Tag Archives: Joe Fitzgerald

The Box and the Snowball

by Joe Fitzgerald

There’s a box, and there’s a snowball.

The box is the support of the Bluestone Town Center. It is a well-constructed but beautifully decorated box, built on strong buzzwords. Affordable Housing, and Climate Change, and Dense Development are the shiny wrapping on this gift. The snowball of opposition rolling toward City Hall grows each time a post on social media begins, “I didn’t realize ….” Didn’t realize how big it is, how much traffic, how much impact on the schools, how far from the center of town it is.

The box is being built purposefully. Proponents on the Planning Commission and City Council who have not yet heard the presentation of pros and cons are publicly and privately adding items to the box. Their box is a container for their support of the project, and they will only add those things that bolster their case.

The snowball is built on surprise. With local journalism struggling, people find out in bits and pieces how large the thing is, how many cars and students it will add, how badly proponents have considered flooding, runoff, and blasting.

The box includes support that’s at best half-hearted from city staff. The recommendation from the Community Development staff reads less like approval and more like, “Well, we guess it’s OK.” The City Attorney outlines why the offers to mitigate school impact are illegal under current law and an administrative nightmare if the city changes the law to accommodate them.

The Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and the tax specialists will open their box at the Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, where they will explain how this is the greatest thing since the golf course. The snowball of citizens will attempt to deliver death by a thousand cuts. They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the legal help, and they don’t have elected and appointed officials who’ve already made up their minds. They only have the spirit of those who have throughout our history stood up and told their government it’s wrong.

Opponents have already been described in whispers as NIMBYs, or “not in my back yard.” I live two miles away, so it’s hardly in my back yard. But what if it were? Rezoning requests like this one are required to inform neighbors. The whole idea of zoning is to regulate what is built next to what. Homeowners’ defense of their surroundings should not be subordinate to what a planning commission or HRHA chair thinks is best for them and their neighbors.

As this proposal goes forward, I hope elected and appointed officials will remember that they serve the entire city and not just the preferences of a vocal political minority. For the people we elect and the people they appoint, the whole city is supposed to be their back yard.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.

Crossing the County Line

by Joe Fitzgerald

They’re the exaggeratists. Maybe the Exaggerati. They take the smallest thing and blow it up to a crisis. Their eye is not on the sparrow, but on its feathers. And heaven help the sparrow whose feathers don’t decently cover her.

In the city this year the Exaggerati went door to door speaking of pornography in the school libraries. There was this one book, and it’s off the shelves. They claimed parental rights were being abridged because of what pronouns kids wanted to use. Couple of dozen kids, maybe, out of 6,000.

I worked hard for the School Board candidates who opposed the Exaggerati and beat them by 20 points. Partly because all politics is personal, and I care who my wife Deb serves with on School Board. And partly because I don’t want to live in the kind of city the Exaggerati would give us, and I don’t live in the city they imagine.

Still, I could have made a strong argument for voting for the Exaggerati out of concern for the city’s future. Think about what may happen in Rockingham County next year. At least two long-serving pragmatic members are leaving the county’s School Board. Lowell and Dan share decades of experience on the board and they’ve kept non-school issues out of their service. But the Exaggerati already hold one seat and will try for more. If they land a majority on the board, the county schools will take a turn for the worse, and parents who aren’t obsessed with wedge issues will have to look for somewhere to send their kids.

The argument for voting for the Exaggerati this year would have been to guarantee the city schools would move backward at the same pace as the county’s might. A shared sense of educational disaster would give the county’s parents nowhere to go, and save our schools from an onslaught of new students. I mean, we’re already building a new high school and will probably have to build a new elementary if the City Council approves the Bluestone Town Center next year. There must be limits to a city’s generosity.

