The best drama going on right now is not “The Last Of Us” on HBO, even though I’m a big fan of the two stars, “Game of Thrones” veterans Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
It’s the Lynchburg City Council.
Last fall, a Republican slate swept the city’s elections, giving Lynchburg a Republican majority on the city council for the first time in two decades.
If anyone expected that 5-2 Republican majority to steamroll its way through, guess again. The Republicans have been hissing at one another worse than my two cats hiss at each other, with the difference being that at least my two cats eventually make up.
The Republicans’ differences were on full display at their very first meeting, when it came time to elect a mayor. Republican councilman Jeff Helgeson, who has held his seat since 2004, could only muster two of the other Republican votes. Instead, two Republicans joined with the two Democrats to elevate Republican councilwoman Stephanie Reed, who had just been elected in November (and who has only lived in the Hill City a few years but led the balloting in the election). With the same voting alignment, Republican Chris Faraldi was named vice mayor instead of Helgeson. Those twin 4-3 votes set the stage for all that has followed.
When it came time to appoint committee members, Reed didn’t reappoint Helgeson to the finance committee, where he most recently served as chair. Instead, she appointed him to the physical development committee. There was one fellow Republican – Martin Misjuns, a regular ally of Helgeson – whom she didn’t appoint to either committee.
The score so far: Helgeson went from being a prospective mayor to getting booted off a key committee he had previously chaired, Reed went from being an ordinary citizen to being mayor.
And then there was last Tuesday’s council meeting, a Valentine’s Day meeting where there wasn’t much love to be seen. According to a video of the meeting, Lynchburg’s council spent about half of its 57-minute public meeting simply trying to adopt an agenda. One of the two Democrats was absent, the other was silent, as was one of the Republicans (Larry Taylor), so what was left was a long-running intra-Republican argument that pitted Reed and Faraldi against Hegelson and Misjuns.
Lurking in the background is a policy debate. All of the Republicans want to provide a tax cut — that was one of their main campaign planks last fall — but they disagree over how exactly to do that. Reed and Faraldi want this included in the budget; Helgeson and Misjuns want it done more quickly. In a subsequent interview with WLNI-FM radio, Reed explained technical reasons why factoring a tax cut into the budget was the more practical approach, but I sure get the feeling that the policy arguments here are secondary to personalities: It seems clear that some of these people just plain don’t like each other.
The highlight – or lowlight – came at the very end of the public meeting when the council was moving into a closed session, after a contentious back-and-forth over whether they were going to take up two items in closed session or three. After the final vote, Helgeson was clearly miffed that Reed, a council newbie, was a little unsure of procedure.
Reed: “May I have a motion to go in closed?”
Faraldi: “We are in closed.”
Helgeson: “That’s what we just did.”
Reed: “Oh — OK — I’m sorry.”
After that, Helgeson can be heard muttering into a hot mic what sure sounds like: “You’re the stupidest person on earth I’ve ever seen.”
Reed abruptly turns to him and asks sharply: “I’m sorry?”
All this can be heard on the video posted on Facebook (the YouTube video of the meeting cuts off just before that.). It also sounds as if Helgeson went on to say, “I’m sick of it.”
But wait, there’s more.
The News & Advance, the daily newspaper in Lynchburg, reports: “After the cameras were turned off, but before the news media left the council chambers, Reed asked Helgeson, ‘How dare you?’ to which Helgeson responded, ‘How dare you, young lady?’”
The paper went on to report: “As the tension escalated, a Lynchburg police officer in the room interjected while Helgeson and Reed argued on the dais.”
In multiple interviews since, Helgeson insists he didn’t call the mayor “the stupidest person on earth,” but rather muttered “this is the stupidest thing on earth” to himself. You can listen to the Facebook Live video and decide for yourself (you’ll need to turn the volume up LOUD).
Whatever was said, it’s provided plenty of fodder for the Lynchburg news media.
“I am a 48-year-old woman,” Reed told the News & Advance. “And I will not be talked to that way. He can be frustrated about how the meeting went. He can be frustrated that it didn’t go the way he wanted to. But that doesn’t ever justify him speaking to me that way, or degrading me in that manner.”
