While Harrisonburg Slept, a Gadfly Arose

by Joe Fitzgerald

Laura Dent is not a stupid person. She’s probably an honest person. But those aren’t qualifications enough to help run a city. You also have to know what’s going on. Frankly, she’s missed that boat a couple of times.

Two issues I’ve written about repeatedly are uncontained school growth, which the Harrisonburg City Council has ignored, and Bluestone Town Center, where a majority of council members, including Dent, believed every flimsy rationalization from the Mississippi developers while dismissing without comment the measured, statistical, scientific objection by the citizens of Harrisonburg.

That last part is not surprising. Dent may live in the city, but too often she seems to be representing ideas and ideologies that are out of sync with the city. If the good of the city or the good of her ideology are at odds, it’s fair to ask which she’d choose, and it’s obvious which she chose in her votes in favor of  Bluestone Town Center.

There’s one thing ideological leftists have in common with the MAGA people, the Tea Party people, or whatever we’re calling them this year. They’re so certain of their positions that they meet any opposing ideas with dismissiveness, hostility, or bafflement. To Dent’s credit, she usually goes with the latter.

Dent once casually dismissed opponents of a zoning change as “the usual NIMBY crowd,” NIMBY being an acronym for “not in my back yard,” which is how developers and their leftist allies dismiss those who oppose unbridled development of cheap housing. Before those developments come before Planning Commission, where Dent sits as the city council’s representative, signs must be placed on the property saying what’s planned, and neighbors adjacent to the development must be informed.

Dent and the rest of the Planning Commission dismiss those neighbors’ concerns, believing apparently that living next to a property seeking rezoning disqualifies a resident from having an opinion on that topic.

This led Dent to move to adopt the Community Development Department’s convoluted recommendation on Bluestone Town Center. She was too ill to attend the meeting, but well enough to make the motion by phone as soon as the public hearing ended. Four weeks later, when the topic came before city council, she asked the Community Development staff to explain to her the recommendation she’d so hastily pushed forward. Is it fair to say she didn’t know what she was voting for, but thought it was a good idea anyway?

Dent’s occasional befuddlement could be funny if she weren’t voting on multimillion-dollar budgets. That’s a lot of other people’s money to be spending without a grasp of the details.

The other example I’ve cited in the past is her asking what the education category on the schools budget was. It’s the largest single item in the city budget, and after voting on three city budgets, she asked what it is. It raises the question of what else council members don’t know they’re voting on.

City Democrats nominated Dent over three-term incumbent Richard Baugh in 2020 in large part because of Baugh’s vote to delay the construction of a second high school, citing the possibility of an unforeseen disaster of some sort. I disagreed with his decision at the time, and in light of the unforeseen pandemic that caused a one-year suspension of construction, I’m willing to say that Richard was right and I was wrong. At some point the city’s Democratic majority should do the same.

Dent’s election points out what’s wrong with the ideal of a citizen legislature if that’s taken to mean people elected for their ideology, their good hearts, and their desire to serve. Going into 2024, when Dent is up for re-election along with Deanna Reed and Chris Jones, the city’s decision-makers and influencers should be thinking about who’s on city council and how they get there.

While Harrisonburg slept, Dent was elected to the Harrisonburg City Council with no apparent governmental or managerial experience, but with an ideology. One person like that on a five-person council can be a gadfly and a distraction, as George Hirschman was, but Dent in 2023 became part of a council majority with no management experience to prepare them for running a city government or any other large organization.

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