Monday, May 29, 2006

Firewalls, good intentions and former Councilor Trammell

Mark Dorroh

There is a reason elected officials are legally barred from attempting to manage the work of municipal employees excepting the city attorney, city manager and city clerk. Skating up to that line and ice-dancing around the intent and letter of the law is neither graceful nor particularly wise.

And it's certainly not evading the notice of anyone who got out of the fifth grade on his own hook. Many people have taken note of these monkeyshines, and some of them could be getting frosted enough to challenge the perpetrators in public. When they do, it will be yet another embarrassment for Hopewell, as the ice-dancers are taken to task and have it explained to them how the law is written and what it's intended to do.

This explanation will probably be done using little bitty words even I could understand. Not a happy sight. And if these same city council members employ their standard gambit of alerting every media outlet on the East Coast, it'll be all over Richmond television, too.

Okay, maybe it's only fair that our cousins in The Big Town get to have a laugh or two at our expense. We sure do get tickled at some of their depredations and follies. Consider the case of the long-suffering former member of Richmond City Council, Reva Trammell.

I only interviewed Ms. Trammell once, while I was working for a Richmond all-news radio station, and was impressed with her savvy, her heart and her wit. Not a dull girl, this one, and chock-full of good intentions. A very successful landlord who was able to treat her council membership as pretty much a full time job, Councilor Trammell delivered constituent services like am avenging angel. Her peeps knew how to get her ear, and they got her good sword arm as well, sort of a package deal.

The lady was darn near a Superhero Council Member, and that's finestkind stuff. Not to put too fine a point on it, public service-wise, the lady rocked. Hard.

Unfortunately, she also had a penchant for romantic involvement with men not her husband … in fact, she was sometimes swept off her feet by men who were married to someone else. Bad scene, Bix.

But the weird thing is, no one would have known except for her public dustup in a custody fight over (no fooling) a vintage American production automobile. She sued her former beau, or he sued her because they couldn't reach an agreement on who got custody of the internal-combustion child.

So some clever reporter went to the clerk of court's office, boned up on the publicly-available materials, and slathered the world's dumbest civil suit all over the newspaper. And the airwaves. And the ever-fairminded blogger community. Bleccch.

Then there's the infamous slapping incident, in which one of her philandering beaus either hit her or was hit by her in the presence of a uniformed Richmond Police officer. She instructed that officer to keep mum, trashing the firewall which, by state charter, is installed in every local government.

In this Commonwealth, elected officials aren't allowed to tell city employees anything, ever. They're allowed to make collective suggestions to the city manager, who will filter the requests through his/her extensive knowledge of what's legal, then deliver that amended, heavily-censored message to, oh say, the city's chief of police.

City council members sticking their busy, personal-agenda laden fingers into the mix is prohibited. Skating up to the edge of legal prohibitions is not advised. It certainly didn't work out so well for at least one famous American elected official and his spouse during the long national nightmare of Whitewater.

Of course in the case of Ms. Trammell, no one got chucked into the cooler, no lies were spun in depositions to a federal judge and no impeachment proceedings were instituted. She just got in a lot of hot water and forced her formerly loyal constituents to toss her out of office.

There's a moral to this story. For me it is that two of my personally favorite Hopewellians of all time need to beware for whom they carry water.

It's disloyal to geek for the state and against the city when you are a (minimally) paid city employee. The state has plenty of accomplished geeks to perform those distasteful tasks which are sometimes part and parcel of the art of good governance. The help of city-paid personnel is neither needed nor desirable, since their constituents (and the city charter) put them in charge of municipal code, not Commonwealth statutes.

These councilors should stick to what they know and avoid what the law proscribes. These two guys are, like Ms. Trammell, too smart and too well intentioned to be playing this, thus.

Like Homie the Clown, they ought not do 'dat.

They also need to look out for that old slippery slope, you know, the one made of good intentions which invariably carries a skater right up to the line beyond which lies perilously thin ice.

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