be more on Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones later!)

One final point.

Is the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors really interested in addressing citizen concerns by reorganizing the Planning Commission? Is the Board really interested in being fair to all citizens including roughly six thousand County residents who live in Farmville? Is the Board really serious about outreaching to the citizens to recruit new blood and new talent to restore public confidence in the County’s Planning Commission?

Or, is the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors inappropriately clinging to control by excluding new blood from the Planning Commission and further promoting organizational inbreeding of the same old personalities who got them in to the mess in the first place.

With Chairman Buckie and his four like-minded fellow Supervisors firmly in charge, there seems to be little doubt which direction this Board is going.

But, there is always hope. Perhaps some of those Supervisors will start remembering the citizens they represent and start working for those citizens instead of against them! Wouldn’t that be grand?

Stay tuned and keep your comments coming!


Disclaimer: In the use of the expression “SHOOTING ITSELF IN THE FOOT AGAIN?” the Iconoclast disclaims any implication or insinuation of making fun of or ridiculing any public official including Delegate John Reid of Virginia or Vice President Richard Cheney of the United States of America regarding the mishandling of firearms. The Iconoclast supports the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution and urges all citizens and politicians to follow all appropriate firearm safety rules. Thankfully, here in Virginia, our Republican politicians do not normally shoot their friends.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is George Allen still a team player?

Yep, it must be an election year. Apparently, this morning while gabbing on the Sunday talk circuit Senator Allen did the unthinkable, and stabbed a dagger into the back of Dick "Bird Shot" Cheney. Senator Allen appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and stated, "I don't think anybody should be releasing classified information, period, whether in the Congress, executive branch or some underling in some bureaucracy." Wow, with folks like Senator Allen turning on him, I'd officially be worried if I were VP Cheney.

We all know that Allen is the ultimate GOP "team player", but Senator Allen realizes that the Cheney/Libby leak scandal appears to be getting more messy (for Cheney anyhow). In case you haven't heard, it appears that Cheney - surprise, surprise - was indeed likely the "puppet master" and condoned the leaking of the name of an undercover CIA agent to the press. I guess the ironic thing is that Allen - who many GOP loyalist consider to be W's heir apparent- might be forced to start taking positions on issues which are in direct conflict with the highly valued GOP virtue of team loyalty. Trust me, had Senator Allen been reelected last fall, he'd be the arrogant, smug, right-wing loyalist that we've come to know over the past 12 years. But in all likelihood James Webb's annoucement last week changed that. Don't you just love politics?

But give Senator Allen credit, he knows the general public does indeed consider the outing of an undercover agent a serious matter, and not something that should be "swept under the rug" all in the name of party politics as usual. Now that George has a credible challenger for his Senate seat this fall, it's even more the reason to abandon the team on certain issues. Any other postion on this particular issue, and James Webb would make him pay. (I guess the lesson here is that competitive elections make people do strange things. Which in Allen's case is holding criminals accountable for their actions.)

Though Allen is clearly the favorite, he's likely going to have a fight on his hands this fall. Therefore don't be surprised if Senator Allen turns on the team a few more times before November. How ironic that after James Webb's announcement last week it appears that Senator Allen has already forgotten that there's no "I" in the word team?

Yep, it must be an election year.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Oh, The Webb We Weave


It's been a while since my last post. I won't bore you (oops too late) with a list of topics I had wanted to post about. I do want to express how pleased I am the James Webb is running for Senate. As I posted previously, Webb is a former Navel Academy grad, Marine, Vietnam Vet (highly decorated) and former Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration. Some might ask why is a Democrat so happy about a Reagan official running for Senate. To this I answer, I am a Virgnia Democrat and we must remember the Virginia political motto: "Virginia, where Democrats are Republicans and Republicans are crazy!"

Fact is, I think partisanship is killing America. We need to look for reasonable leaders who are focused on solutions to problems and not ideology. Frankly, I really don't care whether the government or private enterprise solves problems, I just want want people to have jobs, healthcare and a place to live. So a Reagan appointee running as a Democrat is fine with me.

There are already rumblings that Webb cannot win the nomination because he endorse Allen over Robb six years ago. While I disagree with that decision, I believe it gives him some credibility to attack Allen as a disappointment.

