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Does your vote even count? In Waynesboro, maybe not

waynesboroI’m passionate about politics and public policy, so much so that I put my pen and notebook down a decade ago to run for an open seat on the Waynesboro City Council.

That campaign added cynicism to my understanding of politics and public policy that hasn’t gone away.

Issues that were hot topics in 2008 are still unresolved today. Nearly two-thirds of our public-school population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and is educated in schools crumbling around them by teachers who have to work second jobs to make ends meet.

If they’re fortunate enough to get an education that they can use to go to college or a vocational school, they’re not likely to find a job in their hometown when they’re ready to enter the workforce, despite our investment of millions in industrial-park space grown over in weeds because we haven’t taken the necessary steps to get it ready for market.

Our schools are failing. Our economy is failing. But if you listen to your favorite City Council member, you will hear recited a long list of accomplishments to be proud of, incremental moves at best, of course, but the kinds of things that can get you to puff your chest out a little further, if you’re inclined to such nonsense.

The streets still flood with just a little rain. The second fire and emergency station approved by voters in 2007, the so-called west end fire station, never did get built, despite, you know, what we the people said we wanted, and directed city leaders to do.

The reason why gets obscured. Do you notice when dust collects into dust balls, when your hair starts to turn gray, when a beach begins to erode?

Stagnation isn’t dramatic. General Electric started downsizing its presence in Waynesboro in the 1980s, DuPont its workforce here in the 1990s. It wasn’t dramatic here like it was in some once-great manufacturing towns, in part because as the local economy started to founder, we saw an oddly-timed influx of people who had worked at the GE and DuPont plants, gotten promotions that had taken them elsewhere, then begin to return as they started to retire from the workforce.

They returned to a Waynesboro that still had a lot of what it had offered them the first time through: natural beauty at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, proximity to cultural and economic centers in Staunton and Charlottesville.

The loss of jobs, the issues with the schools – immaterial. They didn’t need jobs, and their kids and grandkids, by and large, weren’t here.

Their interest when it came to the local city government was low taxes, decent service – basically, pick up my trash, and make sure my water and sewer work, and don’t charge me much for any of it.

This thinking has had a stranglehold on city government for the past 25 years, aided by a couple of anomalies in the way we elect our City Council: May elections, which only the older folks seem to know about, despite them not being any kind of secret, and the way we seat members to the City Council by ward.

You don’t see many cities in America our size seat by ward, but it persists in Waynesboro, as do the May elections, because the ruling class here benefits from the status quo.

Oh, they’ll tell you that seating by ward guarantees that each part of the city is represented on the City Council, but in practice, the ward system is manipulated to guarantee a governing body with one voice and a set of proxy votes to make it all look good.

And those May elections: come on, if you have the elections in November, local issues would get lost in all the attention paid to elections for president, the Senate, Congress. We may have less turnout in May, they tell you, but at least those people are paying attention to local issues, and voting accordingly.

Well, yes, they are. The less than one in five of the city’s registered voters who come out every other May want to make sure their taxes don’t go up to pay for some other person’s kids to go to school and for so people who want to raise a family here to have decent jobs.

There’s no shortage of people who want to change the system. Problem is, the folks here who have been in charge aren’t going to let anybody blow up what they’ve taken such great pains to build.

Even the good people who run for the best of intentions, aiming to fix our schools, aiming to fix our local economy, to improve our stormwater system, to prioritize emergency services, end up getting co-opted.

That’s where we get our lists of incremental accomplishments to crow about, when any of us with vision to see know damn well the meaning of the line about Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.

I want to believe that there are candidates on the ballot in tomorrow’s elections who have a different tune in mind, but what I’m seeing now, already, before we even go to the polls, has me realizing that I’m just hoodwinking myself.

Even if the good guys win, they’ll still just get swallowed up by the inertia that has come to define our River City.

Basically, no matter who you vote for tomorrow, it’s going to be more of the same.

Sorry to be the bearer of that depressing news.

I’ll try to get back to pretending that it all matters.

Column by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press