When voters installed a Republican majority on the Lynchburg City Council last November — the first in two decades — we naturally expected some changes. After all, by turning out two Democratic incumbents in the process, voters seemed to be demanding changes. That’s how democracy works.
In the six months that the new majority has been in power, it’s delivered on one big change: a cut in the city’s real estate tax rate. That seems a very Republican thing to do.
However, that new council has also been embroiled in controversy from day one, when two Republicans joined with the council’s remaining two Democrats to elect Republican Stephanie Reed, a council newcomer, as mayor instead of longtime Republican councilman Jeff Helgeson.
Since then, the dominant theme coming out of Lynchburg City Hall hasn’t been the split between Republicans and Democrats, but between two Republican factions — one composed of what to my eye are two normal Republicans (Reed and Vice Mayor Chris Faraldi), the other of two who might be categorized as more hard-right Republicans (Helgeson and newcomer Marty Misjuns), with a fifth Republican (Larry Taylor) moving between the two, depending on the question at hand.
Factional infighting is nothing new in politics, of course, but the degree to which it has surfaced in Lynchburg is unusual in local government, at least in this part of the state.
Among the things we’ve seen: In February, after some confusion on the mayor’s part over a point of parliamentary procedure, Helgeson could be heard muttering into a hot mic: “You’re the stupidest person on earth I’ve ever seen.” You can hear that on video but there was more. The News & Advance, the daily newspaper in Lynchburg, reported: “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.”
I won’t begin to catalog all the back-and-forth since then, but the events at the most recent council meeting last week are certainly noteworthy. Misjuns introduced a resolution to ban what some might call diversity, equity and inclusion policies in Lynchburg city government — or what he called on Facebook “concepts of sexism and racism from city government.”
In the course of a council debate, Misjuns declared that “the retaliation going on inside our city government is unbelievable at every level — at every level across departments.”
In response, Faraldi introduced a rival measure to adjourn the meeting before Misjuns’ resolution came up for a vote and declared: “I am looking at this on the merits by whom it was presented. I am looking as if I’m retaliating because I am. You are downright disrespectful to our city staff, you are downright insulting to their character, you are downright offensive to their reputations. … That is why I’m retaliating.”
Council then voted 5-2 to adjourn, with Helgson and Misjuns in the minority. Misjuns later went on Facebook to attack not Faraldi, who introduced the measure, but the mayor who supported it: “Mayor Stephanie Reed refuses to prevent your tax dollars from paying for divisive concepts and political indoctrination.”
That’s not the first shot he’s taken at the mayor from his own party. On June 20, he posted about a different matter: “I have a lot of questions for Mayor Stephanie Reed, but that would require her to communicate, which is wishful thinking at best (unless you’re a Democrat or will cave to her demands).” Her Facebook page is silent on such controversies; instead, it’s peppered with upbeat congratulations to new businesses that have opened and the winners of the local business pitch competition.
Meanwhile, the Lynchburg Republican City Committee on Monday voted to censure Faraldi for his disputes with Helgeson and Misjuns — although Faraldi points out that a majority of the Republicans on the council voted to adjourn without taking up Misjuns’ resolution. The specific language in the censure was that Faraldi was guilty of a “failure to meet the expectations of conduct.”
Less than a year after a historic victory, Lynchburg Republicans are now embroiled in fighting amongst themselves, and it appears that the Republican committee is siding with the Helgeson-Misjuns camp over the other three Republicans on the council. There was no censure of Helgeson for muttering that Reed was “the stupidest person on earth I’ve ever seen.” (He says he was saying something else; you can listen to the video and decide for yourself.) Faraldi has responded by saying the committee’s leader wants to run for his seat on council and that the committee is “propelled by a small group of unelected, biased individuals who are wailing in emotion because the council chose to make School Board appointments outside of their own personal preferences.”