“It is a bad look for our council members …”
“These antics need to stop …”
“I have tried not to participate in any immature behavior …”
“They try to stifle speech.”
“In 19 years I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Mari White, co-host of WLNI’s Morning Line program, called Helgeson’s remarks at the meeting “embarrassing … it’s not only condescending, it’s sexist.” Helgeson didn’t respond to those remarks, insisting he wasn’t talking about the mayor, but then proceeded to tick off a list of complaints about Faraldi. Those allegations include the accusation that after the meeting Faraldi stood outside City Hall and shouted taunts to Helgeson across the street. “That’s the kind of taunting that has happened through these meetings,” Helgeson told the station.
For what it’s worth, Helgeson said the mayor kept interrupting him during the meeting, but the Morning Line program played a clip where Helgeson was the one interrupting the mayor while she tried to call a point of order (and a staff member serving as parliamentarian ruled in the mayor’s favor).
Councilman Sterling Wilder, the only Democrat present at the Valentine’s Day meeting (Democrat Mary Jane Dolan was absent due to a family emergency), told WLNI that “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.” Asked if there was tension among the Republican council members, Wilder responded: “It’s beyond tension. I’ve been on boards for over 20 years. … I have never been in a group that has really honestly almost hate[s] each other at most points. It’s really bad.”
Do some Republican members of the Lynchburg council really hate other Republican members? Here’s what Faraldi told the News & Advance after the contentious meeting: “We may disagree on policies, we may disagree on proposals, but tonight proved a point. And I want the public to know this is exactly why I voted to make Stephanie Reed the mayor of this city. … This is exactly why I voted to make myself vice mayor. This is exactly why in 18 years Jeff Helgeson has never been vice mayor, never been mayor. This is exactly why we saved the city from that nightmare.”
Faraldi went on to hint at some possible disciplinary action; Misjuns, in an interview with the News & Advance, said it was Faraldi who desires “to have authoritarian rule.”
I’m in no position to adjudicate what the tax policies in Lynchburg should be. I am, though, in favor of decorum, most recently discussed in my recent column where I criticized Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, for heckling President Joe Biden during the State of the Union Address. (In the past, I criticized Democrats for heckling one of Good’s Republican predecessors during a town hall meeting in Moneta and I criticized a Democratic state legislator for heckling President Donald Trump during an appearance at Jamestown.) I’ve watched the video of this Lynchburg council meeting multiple times. What I see is two council members (Helgeson and Misjuns) unhappy that they’re unable to secure a majority vote for their tax cut proposal — and Helgeson repeatedly jousting with Reed as she tried to preside over the meeting. Simply on a decorum scale, my sympathies were with Reed. “This meeting was absolutely the worst I’ve ever been part of,” Helgeson told WLNI, but it sure looks to me like he was the one making it that way.
Again, I can’t speak for who’s right and who’s wrong on policy, but Helgeson simply didn’t have the votes. Sometimes in life you just don’t get your way; most of us learn to deal with it. Before the real business of the council meeting got underway, the council recognized football players from Heritage High School and E.C. Glass High school for their accomplishments last fall. It’s a good thing both teams left before council members started arguing over the agenda, otherwise the students would have seen some adult behavior that should not be emulated.
Some other observations, which extend far beyond the Hill City:
- Local governing bodies are not corporate boards where it’s useful for everyone to agree; they are mini-legislatures where honest disagreements ought to be welcomed.
- Members still ought to be able to disagree in an agreeable way. I’ve written before about Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, who surely disagree quite profoundly on multiple issues (otherwise they wouldn’t be in different parties) but have managed to have a friendly partnership anyway. Likewise, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, recently paid tribute in the General Assembly to the late U.S. Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, in very personal terms.
- Many times in life you don’t get your way and it’s best just to accept that and move on.
- Voters should not assume that simply because officeholders are members of the same political party that they’re friends. More than once I’ve written a favorable story about a certain politician only to have a fellow party member call me up and privately dish on how their partymate is a pompous jerk, an idiot, a lazy oaf who is getting credit for something he didn’t have much to do with — or sometimes, all of the above.
Politicians are, in fact, human, subject to all the personal failings that the rest of us are. It’s just that most of us aren’t airing them on the public’s dime.