Wait and see …

Special Commentary by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

“Wait and see.” That sums things up rather nicely.

I’ve been spending a good deal of time the past few days talking with city-council members, department heads and line employees in City Hall to try to gauge opinion about what life is going to be like when the new self-styled conservative majority takes the reins of city government tomorrow morning.

“I don’t know that we’re going to see that much in the way of change,” one department head told me on background.

All of these conversations, incidentally, were on background. I wasn’t interested in doing interviews for attribution, assuming that there would be little or no interest on the part of the people that I wanted to talk with to go on the record with anything other than noncontroversial comments about how they were looking forward to working for the new majority and that kind of thing.

Which I say at this point because even with those ground rules, and an understanding that we could speak freely without any fear of retribution, I still didn’t get a sense that there was the degree of fear and loathing in City Hall that I had picked up on in the days following the dismissal of outgoing city manager Doug Walker.

A big reason for that could be a series of meetings that City Councilman Frank Lucente has reportedly been holding with department heads in recent weeks. The feeling that I get from hearing them described to me is that Lucente was aiming to reach out to City Hall employees and almost efforting to extend an olive branch of sorts, perhaps conceding that the Walker affair hadn’t been handled all that well.

The move to name assistant city manager Mike Hamp the interim replacement for Walker would go a long way to completing that smoothing-over process. I’m not accepting it as a done deal yet only because would-be mayor Tim Williams himself seems to be hedging. In an interview with The News Leader for a story in its edition this morning, it was reported that Williams had indicated that “to the best of his knowledge” Hamp would be appointed interim city manager at tomorrow’s 9 a.m. reorganization meeting. My network of sources has indicated to me that it would be a big surprise if Hamp did not get that assignment, but Williams is holding off on joining in that line of thought for some reason, and I have to say that I don’t know at all why right now.

Assuming, as I will, that Hamp is named interim city manager, and that there are no other big-name departures from the upper tier of the staff, and I’m not hearing that there is anything in the works along those lines at this point, it would seem that things would be moving very much in a status-quo direction at the beginning of the new majority’s term. That being the case, “One fact of life that you have to consider, Chris, is that bureaucracies can be hard to move,” as I was told by one City Hall insider. And several departments are moving forward with plans for infrastructure improvements that were approved by the voters at the polls last fall, including a 4,000-square-foot expansion to the city library, the construction of the long-awaited and long-debated West End fire station and most notably long-needed improvements to the city’s stormwater system. Nothing has been said to me that reflects any kind of feeling that any of those improvement projects are going to be put on the backburner or killed outright, and what I’m hearing people tell me is that they’d be quite surprised at this juncture to see the new majority move us in a different direction at this point in time.

Which brings me to what was sold to voters as the biggest of the big-ticket items, the Wayne Theatre. On Friday, the Wayne Theatre Alliance formally took ownership of the theatre building from the city, which I think we have to read as a sure sign that the alliance is planning to move ahead with the redevelopment project with or without city funding support. And I would think at this point that the plan to move ahead without support is more than a contingency plan, even though city-council newcomer Bruce Allen promises to have some serious thinking to do, given his statements regarding funding for the Wayne during his campaign for city council, and his status as an employee of LLCs whose owners include Waynesboro businessman John Johnston, a WTA supporter who has committed significant time and money resources to getting the project off the ground.

The Wayne issue promises to be a contentious one either way when it eventually comes up for discussion on city council some Monday night down the road. It is there, throwing my two cents in, that I think will be the only place where we see any kind of substantive change. And really, the big change with Monday nights will be in who is leading the meetings and who gets their way by a 3-2 vote. Which is to say, Don’t worry, Waynesboro, because “The Waynesboro Show,” as many have taken to calling the televised verbal slugfests every other Monday night, has been renewed for another two-year run.

Another two cents from me – I personally think that this is what the struggle to get a majority was all about for the Lucente-Williams-Allen front. It’s not about the nuts and bolts of government. OK, as one department head spelled out for me, “I’m expecting that my budget will be looked at a lot more closely.” As it should be, in my opinion. Outside of that, though, I don’t get the feeling that the Lucente-Williams-Allen folks care all that much about garbage collection, if you catch my drift on that. Keeping taxes low, ostensibly so that Ma and Pa can save a couple of hundred dollars at the end of the year, but really so that their buddies can save thousands on theirs, and maybe get city funding for their own development and redevelopment initiatives, that’s what this game is.

Sucks that it has to be played at our expense, but that’s how democracies work.

Fourteen hundred and sixty one more days to go.

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