I’ve seen a lot of local government in my time but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors is perpetually split 4-3 — just depends on which party has the four and which party has the three — but it’s always seemed pretty civil about its disagreements, as strong as some of them might be. In Lynchburg, Councilman Sterling Wilder, a Democrat, has called the current situation “chaos” and says: “If you look at our city council and what’s happened since January, it’s been unbelievable.”
Now, it’s not my place to tell the Lynchburg City Council what its personnel policies should be or which faction the Lynchburg Republican City Committee should be siding with, but I will gently point out a few relevant facts.
The Lynchburg metro (which, of course, includes more than just the city) has been slower to recover from the pandemic than any other metro area in Virginia, according to a report in December from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Indeed, the Lynchburg metro has actually seen its gross domestic product shrink over the past decade, according to federal statistics compiled by Old Dominion University in its annual State of the Commonwealth report.
By other measures put together by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the Lynchburg metro has posted the slowest economic growth of any metro in Virginia.
I cite all this to suggest that maybe the Lynchburg City Council’s infighting is causing some to miss the big picture. (Maybe this is what Faraldi is referring to when he says “our beloved city of Lynchburg faces far greater challenges, and the City Council has a multitude of crucial issues to address, far more significant than political theatrics and distractions deviously devised in the shadows.”) I suspect all the feuding Republicans would say that lowering the tax rate will make the city more appealing to employers, and perhaps they’re right, but low taxes alone aren’t the answer – otherwise we’d see the lowest-tax localities in the state experiencing the strongest economic growth and that’s not so. At one point in the debate there was talk of eliminating the city’s $100,067 contribution to the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, the regional economic development group. In the end, the appropriation stayed but the idea of cutting it seems to me to be a very un-Republican sort of idea. (Reed agreed; she called eliminating that funding “shooting ourselves in the foot.”) Given Lynchburg’s economic challenges, you’d think the clamor would be to increase that appropriation.
In the end, this fractious Lynchburg City Council stands as an example of one of the paradoxes with local government. On the one hand, local government is generally considered at the lowest level of our government structures, with state government higher up and the federal government higher still. We often see local government officials running for state offices and state officials running for federal offices. On the other hand, local governments have to grapple with big issues just as much as the state and federal governments do. Some just don’t choose to.
Lynchburg, like many localities in this part of Virginia, has seen many of its traditional industries swept away by decades of economic change. The reason that Lynchburg’s economic growth has been so slow is because so much of its economy is based on manufacturing, which has been a slow-growing sector nationally as the economy transitions. From April 2019 to April 2023, the number of jobs in manufacturing in Lynchburg has actually declined even though it’s been growing slightly statewide. The state and federal government may set policies to encourage economic growth (different parties may disagree about what those policies should be), but ultimately the only government truly looking out for Lynchburg is in Lynchburg — and it’s busy fighting with itself over things that have nothing to do with the economic challenges the city faces. I can’t imagine that’s a good look for economic development prospects.
Lest it seem that I’m picking on Republicans (or at least some Republicans), I’ll contrast what’s happening in Lynchburg with what’s happening in Craig County, where there’s not a single Democrat on the board of supervisors, only Republicans and independents. What I see there are officeholders focused on the big issues that the county confronts: increasing broadband access, growing local businesses, attracting younger residents. (You can read my recent column on that.)
Lynchburg, despite the dreary figures I cited above, has a lot in its favor. The Hill City has the youngest median age of any major city in Virginia, a stat that ought to be appealing to many employers. It has a lively arts scene (I go see more shows there than I do in Roanoke, which isn’t a knock on Roanoke but rather praise for Lynchburg). A study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank, identified Lynchburg as the best choice in Virginia for one of the regional technology hubs that the U.S. Department of Commerce will designate sometime later this year. Indeed, the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is working on a bid — which, if successful, could be economically transformational. Yes, the same Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance whose funding was on the chopping block.
This may seem like a column about Lynchburg but ultimately it’s a cautionary tale for voters everywhere: Can your local governing body disagree without being dysfunctional? And can it focus on the big economic issues? If not, what are voters doing to demand those things? Or are voters OK with this kind of governance?