I encourage Democrats, Independents and open-minded Republicans to support James Webb and help send real leadership to Washington.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Right-Wing Editor of the Daily News Record humbled by Webb's announcement!

If you live in the Valley, maybe you've had the pleasure of reading the right-wing (and always predictable) editorials from the Daily News Record? But in response to James Webb's recent announcement that he'd be seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate, the editor's normally caustic and arrogant tone was a bit muted, in what almost appeared to be to the point of concern.

I'm sure the thought of loosing Virginia's poster boy for partisan right-wing politics gives the DNR's editor nightmares. For once, I have to say that the DNR's editor wrote an editorial which I agree with 100 percent! Therefore, I'm left to believe that the DNR's editor does indeed have a grip on reality after all, but only when there is no other choice!

This editorial appeared in the Daily News Record on Feb. 9, 2006
A Tough Race?
Sen. George Allen’s re-election was assumed to be a shoo-in for the incumbent. As a result, the Virginia Senate race was thought to be one of the more uninteresting of this political year.
However, former Navy Secretary James Webb may have just raised Democratic hopes. A graduate of the Naval Academy who served in Vietnam as a marine, Mr. Webb said he would seek the Democratic nomination this year.

Although he served as the Navy Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Webb has been a strong critic of the war in Iraq. In addition to his political career, he has written six novels and a good history book entitled, "Born Fighting," the story of people of Scots-Irish descent in America.

While Sen. Allen is clearly the favorite, the appearance of Mr. Webb gives the Democrats a strong and credible candidate, although one with a name recognition not as high as Sen. Allen.

What is unknown is how good a candidate Mr. Webb will be — writers are not widely known for personal or political skills. In addition, Mr. Webb has at least one challenger for the Democratic nomination.But on the political scale, the Virginia Senate race may have just jumped up from "dull" to "one to watch."

It's Gay Sex 24/7 in Delegate Lohr's World

Freshman Valley Delegate Matt Lohr has apparently decided that sponsoring bills that increase fines for speeding on Interstate – 81, and increase grant funding for ESL training to Valley schools wouldn’t be enough to satisfy some of his “social values” constituents. After all, gay people are still having sex, and gay sex seems to be on Delegate Lohr’s brain – and some of his constituents - 24/7…..

Therefore how could Delegate Lohr – in his first of likely many years as a Delegate - resist the temptation to throw this hungry pack of social conservative constituents a bone in order to satisfy their insatiable need to stoke the flames of the cultural war? So who do you decide to go after first? Now don’t forget that 40 years ago some of these same Delegates used all of their legislative energy to tell us how integration was immoral, and how it would be the end of the world as we know it. But, this probably wouldn’t go over to well today. So I guess the dilemma for Delegate Lohr in 2006 is to identify a segment of society that can be exploited for cheap political gain. Hmmm, wonder who that could be?

Well, it appears that a perfect “target” has been selected, and Lohr – through his sponsorship of HB 1308 – has his cross hairs aimed at high school “clubs” such as the Gay-Straight Alliance (or any version of). See Delegate Lohr, doesn’t want queer kids – or those who like them – meeting on school grounds for a gay sex orgy, or whatever those folks do! Even though one student (who is a member of such a club in the New River Valley) stated that "We don't talk about our sex lives. We never get into that. We stick with tolerance and equality." Yea, right…

So what does this have to do with the traffic, agriculture, or improving education here in the Valley? I believe that Senator John Edwards, of Roanoke, summed this “issue” up perfect when he stated, “This kind of bill does not advance the major issues in Virginia. It is totally unnecessary.” Oh, really?

Look, I too do not believe that high school kids should be involved in activities/clubs that promote sex, well maybe the prom is OK, but you get the idea. When this issue came up (I believe last year) in the City of Harrisonburg, the school board found a compromise of sorts. This compromise was that any student who participated in an after-school club must have parental permission. Ok, I can live with that, I don’t totally agree with it, but fair enough. Harrisonburg City Schools didn't need the Commonwealth to pass a law in order to find a solution to this "controversy", but Delegate Lohr feels that they do. I mean we're talking about gay sex after all!

I truly believe if Delegate Lohr took the time to meet with members of such a club, he probably wouldn’t have the opinion that these clubs are hotbeds of hedonistic activities sanctioned by the schools. Is this too much to ask? It's apparent that Delegate Lohr doesn't feel that elected school boards have the necessary discrestion in order to determine what is best for their comunities.

