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No more tilting at windmills

WaynesboroI’ve been following, closely, for a long time, then somewhat from a distance, but with great interest, how the local government is run in Waynesboro for nearly a quarter-century.

And, I don’t like what I see.

I think we settle too much.

We settle, for example, for an economic development office run by a person who has a part-time job to make ends meet, which, wow, just wow, there.

Our building and inspections department seems to run by the mantra that, the less in terms of new business that we have here in town, the better, so, let’s do every damn thing we can to run people off.

We don’t fund emergency services well, and the result is that we end up spending money to train people on a job that they’re hoping leads to a better-paying one somewhere else, and the cycle begins again with new recruits who sign on hoping the same.

We don’t fund our schools well, and we really need to, considering how poorly our economic development efforts, if you can call them efforts, have been in recent years. We’ve got a school system full of free- and reduced-lunch kids, and in our infinite wisdom, we’ve decided that the best way to educate the kids is with fewer, and thus more stressed, and less compensated teachers.

The only thing we have going for us, and it ain’t much, is our proximity to the interstate, and to wealthier areas in neighboring counties, whose residents can, for the moment, anyway, can get to the big-box stores located off our interstate exit more quickly than they can get to stores in Charlottesville.

This advantage, of course, is no more than a clock that is running out, but it’s not like anybody here is staying up late at night and waking up early the next morning thinking about what we need to do next.

Nope. Nobody is thinking. The clock has been ticking on us for 30 years.

We see to be accepting of our fate, that it’s a fait accompli that, at some point, the last one out of town, you’re the one responsible for turning out the lights, or not, who cares, we’ll all be somewhere better anyway.

I’m not good at accepting things. I grew up one of those free- and reduced-lunch kids, and I didn’t get out of the trailer park just accepting that life is what is handed to you, that you can’t do anything to change your course.

And so, I do this dance, every four years, dating back to 2008, when I first put my name into the hat as a candidate for a seat on the city council.

When I say that I put my name into the hat as a candidate for a seat on the city council, that means I lost. Otherwise, I’d tell you about all the great things I claimed to have accomplished when I was on the city council.

That’s how that thing works.

I tried; I fell short, way short. Got the local newspaper endorsement, and little else.

In 2012, in 2016, when the seat in the district in which I live came up for a new four-year term, I asked my wife, Crystal, for permission to run again.

It’s a joint decision, in my view. It’s not just me putting my ass on the line. We run a small business, and me spending untold hours per day, per week, per month, helping run the city takes me away from the business.

Each time, subsequent to the first run, the mutual call was: no, not the right time.

Now, heading into 2020, it might be the right time. Our business, fortunately, is going well. Things can always be better, but we’re very fortunate.

I’m sort of looking, internally, for a way to do something more meaningful, to make the world a better place, whatever that means, however I can.

I’ve taken up distance running in recent years, and logging long miles running around the neighborhood, on the greenway, on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, on road trips covering UVA athletics, the mind wanders.

Maybe that thing I can do to make the world a better place is making one last run at that city council seat.

I had myself convinced that this was my next big thing to do.

I’d run, and I’d use my campaign to get people talking about what should really matter.

We need to try harder to boost our economy to build more jobs that pay people a living wage.

That, in turn, gets more and more of the kids on free and reduced lunches off those rolls.

A stronger local economy also gives us more resources to be able to better pay teachers, police, emergency workers.

I’d like to think, too, that having more resources would allow us to be able to devote more time, attention and money to improving quality of life on the east side of town, the old Basic City, in the Port Republic Road area, the parts of Waynesboro that I get in trouble for saying aren’t treated the same as the, ahem, other (read: “wealthier,” “whiter”) parts.

A few months of talking out loud about these things, and even if I’d lose, at least I get people talking, thinking, maybe that spurs action.

I can see value there.

Or, at least, I had convinced myself of this.

I say “had.” I’m not sure I’m there anymore.

Inertia is a powerful force.

I’m not sure that I sense any feeling out in the community that anybody out there really thinks change is possible.

Worse, I’m not sure that more than a small handful of people even have the sense that anything is wrong with how things are.

This is the power of inertia. We’ve been stuck in this rabbit hole since the industries started downsizing back in the 1980s.

Waynesboro used to have literally thousands of stable, good-paying jobs that provided more than adequate funding for schools, emergency services and the rest.

This was a first-class city, but that’s in the past, I daresay, the distant past, and over the past 30 years we’ve lost the sense that we can ever be that again.

And honestly, it’s been so long that it’s easier to imagine that we were never really what we thought we were at all.

Back to me, then: I’m going to somehow change this by running for city council?

Short answer: no.

Waynesboro is what it is.

I think it can be more, a lot more, but it’s going to take a lot more than one person tilting at windmills to get things moving.

I lay down my sword.

The joust is yours.

Column by Chris Graham