Questions and Doubts (About the Nature of Some Politicians)

Logo of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools

by Joe Fitzgerald

When I had a meeting set up with (JMU President) Ron Carrier soon after I was elected to (Harrisonburg) City Council in 2000, someone warned me that he would change the time at the last minute just to show he was more important than me. He did, and maybe he was. But it was good to be warned.

Some years later, those of us who had to use a new software for our jobs found that a prerequisite for the technical training was an orientation session with a JMU communication official. Not only did he change the time at the last minute, disrupting the schedules of a few dozen people, but he began the unnecessary meeting when it eventually happened by talking about how many Grateful Dead concerts he’d been to.

The session was about the philosophy and vision of the new software. The JMU official fulfilled the academic administrative definition of a visionary as someone who knows exactly how things should be done if he knew how to do them. (Using “he” in this instance is not a generic pronoun, but a bow to the statistics of who fits this description.)

I was reminded of those earlier occasions recently while watching Councilman Chris Jones interrupt and disrupt his way through a liaison meeting between City Council and School Board members. I had to wonder if his attempts to dominate the meeting with irrelevant or borderline false information were obvious to the casual observer. Not that a casual observer is going to be watching a governmental liaison meeting on a Wednesday afternoon. I may be a nerd.

The subject was how to predict how many students Harrisonburg City Public Schools will have to accommodate in the future. The method in the past has been along the lines of, “The school’s full; should we build another one?” It’s not that simple, and it included trends and projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at U.Va. HCPS has tried to add to that process with statistical analysis of housing history and housing trends.

Think of it this way. You prepare a banquet for four busloads of people. Five buses pull into the parking lot. You have an idea of how many extra plates to put on the table, because you know how many people are on a bus. Continuing that analogy, if somebody wants to build 100 new houses and you know how many students are in a house, the arithmetic is easy.

Also, if somebody calls up and says there are 25 more people on the way, you know you have to feed them. In reference to the schools, Superintendent Michael Richards called a heads-up like that anecdotal.

Jones responded to that by inventing a definition of “anecdotal,” putting a racial connotation on it, and saying he didn’t trust it for that reason. The racial implication was nonsensical, bordering on absurd. (He said anecdotes said a Black person was only three-quarters of a person, so anecdotes could not be trusted. The number was three-fifths, and it wasn’t an anecdote, it was the Constitution.) It was reminiscent of the time he was tied for second place in a nominating caucus, and maintained there was a racial aspect to the win being awarded to the other person, a Black woman.

The meeting began with Richards saying city schools use two methodologies to project student population, and that his presentation would explain why. Jones interrupted to ask why they used two methodologies. Jones then slid his chair off camera to talk to someone as the presentation continued.

Twice, Jones interrupted the presentation to ask questions that would be answered on the next page or next slide. One implication is that he didn’t do the reading. The other is that he had, and wanted to show his prescience by anticipating the questions. Hard to say. With some politicians, it’s hard to say if they behave the way they do because it’s in their interests or just in their nature.

The projection of future student population is important because of the possibility of rapid growth in that population. Exclusive of Bluestone Town Center, recent rezonings could mean 360 more students. Maybe Jones was trying to cast doubts on the methods used to predict what we’ll have to pay the piper for those rezonings.

HCPS has been working on those methods for more than a year, and the presentation was a version of one the School Board got last year. But it seemed like neither Jones nor fellow liaison member Councilwoman Monica Robinson had read that presentation, now or then, even though it was of critical importance in deciding Bluestone Town Center.

Besides redefining anecdotal, Jones also said the methods ignored innovation. Later, in reference to the number of city students living in hotels, he said that was the kind of innovation he was talking about. Except that the point of Richards bringing it up was to point out that the city could not ignore it.

Jones objections were examples of the rhetorical trick of raising doubts without saying what those doubts are. Jones and Robinson had obviously done no research before raising what they called questions and doubts. As Richards methodically explained why Weldon Cooper numbers are not enough for this city, Robinson asked why not just use Weldon Cooper?

At the end of the meeting Jones asked whether they should adjourn or move on to other items. He had to be reminded, twice, that there was nothing else on the agenda. He suggested maybe there should be another meeting, after he and other council members had time to read the 20-page presentation from front to back. It’s hard to say how long that might take. After all, the document’s over a year old, and Jones and Robinson hadn’t read it yet.

Joe Fitzgerald writes the Still Not Sleeping blog, where this column first appeared. Republished with permission. 

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3 responses to “Questions and Doubts (About the Nature of Some Politicians)”

  1. Jones responded to that by inventing a definition of “anecdotal,” putting a racial connotation on it…

    …He said anecdotes said a Black person was only three-quarters of a person, so anecdotes could not be trusted.

    And somewhere, David Howard, former head of the DC Office of Public Advocate, is shaking his head in disbelief…

    I do hope someone bought Mr. Jones a dictionary.

  2. “The racial implication was nonsensical, bordering on absurd.”

    Welcome to the world of identity politics that Progressives have embraced and continue to use when it suits them. When confronted with the same absurdity themselves, they find it distasteful. Wow! Imagine that.

    My other takeaway is the BR must be hurting for content. Where’s James Sherlock these days? I hope he’s okay. Did I miss an announcement? I don’t see him listed amoung the bloggers.

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