August 10, 2012 10:57:06 AM
It is the custom of the Caledonia Board of Aldermen to begin each of its monthly meetings with an invocation delivered by Town Attorney Jeff Smith.
I do not know if Smith tailors the prayer to each month's agenda or if he simply follows a time-honored script, like the Book of Common Prayer, for example.
Tuesday, I attended my first Caledonia board meeting. Smith's invocation included a plea for divine intervention that would permit the board to "disagree without being disagreeable."
Alas, it was a petition that was not granted.
I doubt this rates as much of a surprise for those who have been following this board for any length of time.
"Disagreeable" is the default setting for this group.
One example from Tuesday's most recent monthly conflagration should be sufficient to convey the general tenor of these proceedings.
It involved a matter of business so benign that it would be hard to imagine that any sort of conflict could emerge from it.
Susan Bell, the co-chair of the town's annual Caledonia Day celebration, came to present the Board with a $4,000 check, the first installment of an $8,000 grant from the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau.
That's good, happy news, right? I mean, could there possibly be any point of contention in such a matter?
You should know better than that.
Here is how the discussion unfolded:
Bell noted that the $8,000 would be enough to pay for the entertainment.
Mayor George Gerhart asked, "What entertainment are you getting for that money?''
Bell was on that question like a wolf on a pork chop.
"You?" she hissed. "You? Mayor, it's 'We.' It's Caledonia. It's 'We.'"
There are two things I gleaned from this exchange: 1. It is wise to choose your words very carefully at these meetings; 2. No one chooses his words very carefully at these meetings.
It is clear that the relationship between the mayor and most of the Board is contentious. Some say it is a function of a very closely-contested mayoral race, a race Gerhart won by a scant six votes. While it is true that most of Tuesday's collisions pitted the mayor butting heads with the board members, I strongly suspect the problems go much deeper.
Before and after the meeting, I was able to talk to three long-time residents about Caledonia government. I wanted to understand the root cause for the caustic atmosphere that seems to regularly permeate the board meetings.
Each gave me an explanation and each version was more in conflict than in agreement. Each told a tale of grudges and injustices, of nepotism and favoritism, of alliances and factions.
Unraveling those versions is about as easy as diagramming a Faulkner sentence: It is far too complex and convoluted for me to unpack.
But what seems obvious is that on this Board, the personalities have obscured the purpose.
It is painfully apparent that, in the toxic environment of the board meetings, hardly anything that comes before the Board is judged on its own merits. Instead, every item is immersed in the intrigue of battle, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
I suspect that was much the case in the Board's 4-1 decision to dismiss the grievance filed by water technician Trey Robertson. The decision seemed to be based on something other than the material facts, if the Board's discussion of the matter before the vote is any indication. I also suspect that the Board will soon regret its handling of the whole affair. And I further suspect that it will be a costly lesson. In this regard, the Board is forever facing up to costly mistakes, not that it seems to influence its behavior to any meaningful degree. Caledonia must be wallowing around in extra money.
To some degree, I can understand some of the dynamics at play here. Caledonia is a small town. Everybody knows everybody, which means everybody has a history with everybody. Throw in the fact that just about every city employee is related to someone sitting in the board room and you can see how town business becomes personal business.
Even so, I cannot imagine that this is the plight of every small town. Somehow, those town leaders manage to function without bitter divisions, for the good of the communities they serve.
I do think that everyone in that board room cares about Caledonia. But I believe those good intentions are too often undermined by the burning memory of slights, both recent and ancient, real and imagined.
These board members are clearly engaged in a war of attrition. In the meantime, it is the good people of Caledonia who ultimately pay the cost.
Every board meeting is a public relations nightmare for the town.
Who's to blame?
A better question: Who isn't?
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.