Asleep at the Switch in Harrisonburg

by Joe Fitzgerald

At some point while on the Harrisonburg City Council, I quit worrying about or getting angry about being misquoted by the Daily News-Record, and I got used to the people I met saying I wasn’t anything like what they expected. The expectations the paper created were just part of the gig. And I remember one time that I was pretty sure I’d be misquoted when I opened my mouth. I don’t remember what we, the council, had screwed up, but I told the reporter we had been asleep at the switch.

I thought as I said it that he’d quote me as using the more well-known expression, asleep at the wheel. One means, in railroad terms, letting the train go down the wrong track. The other means, in driving terms, losing control through inattention. I didn’t complain. The difference didn’t matter, because it was just a metaphor.

A lot has changed in 20 years. In the city politics of 2023, being asleep at the wheel is no longer just a metaphor. The other change is that City Council members no longer talk to the media. City publicist Michael Parks is quoted as often as the council members, and some weeks it seems he writes half the News-Record. The recent statements to school officials from Councilman Chris Jones at least brought comment from Mayor Reed, although Jones only answered through a prepared statement and the other three members were silent. Reed indicated the three were not upset by Jones’s remarks. It’s too bad they couldn’t speak for themselves.

School officials, on the other hand, have legal and policy restrictions on what they can say about any situation in the schools, leaving Jones free to claim he was courteous and respectful and to claim school officials confirmed that characterization.

Jones’s prepared statement about his comments doesn’t deny or confirm he made those comments, but repeats three times, “I wonder who notified the press about a private matter and why.” This is known as shooting the messenger. Don’t apologize for inappropriate behavior. Attack the person who points it out. This is a shrewd political move. Jones’s political shrewdness, combined with advice from political allies – including, at one time, me – has helped him politically survive revelations about unpaid taxes as well as other lapses, most of which have remained less public. It remains to be seen whether he’ll survive his conviction for improper driving after being found asleep at the wheel in the middle of Maryland Avenue.

In the current issue it is worth noting that, despite Jones’s claims, nobody notified the press about a private matter. The mayor was notified of an action by a council member toward city school employees, and information about the incident was sought under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. FOIA does not allow the release of information about private matters. If the letter were protected by FOIA, the city attorney would not have allowed its release to the reporters who requested it.

Jones meanwhile gives more private information about the original incident than anyone else, knowing damn well that school officials can’t answer or refute what he says. They can’t, by law, violate a student’s privacy. Jones can, and does. The details might be relevant if that incident had been the topic of the letter to Mayor Reed from the School Board chair. The incident wasn’t. Jones’s behavior about it was. But by focusing on the incident, Jones changes the subject from that behavior.

He goes on to say, “The Superintendent of HCPS has given my family a negative experience. We feel cheated.” Again, not the topic in question. The topic was whether Jones referred to Dr. Richards as “my superintendent,” whether he tried to turn a private matter into a racial one in his remarks to school officials, and whether the councilman, widely regarded as transactional, had a good reason for telling those officials, “I gave you 40 million dollars.”

He didn’t “give” them anything. The city council approved a budget to educate the city’s children. He was one of the people voting on it. Jones earlier this year referred to that budget as money that “he [the superintendent] is taking away from us.” One hopes the school officials and teachers who are apparently picking the councilman’s municipal pocket will remember his accusations when it comes time to vote for City Council members next year.

It’s worth noting that Jones never denies making the original comments that were characterized as bullying or an attempt at intimidation. Apparently, school officials did not feel intimidated by his actions. They behaved properly in addressing his actions through legitimate channels, despite his expressions of hurt feelings about being cheated by the school system. Jones’s complaints, characterizations, and protests are all about the original incident, never revealed by anyone in the schools, and the decision by the School Board chair (my wife, for those who don’t know) and the superintendent to reach out to the elected head of the city council and the political leader of the city about his actions.

If there were more reporters still working in a shrinking workforce, and if they had more time, they might have interviewed the remaining council members or others with a political stake in the issue. Perhaps one of them, hearing that Jones talked about “my superintendent” and the money “I gave,” would have said it didn’t sound like Chris Jones.

So far, nobody has said that. I doubt anyone will.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. Republished with permission from  Still Not Sleeping.