Tag Archives: Joe Fitzgerald

Last Local? Harrisonburg’s City Races Could Still Top the Ballot

by Joe Fitzgerald

I barely recognized Mark Obenshain (the Republican state senator from Harrisonburg — ed.) the last time I saw him, and had to tell him who I was. Odd, because we used to run into each other regularly at Keister Elementary, at one time our shared precinct.

That was back when all politics was still local in Harrisonburg. There could be an Obenshain barn sign stored in a shed at a city elementary school and a Democratic official – that would be me – could roll his eyes and entertain the possibility it was donated for art projects. As an election judge, formally closing the polls, I could find Mark and one other guy chatting outside on a cold Election Day and just tell them, instead of making a loud declaration.

The big change from all politics being local began when Suzanne and the now-retired registrar took various actions to prevent or slow student registration in 2008. But as late as 2010 I could still see Mark outside the polls at Keister and note that it was the last local election for 12 years.

I sort of remember thinking he was one of the few people who would get it. With local elections moved from May to November, the congressional year without a Senate or Presidential race was the only time local issues and city council candidates might dominate the ballot. Continue reading

Challenging JMU with a Slingshot

by Joe Fitzgerald

The reasons Jake Conley might win are moral and the reasons he might lose are legal.

Jake Conley is the Breeze editor suing JMU over FOIA requests the student newspaper made for the location of Covid cases on campus. Call it the Dorms to Avoid suit.

JMU declined to provide the info, citing privacy laws that allow it to withhold health information about issues involving 10 or fewer of its 21,000 students.

It’s worth noting that for 10 or fewer of the 697 cases among on-campus students last year to be in one dorm, there would have to be 70 dorms. Or the 25 dorms the school actually has would have 28 cases each, but never 10 at the same time.

Also worth noting, the Breeze isn’t suing JMU, because the paper is part of JMU and can’t sue itself. So the editor is acting as a citizen of Virginia, and is technically on his own unless someone joins the suit or decides to represent him for free. JMU on the other hand can send its staff attorney or, in a pinch, call in the state Attorney General’s office. Continue reading

Delta Dawn at JMU?

by Joe Fitzgerald

More than 1 in 9 James Madison University students was infected with Covid-19 during the school year that ended in May. To date, the university has accepted little responsibility for those illnesses or for any associated spread in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

President Alger and members of the Senior Leadership Team have been predominantly silent about any mistakes the university may have made and what it will do to correct them this year as students return in the midst of the more virulent Delta Variant spread.

The university’s stance a week after classes began last year was “cautious optimism,” according to an email from Alger a few days before in-person classes were canceled. A few weeks later a university spokesperson, not Alger or any senior administrator, told the media, “There’s nothing at blame here except for the virus.”

Silence from the university and from Alger has continued this summer. The university has said it will require students to be vaccinated, but in effect the policy amounts to asking students to tell the university if they aren’t going to be vaccinated. Faculty and staff are explicitly not required to be vaccinated. Continue reading

Eating the Bait


by Joe Fitzgerald

Eating The Bait is the improbable story of Harrisonburg’s Golf Course, and how it came to be, told in a decidedly non-linear fashion by a non-objective observer. The whole sick, sad, silly, sorry, sordid story of the destructive, polarizing, maddeningly frustrating and ultimately hilarious battle over whether a city in the Shenandoah Valley — where little happens, nor should it — should build a golf course. Caution: the story is carefully doctored by a key player to make it more exciting and occasionally uses 4-, 11-, 12, and 7-letter words to express frustration and drama.

In April 1999 the City of Harrisonburg decided to build a golf course. “City” is capitalized here because the phrase refers to the government of the city, in all its majesty and error. The course was touted as raising the quality of life in the city, increasing city revenues, and helping make Harrisonburg a first-class city.

The only real catch, as the City Council voted 5-0 to launch the project and the city staff began making plans and spending money, was that the city didn’t want a golf course. And by “city”, non-capitalized, I mean the people who lived in the city, paid the taxes and owned the government that the council and staff only held in trust. Two polls and an election bore out the fact that a landslide of city voters and an overwhelming majority of its citizenry did not want the golf course.

The City didn’t care. The City knew better. And the city still bears the scars. Continue reading

Calculus and Jury Duty

by Joe Fitzgerald

Calculus is like jury duty. Everyone agrees that it’s essential, and any sensible human being will try to get out of it if they can. But panicked right-wingers are currently cluttering the internet with claims that a change in high school calculus teaching is the latest threat to Western Civilization.

