On Thursday of last week, four of the eight candidates vying for a seat on the Harrisonburg City Council spoke to a gathering of the Harrisonburg branch of the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party. In November, city residents will select three members for the five-member council.
The speakers consisted of Kai Degner, a Democrat and current member of Council, Rodney Eagle, a Republican and former member of Council, Deb Fitzgerald, a Democrat and wife of a former Council member, and Abe Shearer, an Independent with no apparent political ties to Harrisonburg’s governing body. Christine Johnson, a Republican candidate, watched as a member of the audience. The meeting was sparsely attended with about 25 people there of whom less than half were self identified city voters. Both WHSV and the Daily News Record had a reporter in attendance.
Each was allotted a ten-minute speaking slot to provide for an introduction and to outline a few thoughts regarding their future plans for Harrisonburg. They spoke in alphabetical order by last name with Degner first and Shearer rounding out the pack.
Prior to the question and answer period, Mr. Shearer left the meeting explaining that he was late for a meeting at his church. However, he promised the crowd that he would return for the question and answer period for the October meeting. The questions from the audience that followed demonstrated a general misunderstanding of the power of the city government. As Mr. Degner pointed out, Virginia is a Dillon rule state, which means that local governments only have power over matters granted to them by the state government. Or, to put it another way, the Harrisonburg government has only “those powers that are specifically conferred on them by the Virginia General Assembly…those powers that are necessarily or fairly implied from a specific grant of authority… (or) those powers that are essential to the purposes of government — not simply convenient but indispensable“.
Following upon a line from Mrs. Fitzgerald’s speech regarding the proper role of government, I asked if each of the candidates thought the concept of the city operating a golf course fell within the proper role of city government. Although a decade old issue, the golf course was and remains a sore spot with many city residents. The idea was fairly unpopular when first implemented and three of the council members that supported the plan were all voted out of office in the following election. Three “change” candidates who opposed the course won but continued with the plan anyway and were subsequently voted out four years later. Since that time, the golf course has hemorrhaged money, running a deficit every year it has been in operation. Mrs. Fitzgerald offered the “phone book test” for any city project stating that the city should not be in any business that is offered by the private sector and is found in the phone book. Mr. Eagle, who was part of the Council who approved the golf course a decade ago defended the decision stating that at the time the city did not have a privately run golf course and that the course provides valuable programs to some of the younger residents of the city. Mr. Degner did not get an opportunity to answer the question on stage, but stated later that as the golf course is a city venture, it should be run as efficiently as possible and that the government has taken steps which have reduced the yearly deficit of the course.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed by both the smaller-than-expected turnout and by some of the less-than-helpful questions and comments. I both lobbied for and helped organize this forum for the Harrisonburg City Council in the hopes of spreading awareness of all eight of the candidates running for office. After all, although not as glamourous as the high profile races, voters in the city will have far more impact in the race for Harrisonburg City Council than President, Senate, or House of Representatives given the much smaller number of votes cast in that election. Therefore, it is the civic duty of each city voter to learn about his or her choices so that each can make an informed decision on Election Day.
I’m hoping next month’s meeting will see both a surge in attendance as well as an improvement in the questions asked when the tea party plays host to the remaining four candidates, but we’ll see what happens.