But thanks to the efforts of people like me and the EAK ticket, the city will still shine on the hill. So we should take advantage of the benefits of the county’s potential backward move.
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Now It’s a Party: Local Elections May Be Decided in June for a While

by Joe Fitzgerald

It looks like 12 percent of people voting in Harrisonburg’s Nov. 8 City Council election cast a vote for only one of the four candidates instead of the two they could have voted for. But that number needs more asterisks on it than a home run record.

Single-shot votes are difficult to count. Count isn’t even the right word. Estimate, maybe. Guess, certainly. And although there were three local races, the same guesses and estimates don’t apply to all three, since one was for a single seat, one for two seats, and one for three seats.

All that means no exact numbers, but some clear trends.

One of those trends is that the city’s voters won’t vote against someone just because they’re Black. Nor will the electorate vote for someone just because the candidate is Black. There will be a three-person African-American majority on City Council come January 1, with one of them elected this year and one re-elected unopposed. But in the School Board race, two Black candidates lost, one of them an incumbent.

Each of the contests was apparently decided based on issues and personalities more than on race. We’re a century away from any southern city being color-blind, but this is as close as we’ll get for a while.

But if race wasn’t an issue, party was. Even without a race for Senate or president at the top of the ballot, the Democratic candidates won the city with almost two-thirds of the vote. The African-American candidates for City Council won with Democratic nominations, while the two running for School Board lost to three candidates endorsed by the Democratic committee.

That means the observation above about issues and personalities may be half-right. They mattered more than race, but less than party. That’s in keeping with my frequent claim about my political predictions and analyses: I’m right more often than anybody in the city and I’m wrong more often than I’m right.
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Green’s Law

by Joe Fitzgerald

Green’s Law was in effect this week.

Green’s Law was named, by me, for longtime mayor and councilman Walter F. Green III, and originated at a council meeting when he did an even worse job than usual of hiding his disdain for opponents of the golf course. I don’t remember what was being said, discussed, or argued, but I remember his comment:

“You people need to understand how government works.”

I always think of Green’s Law when I listen to people running for city council. This week it was two supposed independents listed on the Republican sample ballot and seeming to run against Chris Jones. Continue reading

Parental Rights, My Ass

Attack the most vulnerable and say it’s for everybody. What could go wrong?

by Joe Fitzgerald

The so-called “parental rights” policies designed to force questioning teens to out themselves to their families would affect perhaps 4,000 students in Virginia, according to the Post.

Bringing it a little closer to home, that would work out statistically to about 25 students in Harrisonburg and 40 in Rockingham County.

But would it affect them all? If half the teens questioning their gender are able to talk to their families about what they’re feeling, then we’re left with a policy targeting fewer than three dozen families, county and city, affected by the coercive policy.

Trumpeting this as parental rights ignores that it is only creating those rights for a miniscule minority of parents, and that those are quite possibly, perhaps probably, the parents whose children may have the most to fear from them.
It’s hardly something the wielders of this latest wedge issue are doing for all parents. Rather it is something they are doing to a tiny and isolated group of teens who may already be feeling friendless. Continue reading

Can’t Buy Me Dirt

by Joe Fitzgerald

For a while, you couldn’t get dirt in Harrisonburg.

The developer who was helping bankroll city council candidates in 2000 told us about the dirt shortage. The city was buying up all the topsoil in town and using every city dump truck to put it somewhere near the then-proposed golf course.

Opponents of the golf course filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking how much had been spent on the project. The dirt was not included in the costs. I remember referring to the quarter-million dollars worth of dirt although I think it may have been only $240,000. But that didn’t include the cost of the trucks to load it and move it and pile it and stack it – whatever you do with dirt.

Three golf course opponents, including me, won the May city council election. We were scrounging for ways to stop the project before we took office and the lame duck council was justifying the bond commitment they were about to vote for. One of their arguments was how much had already been spent. When they listed the amounts they included the cost of the dirt. Continue reading

What If They Gave an Election, and Nobody Came?


by Joe Fitzgerald

This is the most open Harrisonburg City Council election in a generation, and nobody seems interested.