Regardless, I’m under the impression that the temptation to fan the flames of the cultural war is too great for Delegate Lohr to resist – even during his first session in Richmond. Some of Lohr’s constituents want a bit of “red meat”, and Matt seems all-to-willing to oblige. Look for more of the same for many years to come from Delegate Lohr...he's off to a great start!

P.S. The photo above is not a picture of Delegate Lohr, but instead is a picture of the President of a local high school's Gay-Straight Alliance Motorcycle Club.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mark Warner off to early lead in PAC fundraising

I found this on the Daily Kos. Below is a list of potential 2008 Democratic Presidential candidates and the amount of cash their PAC’s raised during 2005. (COH = Cash on Hand for each PAC as of 12/31/2005)

So you can see that as of the last day in 2005 former Governor Warner’s PAC is winning the “battle of the PAC fundraising”. What does this mean? Probably not much, but it’s exciting – at least to me – to see Warner’s PAC off to such a good start. It’s interesting to note that Hillary’s PAC is not doing as well at this very moment. In all likelihood Hillary’s cash is probably being funneled into her Senate race, that is if you want to call it a race. Also, you’d to be kidding yourself if you didn’t believe that Bill couldn’t make a few million for Hillary's PAC in one single night of fundraising. Plus, Hillary simply goes by well, Hillary. Now that's star power whether you like it or not….

Regardless, this is good news for Mark Warner. Other than Hillary, I don’t see a single potential Democratic Presidential candidate that has the present political capital/goodwill that Mark Warner has at this moment. (It could be argued that Hillary’s political capital/goodwill doesn’t extend too far past many “blue” states.) Sure 2008 is still two years away, but after looking at this list below – unless a candidate comes from “out of the blue” – you have to like Mark Warner’s chances, and if the early performance of Warner’s PAC is any indication of future support, the future looks very bright indeed.

Warner Forward Together PAC 2005 total: $3.3 million COH on 12/31/05: $2.4 million

Vilsack Heartland PAC (not a federal PAC)2005 total: $1.6 million COH on 12/31/05: $1 million

Bayh All America PAC 2005 total: $379K COH on 12/31/05: $819K

Kerry Keeping America's Promise PAC2005 total: $1.4 million COH on 12/31/05: $488K

Feingold Progressive Patriots PAC2005 total: $595K COH on 12/31/05: $289K

Biden Unite Our States PAC2005 total: $539K COH on 12/31/05: $240K

Clinton HillPAC 2005 total: $113K COH on 12/31/05: $71K

Clark WesPAC 2005 total: $383K COH on 12/31/05: $48K

Edwards One America Committee 2005 total: $625K COH on 12/31/05: $23K

This is money that these candidates will theoretically spread around contested races this year, building goodwill and loyalty as they gear up their presidential bids.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Will Navel-Gazing by the Campfire Save the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors?


This morning, a friend down in Prince Edward County sent me an email urging me to check out the latest goings on with county government.

As readers of the Iconoclast may recall, Prince Edward County government has been struggling for most of this past year in a morass of governmental dysfunction, unresolved ethics questions, and an increasingly unsympathetic general public. We have covered some of these matters in the Iconoclast since this past fall.

It seems that some members of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors are recognizing the need to change the course of the County and to restore the credibility of County government. This recognition seems to be the basic motive behind the Board’s present retreat.

This term “retreat” conjures up visions of a bunch of kids going out in the woods to find themselves and to figure out who they are and what they want to be when they grow up, all the while singing Kumbaya and toasting marshmallows over the campfire and all that other good stuff.

Alas, were it only that simple. These days, the term “retreat” means so much more particularly as it applies to certain management techniques to address organizational needs and problems.

In this sense, the term “retreat” is often applied to structured get-togethers of people in more casual venues to engage in some form of navel-gazing exercise. Almost any group of people can go on retreat including people from businesses, fraternal organizations, religious groups, political organizations, and governmental organizations. The term “retreat” in this sense comes from the basic idea of getting away from the day-to-day pressures of doing what ever you normally do so that you can clear your head, relax, and be receptive to the give and take of important discussion.