I write from experience. I’ve been called for jury duty twice and taken three calculus courses, plus numerical analysis and differential equation classes with a calculus prerequisite. I don’t remember a lot of the calculus, and I was rejected both times for jury duty. Maybe because I would have been sending reporters to cover whatever trial I was chosen for. Regardless, they paid me $40.25 both times: $40 for a 20-minute “day” of jury duty, and two bits for a mile or less of travel expenses, another way of saying I walked to the courthouse.

Calculus may make less sense than that, particularly for those who don’t necessarily care whether the derivative of a function of a single variable at a chosen input value, when it exists, is the slope of the tangent line to the graph of the function at that point.

Of course it is. Continue reading

Inside the Bubble the Slightest Breeze Is a Threat

This is the fourth column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Breeze was always the “award-winning student newspaper” in JMU public relations — until the paper began filing Freedom of Information requests with the administration. The battle became public when the school decided to give the local paper, The Daily News-Record, first access to COVID data The Breeze had been requesting repeatedly. The university spokesperson broke one of the first rules of PR: don’t become the story. The explanations for dissing The Breeze were convoluted, at best. They boiled down to The Breeze had called every day, but it hadn’t called before the DNR that day.

The administration lashed out at The Breeze again when the paper reported Alger skirting the FOIA. At one point the Richmond newspaper said the JMU spokesperson had provided inaccurate information. And when the Richmond paper ran an editorial lambasting state universities for the way they’d handled the beginning of the fall semester, they illustrated it with a photo of Alger. Later The Breeze requested the number of COVID cases broken down by dorm. JMU consistently refused. It would have been a service to parents all over Virginia, not to mention New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to know where on campus the infections were most prevalent. But the university didn’t have to release those numbers if it didn’t want to. Continue reading

Incautious Messaging and Cautious Optimism


This is the third column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Except for the occasional late-night Facebook message, James Madison University has rarely responded to anything I’ve written. And those messages are like drunk dials from an ex; I appreciate the attention, but I wish they still loved me in the morning. One exception came the week before the September meeting of the Board of Visitors, a Virginia term for what the rest of the world calls a Board of Trustees. A JMU senior communications official responded to a Facebook question on one of my threads from a JMU parent. The official said she could contact the Board of Visitors through a link that he provided.

My friend composed and sent a long discussion of her feelings about JMU’s reopening plans. She lives in Tidewater, but has family in Harrisonburg and follows my COVID numbers posts about cases here. Later she and others who’d commented at the link provided by JMU, found out through a story in the Richmond paper that the comments were never shown to the board members.

People were allowed to comment before the board meeting. The comments weren’t forwarded to the board. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s no law that says they have to allow comment at all, and no law that says anybody has to read the comments. One more reason Virginia should tighten FOI requirements. Continue reading

Everybody’s Next One

JMU President Jon Alger (center)

This is the second column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

JMU was a first choice for many of its students, but has a perennial reputation as Virginia’s safety school. The joke is that JMU stands for “Just Missed UVA.” The acceptance rate has been rising since the 1980s and the enrollment rate, the “yield” in admissions terms, has been dropping at the same time. The two lines crossed sometime in the 1990s. The flip-side of “Born to Be Wild” was a song called “Everybody’s Next One.” The flip-side of U.Va., and of William and Mary, is JMU.

JMU isn’t often a leader or an innovator. Maybe it was in some ways when Ron Carrier was president. He could be bold to the point of brash and brash to the point of bullying. There were stories about him. There were fewer about his successor, Lin Rose, and none about the president in 2020, Jon Alger. A JMU communications official had once complained to a local newspaper editor about the difficulty of promoting the school with Alger at the helm, because Alger was seen as awkward and uninteresting. Continue reading

The Franchise and the Rat in the Cream

JMU block party pre-COVID

This is the first essay in a four-part series about the COVID epidemic at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

The franchise. When the next friendly history of JMU is written, the booster writing it may include a chapter about the two visits by ESPN’s “Game Day” and how they helped introduce to a new audience the awesome campus and student body of James Madison University. The book may or may not mention the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If it does, will the relevant adjective be “dynamic,” a favorite of the school’s communication team? Or will it be “bumbling,” “mendacious,” or “calamitous”?

It could go either way. For many years, those of us who worked at JMU got an email every summer telling us what parking lots we could use during the dynamic freshman orientation week. I realized every time that it had been written one year and used for ten more with the dates and maybe the parking lots changed. But the editor in me wanted to know why the adjective was there. Was it to distinguish it from the static orientation week? Or did the university’s communications people just love adjectives? Continue reading