Barely 300 people turned out Saturday to choose the Democratic nominees, and the Republicans have been silent. Only one obscure independent has emerged. If nothing happens between now and June 21, the race effectively ended this weekend. There are no incumbents on the ballot for the first time since 1994.

This would be the year for strong and determined independents to take the field. There are several reasons for that.

One is that the Democratic Party in Harrisonburg suffers from the same problem as James Madison University and the city government. We grew too fast. It wasn’t that long ago that we were a chicken town with a teachers’ college and the Democratic Party still had Byrd-era holdovers. The party’s nominating processes are well run and fair, but not big enough. The party’s nominees come out of the gate with an advantage in a city that votes 60% Democratic, but 300 people is not enough to decide representation for 25,000 voters. Continue reading

Unaffordable? A Proposed Town Center Doesn’t Have to Answer the Questions It Raises.

Land across from Harrisonburg High School is the site of a proposed 1,000 unit housing development. Photo credit: Daily News-Record

by Joe Fitzgerald

On the website for a proposed 1,000-unit housing development in Harrisonburg is a description of the players in the project. Included is a history of sorts of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority:

“[A] local election was held on November 8, 1955 and a majority of those voting in the election approved the need for a Redevelopment and Housing Authority to be activated in the City.”

The next sentence says HRHA helps people with their rent today. You’d almost think nothing had happened in the ensuing 67 years.

Sure, there was the time HRHA destroyed the city’s Black business section to build a Safeway and a Rose’s. And the time the authority partnered with the city and county to raze a couple of city blocks downtown to build a jail. There was the theatre that had to be bailed out by the city and the community center renovation that had to be bailed out by the city. (Full disclosure, I voted for the first bailout when I was on City Council and knew the second would have to happen when I voted for the renovation.)

It’s not that HRHA has a checkered history. It just happens to be the agency the city has often used for projects that are off the city’s books, until they’re not. Continue reading

Can We Afford Affordable?

Photo credit: The Harrisonburg Citizen

Magical thinking doesn’t build schools or roads.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Harrisonburg’s taxes are going up and will continue to go up because of housing decisions.

Stated another way, because talking about taxes makes me sound like a Republican, the city will have to keep building more schools and hiring more teachers and bus drivers and principals because of a perceived housing crisis (or, if you prefer, the way the solution to the housing crisis is being perceived).

The past housing decision was the zoning change that encouraged owners of large properties to add 3,000 beds of student housing a decade or so back. Students moved out of older complexes and families with children moved in. Continue reading

When the Numbers Stopped

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Virginia Department of Health began posting daily COVID numbers on March 17, 2020, and effectively quit Thursday. A press release on the VDH website explains the changes, but doesn’t include enough real information to make it worth the trouble of linking there.

For two years, though, VDH produced daily information that made it possible to produce snapshots of information about the history, current state, and projected trajectory of the pandemic down to the zip code level.

A math degree and journalistic experience made it fairly simple for me to figure out what was relevant to the central Shenandoah Valley every day so that Deb and I could make personal decisions based on more than our reading about national and worldwide trends and about efforts on the various medical fronts. Continue reading

The Governor’s Surge

We’ll know soon if the rest of us get what the unvaxed voted for.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Virginia’s governor ran on a platform to protect children from critical race theory and expose them to COVID. The first goal was moot, since CRT wasn’t often mentioned in public schools to begin with. How well the second succeeds should be apparent by the Ides of March.

It’s been known from the outset of the pandemic that masking, social distancing, and vaccines were the primary defenses against COVID. A year after vaccines became widely available the pandemic could have been effectively over, had rightist demagogues not discovered something new to rail against. If the 1950s were like this, iron lungs would dot America’s red counties like coal-rolling pickups.