From my perspective, this idea of getting away from day-to-day pressures to discuss really important basic questions certainly has some merit. However, those who have been through some of these retreat exercises have suggested that the results vary dramatically depending largely on the motivations of the participants. Poorly motivated participants produce poor results; highly motivated participants produce better results.

The worst examples are just flimsy excuses to get out of the office, away from the day-to-day routine and to knock back a few cold ones on the on the company’s dime. The best examples, and there are some, seem to be the ones where the retreat participants recognize the fundamental limitations of the retreat concept but nonetheless seize the opportunity focus on and address core issues. Most recognize that a few hours or even a few days of retreat will never solve all of the problems. But sometimes a retreat venue may provide an epiphany, that rare opportunity to see things clearly and to boldly start in a new direction.

However, from the news coverage of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors retreat, it seems that the participants are so far still dancing around the most obvious core issue that has been hanging like a dark cloud over the Prince Edward County Courthouse for most of the past year. The problem seems pretty obvious: There are a growing number of citizens of the Prince Edward County who simply don’t trust the Board of Supervisors or the county government.

During the past six months, a whole constellation of problems have been reported in The Farmville Herald, The Crewe Burkeville Journal, and in scores of emails to the Iconoclast from citizens who range from mildly concerned to flat out irate. These reports paint a not so pretty picture of lost faith in the competency and integrity of the County government, lack of fair representation in the decision making process, and the lack of accountability from County officials.

It is indeed a good thing to have a mission statement. However, the Board of Supervisors must come to grips with the reality they face. They can have a fancy mission statement and talk about leadership and vision until they are blue in the face but it won’t matter a whit! A mission statement is not worth the paper it is written on unless and until basic problems are addressed. For example, I can imagine that the Titanic had a mission statement of a sort touting the attributes of that glorious ocean liner…big, fast and…unsinkable. We all know how that story ended.

While “navel-gazing” on retreat may be entertaining, let us hope that the good members of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors will get around to addressing real problems before they run out of marshmallows and the campfire burns down too low.

But lest we forget, this is not about kids out playing in the woods. These are big people and their actions and inactions have consequences . Let us hope that the retreat works.

Kumbaya…kumbaya…

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Pork Rinds: A threat to democracy?


In case you somehow haven't heard, a voting scandal is rocking the tiny Appalachain town conveniently named Appalachia (population 1,800). Those who regularly read the Iconoclast know that we know no bounds when it comes to exposing local government corruption, cronyism, and incompetence. Whether it's questioning a shady land deal in the heart of Virginia, a complex money laundering sceme involving Federal contracts and coondogs, or general dysfunction, as in the case in the Town of Elkton (sorry Elkton) - we are here to inform. But quite possibly the voter scandal unfolding at this moment in the Town of Appalachia (which the Virginia State Police are actively investigating) takes the cake - or well, pork rind.

Allegedly, before the May 2004 town council elections in Appalachia, one rogue candidate running for council went a bit too far, and pulled a move that would make Katherine Harris proud. Reportedly this "move" consisted of having a hired goon canvas the small Town and offer pork rinds in exchange for votes. Yes, pork rinds! But it appeared that the allure of pork rinds wasn't the only highly valued commidity that was offered in exchange for votes - cigarettes and beer were thrown in just for good measure.

But some people just can't be bought that easy, as in the case of Christinia McKinney. You see, Christinia reported that she was approached (while sitting on the balcony of her second story apartment) by a goon offering up pork rinds in return for voting for his pal. Also, another resident of the apartment complex reported that this same goon offered to buy a nickel bag of "hippy lettuce" in exchange for her vote. The story gets a little more complex, but still, you get the idea...

If you think about it this story is quite ridiculous (Oh, really?). Unfortunately for the individuals who attempted to use the seductive allure of pork rinds and nickel bags of hippie lettuce in exchange for votes, the local authorities don't find this as funny, and the possibility of prison time is very real. It amazes me that someone would be so silly to try something so stupid, but I guess the thought of power at all cost is too great for some, even in the tiny community of Appalachia.

