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Fear and Loathing in Waynesboro column by Chris Graham

John Lawrence has a story to tell about the events that led to the effective firing of city manager Doug Walker, and I’m not the first person he’s told it to.

By Lawrence’s account, I’m the third journalist to get the details of the meeting that he had with a group of local businessmen who met with him late last year to discuss his possible interest in running as a candidate for the Ward B seat on city council, and their possible interest in backing him.

And as you’re reading this right now, I’m the first to help Lawrence tell his story.

We’ll start at the beginning, when Lawrence was prodded by his neighbor, Dot Sayre, to meet with the group of business leaders to talk with them about running for the city-council seat that everybody in town was assuming was about to be vacated by Mayor Tom Reynolds.

He didn’t have to be prodded too much, to be honest. Lawrence was already agitated by what he calls the “liberal spending” of the city-council majority of Reynolds, Vice Mayor Nancy Dowdy and City Councilwoman Lorie Smith – to the point where when he paid his property taxes last year, he sent the amount owed minus $30, having calculated $30 as the amount equal to what would be the percentage of property taxes that would go from his payment to the theater project, and dared anybody in City Hall to raise issue with the discrepancy, “basically because I wanted somebody to make an issue of it so I could go public with it.”

That was the backdrop for Lawrence’s meeting at Industrial Machine Works on North Bayard Avenue with the company’s president, Dave Wolfe, former Hershey Chocolate of Virginia plant manager Tom Reider, local attorney and businessman Roger Willetts, and three people about whom I don’t know too much right now – Bob Suddarth, Stewart Hall and Marshall Coiner.

“I basically went over where I stood on the thing. I knew going in that that group was aligned with the what I’m going to call for the sake of this the financially conservative position. And I told them that I completely shared that point of view, and was vehemently against the $300,000 for the Wayne Theatre,” Lawrence said.

The discussion immediately turned to Doug Walker “and his alleged transgressions, how he was manipulating the council, yada yada yada,” Lawrence said, reminding me of something that I’ve written about before that happened in 2003, when I was waiting for election results from that November’s court-clerk race, and listened as two older gentlemen whom I didn’t recognize talked at length about issues that they had then with how Walker was doing his job, his advising city council to undertake a series of studies, in particular, being at the core of their ire, and heard one of the men say point blank that “we need to do something about him.”

Back to Lawrence. Things started to turn sour in the meeting, according to his account, when he gave his thoughts on Walker. He told them he was “not going to make any judgments about whether or not Walker was failing to do his duties or not until I had firsthand knowledge.” He then made it clear that if he was elected, he would “take action as I saw fit relative to what I saw, but I was not going to take anybody’s word for he did this, he did that, whatever.”

“I tried several times to defend Walker’s actions, pointing out that what they thought was manipulation was probably just, in my judgment, it looked to me as if what Walker was trying to say to council was, Hey, to meet these legally obligated goal out here, to pass this budget or to do whatever you had to do, you need to do this, this, this, and do it in a certain point in time. So hey guys, you need to have a meeting here, a meeting here, a meeting there, a final vote there. I said I did not look at that as anything other than a professional application of – he’s a technocrat, these guys are not technocrats, they don’t know all the ins and outs of how the business is supposed to be running, so he’s just trying to organize things,” Lawrence said.

“It was very, very obvious to me that the guy they were going to back was going to have it out for Walker. From the very beginning. From the get-go. There was no question about that. I was left with clearly the impression that they wanted Walker fired. I don’t know that anybody said, They ought to fire him, but there was no question in my mind what the right answer was,” Lawrence said.

The meeting ended with a promise from the group that it would be back in touch with him soon thereafter about the upcoming city-council race. But Lawrence was already having second thoughts about even submitting his name for consideration before he was to have heard back from them.

“I decided that I was really not the guy to be a city councilman,” Lawrence said. “My demeanor is not – would not fit, would not be an addition to the process. I’m more of a guy who stands up and says, You bam bam bam. They had told me when I left the meeting that they would let me know. Three, four, five days have gone by, I don’t know how long it was, and I went over to Dave Wolfe’s place at Industrial Machine, and I went into Dave’s office, and I said, Dave, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve thought about it, and I’m not the right guy, I can’t do this. And he says, Well, I’m glad you feel that way, because we feel the same way.”

Lawrence still ended up voting for the man who received the backing of the Wolfe-Reider-Willets group, Bruce Allen, as well as voting for Allen’s ticketmates Tim Williams and Frank Lucente, last month. But when the deal involving the de facto dismissal of Walker went down a couple of weeks ago, Lawrence felt like he’d been had.

“I was absolutely livid. I would have gone down, if I had felt better, and wasn’t lying flat on my back, I would have punched somebody in the nose. I mean, of all the dirty things …” said Lawrence, who was recuperating from back surgery when the news about Walker’s forced resignation hit the streets on May 27.

What he is most livid about – “Here are these people, who espouse the same kind fiscal responsibility, the things that I want, who turn around and have what I would say the poor integrity to do what they did,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence expressed his feelings on the matter to a number of fellow fiscal-conservative travelers in Waynesboro, including, he said, Lucente. Not feeling like he was getting anywhere going that route, he decided to call The News Virginian to tell his story, and met with reporter Jimmy LaRoue last week.

In the course of talking with LaRoue, Lawrence mentioned that he held a share in the Lofton Lake Association, a 220-acre property in the southern part of Augusta County whose shareholders include Doug Walker and local real-estate developer Bill Hausrath. LaRoue has since written a piece on the tenuous ties between Walker and Hausrath that was also the subject of a newspaper editorial that went a bit further than LaRoue did in his story in suggesting that the relationship between the city manager and the developer might have been improper.

Lawrence is convinced that it was his interview with LaRoue that tipped the paper off to the Lofton Lake angle that ended up seeing the light of day, but he said he has been told that LaRoue was looking into the Walker-Hausrath relationship before talking with Lawrence. Curiously, at least according to Lawrence’s version of the events, LaRoue didn’t seem interested in Lofton Lake when he brought it up in their first conversation last week.

But that’s another story for another day. Because Lawrence was still at square zero as far as his interest in telling his story about the walkup to the May elections was concerned. It has to have come to mind for a few of you reading this, anyway, that the person who ends up being the first to bring it to public light is the person who, but for a switch in time, might have been running against Lawrence for the Ward B seat on city council last month. I find that interesting myself.

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon meeting with John and his wife, Ruth, and after we’d wrapped up our 30-minute recorded interview, we talked for the rest of the time about the election and about the Wayne Theatre and stormwater improvements and various and sundry issues where it is obvious that we disagree and disagree vehemently, if not respectfully.

I point that out because I want to make it clear that it doesn’t seem to me at all that Lawrence hasn’t suddenly jumped the fiscal-conservative ship and decided that my side of the ledger is all the sudden right about everything. Far from it.

“The object of this is not to do anything other than to expose this part of the underbelly of the political dealings in this town,” Lawrence told me.

“People need to know about the backroom politics. They need to know who is backing these guys and have some understanding of what transpired,” Lawrence said.

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