And it is in the coal-rolling counties that the Republican freedom-to-infect mandate will be tested beginning Tuesday. Statewide, red counties are less vaccinated. The nearest example is comparing the age 5-17 populations in blue Harrisonburg and red Rockingham, 60% and 34% vaccinated, respectively. Let’s be judgmental, and assume that there is some overlap between the intentionally unvaxed and those who think spewing COVID aerosols is enshrined in some amendment they haven’t read. Continue reading

Belligerence as Leadership

Image credit: MyVaccineUpdate.com

by Joe Fitzgerald

About one in 16 American adults suffer with chronic pulmonary disease. Serious health guidelines say they’re the primary ones who should not wear masks. Some of them still can, but a figure of 6% is about the maximum of adults who shouldn’t wear them.

The governor of Virginia, elected to eradicate a subject that isn’t being taught, has decided that removing masks from public schools is the hill he wants to die on.

The two possibilities are that he truly believes life-saving mask mandates in public schools threaten personal freedom, or that he wants to pick a fight early on to exhibit his strength as governor.

The latter seems more likely. And while even some people are his side of the aisle are smart enough to see what he’s doing, a lot of the people who voted for him aren’t. They elected a reality TV star as president and now a financial speculator as governor. Somehow the image of a private equity manager struck them as more John Wayne than Jacob Marley. Continue reading

This Didn’t Have to Happen

by Joe Fitzgerald

A year ago, the post-Thanksgiving surge was still raging, but there was hope in the imminent availability of vaccines. But 2021 would be the year of criminals who stormed the Capitol because they didn’t understand democracy and of their intellectual brethren who didn’t understand science or medicine.

Virginia set a record today for statewide number of new cases. That’s the third day in a row the number has been a record (12,112 Wednesday, 13,500 yesterday, 17,618 today.) Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro have seen a total of more than 20,000 cases as of today, and Harrisonburg-Rockingham will pass that milestone over the weekend.

The largest strain is on the health-care system. Hospitals are all but closed to all but the most serious illnesses and injuries. Nurses face not only the crush of cases, but the fact that those getting most seriously ill are the most stubborn in their denial about COVID. Those people don’t know enough science to get them to the first mid-terms of nursing school, but anecdotally many of them are abusive and sometimes violent in their resistance to COVID facts. Continue reading

Let Teachers Teach

by Joe Fitzgerald

Remember when SRO was standing room only? It’s not now. That’s not truly a loss, nor is it unexpected in a language whose alphabet only offers 17,576 three-letter combinations for abbreviations.

The number goes up to almost half a million, specifically 456,976, if you go to four letters, and still there are overlaps. I found that out once when I sent a four-letter acronym to a woman a third my age suggesting sarcastically that an upcoming dull and lifeless chore we had to do would be the “highlight of my day.” She didn’t get the reference, and Google took her to the Urban Dictionary where she learned, to my chagrin if not hers, that the abbreviation I’d used also described a female-superior sexual position.

Hilarity ensued once we compared notes, but it was dicey in the interim.

SRO now stands for School Resource Officer, of course, because we don’t want to call them campus cops. I don’t know why, but we just don’t. A debate has gone on locally – that’s Harrisonburg, for my readers in Idaho – about whether SROs are necessary in the middle and high schools. Continue reading

No, Parents Should Not Tell Schools What to Teach

Terry McAuliffe was right

by Joe Fitzgerald

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The statement is actually one of the bedrocks of our public K-12 system. Teachers will go to college for four years to learn what to teach. Literature, history, civics, arithmetic, mathematics. They learn how these things link together, and can perhaps teach how the literature of the 1850s and the economics of slave labor influenced the road to Civil War.

They spend time as student teachers, finding out what it’s like to interact with a classroom full of students, and finding out whether the profession is what they want to pursue.

They know whether “The Fountainhead” or “A Tale of Two Cities” is a better way to teach about narrative, principle, and sacrifice. They know whether James M. McPherson understands the Civil War era better than the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They know different ways to add three-digit numbers, and different approaches to showing students how addition works. Continue reading