As I've stated before, I firmly believe that the over whelming majority of local officials (elected or professional) truely want to serve the public good. But as I've documented in the past, power can corrupt, and even well-intentioned folks can do bad things. When you consider that turnout for local elections are usually abysmal, one could see why maybe some of our ethically challenged friends might interpret this apathy as justicification to "run the shop as they see fit" - more or less. Call me crazy but I'd like to think - that even in Appalachia - the public trust is worth more than a bag of pork rinds.

Business (Almost) Trumps Democracy in Elkton


This post was submitted by DFE:

The Daily News-Record does its best to cover all the nuances in the continuing circus that is the Elkton Town Council business, but yesterday, it missed the big brass ring.The Council bloc held that Monday's meeting was a public hearing. Nathan Miller, the town's attorney, said he wasn't sure that one was required in order to make Charter revisions, but wanted to err on the side of caution, before Steve Landes and Emmett Hanger could bring the Town Charter revisions before the legislature.

The Mayor, who brought his own lawyer to provide third-party oversight, disagreed because the public hearing had never been called for. The DN-R reported that the same citizens got up to ask the same questions as before, and got the same old answers. But there was a lot more going on than that. The proposed Charter that was published in the paper is not the Charter that is in Richmond awaiting submission to the state legislature.

Those differences raise a lot of questions about exactly what powers the Council plans to reserve for itself (This might sound dumb, but consider: according to the proposed Charter, a vote from only two-thirds of the Council is required to change the Charter from now on, but really, only the state legislature can change a municipality's charter ). This was brought up by the mayor's lawyer in the state code book. You would think the town's attorney, a former legislator, would have found the same passage.

Also, for example, the DN-R version puts all power in the hands of the Council, making the mayor a ceremonial office. The version in Richmond says nothing about the Council's powers and perogatives. All of this can be tossed out as nit picking, but the issues, like a strings wound into a complicated knot and once teased out, all point to a disturbing power-grab that, itself, may very well not be legal (I'm not a lawyer, so I can't judge it.) Consider this: the town attorney explained last night that the version of the charter currently in Richmond is a place holder for a finished, yet-to-be-negotiated document. He said that this happens all the time in Richmond--you have to put something in just to get on the agenda, and it doesn't really matter what's in the document until it comes up for a vote.

However, the mayor's attorney explained that this is true for laws, laws upon which different committees conference, ironing out the differences. Town charters, as the mayor's lawyer noted from the state code book, being permanent statements of a municipality's powers, are different. They have to be finished, published in the locality, subject to public hearings, commentary and amendment all in advance of being submitted. That's why a town has a whole year to work on it, to get it right before it goes to the state.

I tend to think that the mayor's lawyer must be right on this. How can the public agree to changes in its charter if it's a working document up to the last minute before it goes to vote?Trying to change town charters--their constitutions--in this way is like "Dumb and Dumber writing the laws." Who is writing this durned thing, anyway? And why does nobody seem to have "the real copy" in hand?

But here's the trump card. Here's the thing that all the smoke and mirrors is designed to conceal. The third provision of the document, buried at the very end. The charter revisions, whatever they might be, are supposed to take effect July 1st, unless an emergency exists that would make it necessary for the revisions to take effect sooner. But Part 3 declares that if an emergency does, indeed, exist, and the charter would take effect immediately. What does this mean? It cancels the May elections!

Councilmen whose terms expire keep their seats for over two more years. It ensures that Council members who were appointed to fill vacant seats don't have to run for their seats in the next election cycle. For instance, Lucky Sigafoose, who was elected by a wide majority, died and his seat was taken by Clyde McDaniel who, it's safe to say, votes exactly opposite of the way Lucky tended to vote about 95% of the time. The voters who put Lucky into office because they agreed with his philosophy are shut out of the chance to put a like-minded replacement in his seat for 4 years, or, with the elections cancelled, even longer than that.

When this came up in the meeting the other night, everyone on Council (who, we assume, wrote the Charter and who are up for election) was shocked, and declared that they never intended such a thing and there would certainly be elections in May. But, somehow, I wonder? If this had slipped through, as the Council had intended that no version of the Charter document was ever to be made public before it went in front of the legislature and signed by the governor, and would have if the mayor had not raised a stink, would they not have declared an emegency because of the on going Angler talks and the millions of dollars (and a golf course) at stake? It is, indeed, a case of business almost trumping democracy, but I applaude the efforts of a few vigilant citizens! Long live democracy in Elkton!