[The following creative non-fiction, based on my life experiences in city management, is a composite of two cities. It is my version of “faction”–80% fiction, 20% facts. I would say “enjoy,” but it was no fun at the time.]
This appeared in the 2018 California Writers Club Tri–Valley Branch Anthology, Voices of the Valley: Journeys.
BUT WE KNOW HE’S DIRTY!
“Owen, Mayor Murray—line two,” said Marsha from the doorway of the city manager’s office.
“Got it, thanks.” Own Friel sighed, pulled at the collar of his white button-down shirt, picked up the phone. “Good morning, Mayor.”
“Yeah. Wanted to check on Latham’s subdivision plan approval. Is it on for the Tuesday council meeting?”
“Mayor, I’m not sure it’s ready.”
“What do you mean? We’ve been talking about this for over a month.”
“Yes sir, it was discussed at the joint work session with the city council and the planning commission, but no clear direction came out. Several council members question why we have to sacrifice a half acre of municipal golf course to accommodate Latham’s lot layout.”
“Well, they wonder if Latham deliberately designed it to gain extra acreage from the city.”
“Why always the glass half full, Mr. City Manager? Who’re you working for, anyhow. We need quality housing to attract up-scale residents. Why do I have to push you over simple things, especially when Latham wants to invest?”
“Well, Mayor, I’m just sharing what— ”
“Don’t need your sharing. Get’er done, Friel. Understand?”
Friel fumed. You never give up municipal land. If you have to, make damned sure the taxpayers receive fair compensation. Fairways and putting greens—more sacred than Indian burial grounds. Latham, the mayor’s buddy—always wants something; an exception, a favor, a renegotiation. They offend the city manager and the wannabe golfer in me.
Friel scheduled the review of Tudor Estates to be built next to the municipal golf course on the City Council Agenda for next week.
What’s with this guy? The mayor’s face brooded a coming thunderstorm. Every damn time our one developer tries to invest, Friel blocks it: study this; implications of the General Plan; citizen input. That’s what I got elected for. I’m the “citizen input.”
What’s with this guy? The city manager stressed. The mayor acts like the self-appointed champion for developers; bending the rules, even requesting subsidies. I want to improve our city as much as he does, if that’s his real agenda. I’m not running a giveaway program. He wants me to genuflect, that’s what.
When the City Council Agenda item came up Tuesday night, staff recommended the subdivision approval and also raised the question of the developer’s request for additional golf course acreage.
No one from the audience spoke regarding the project, except a for a two minute presentation by the developer, Latham. No debate from the council—approved unanimously.
Sondra Turpin, the city attorney, called the police chief and the city manager to meet privately in her office at 6:45 a.m. the next day. She knew no one had ever seen Mayor Murray that early.
Sitting down, Owen said, “Chief, Sondra, we really have to do this? It feels . . . I don’t know . . . sneaky.”
Sondra Turpin added, “We need a consult with the DA. It’s their job to look into it, not ours. But, we could be indicted if we suspect something illegal and do nothing.”
“Let me look at the file notes again,” said Owen. “I know about the mayor’s ‘entrepreneurial activities,’ approaching companies about the city’s contracts with them. Just announces himself as the business advocate. His pitch, ‘The business of government is business.’ He adds that the city manager doesn’t understand how business is the city’s lifeblood; he lets himself get tied up in silly red tape; and he doesn’t have the common sense to know there’s serious folks on the council and then there’s the others.”
Owen scanned the top sheet on the desk in the red folder. He had studied it before. It read:
Background: refuse contracts can be mining for gold. Secure a ten-year exclusive municipal franchise for a set rate per household. Everyone has to have their garbage picked up. The refuse company must invest in trucks and processing facilities and be assured that they will recover their costs with a “reasonable” profit.
Allegation: Bribe for a refuse evergreen clause.
Evidence source: Michael “Fish Eyes” O’Connor produced this conversation from the recorder in his suit coat pocket. Transcript excerpts:
Mayor to O’Connor, President of Refuse Enterprises: “So, Mickey, here’s what I propose. Rates can go up, but it’s difficult, requires a public hearing, and ‘findings.’ Seniors show up. Everyone feels sorry for ‘mom and dad,’ who always turn out in our elections, by the way. They’ve got good memories when it comes time to vote. Forget the Alzheimer’s stereotypes.
O’Connor to Mayor: “Yo. I hear you, Mr. Mayor.”
Mayor to O’Connor: “There’s an easier way. With automatic cost-of-living escalator clauses in the franchise, the rates could be adjusted annually, without council action or public debate. Better yet, we add a continuing fifteen-year evergreen provision. Starting next year, the ten-year franchise would automatically roll over each year to a fifteen-year franchise term, unless the city gives formal notice to end the contract. With a minimum fifteen years, and several elections, Mickey, I know you could reverse any foolish council decisions—or get a new council.”
O’Connor to Mayor: “You thought this through good, Mayor. Don’t hear anything real illegal, not that, you know . . . ”
Mayor: “Yep. All I ask, provide a donation to my educational non-profit foundation. Say, $7,000 a year. Tax deductible. You’d be helping me and the community.”
Dissecting the report, Owen knew Mickey could say they were just talking about quids and about quos, but not quid pro quo; no criminal conspiracy. The dots are there, but can they be connected? Guess this is what I signed up for as city manager. Time to sit a little taller in the saddle. Why are my hands so clammy?
“Okay,” said Owen. “Let’s do this.”
Owen made the appointment with the county district attorney, Andrew Dennion. Dennion owned a reputation for being a hard-charger.
Owen detailed hearsay accounts and noted his weak first-hand evidence, except for the taped conversation—not sure how valuable that was, and under what circumstances the tape had been obtained.
“I appreciate you coming to see me. I understand the bind you’re in,” said the D.A. looking at Owen with concern.
Owen said, “I can’t make accusations without proof, but I can’t hide my head in the sand, either. That’s why I’m bringing it to you, suggesting a confidential investigation by your office.”
“He’s complicated,” Andrew said. “I’ve worked with the man. You and he sure operate on different wavelengths. But, I’ve got to make sure this isn’t viewed as a vendetta. He is an elected official. We take that seriously around here.”
Owen’s eyebrows knitted. “You think this is personal? I don’t have a smoking gun, but that’s why I’m here. I need it on record that city staff did due diligence if this breaks bad for us.”
“Owen, don’t get upset. Let me put it this way. Number One, I know he’s dirty. Number Two, it’s probably under $100,000. Number Three, our plate is too full.”
Owen released a low “wow” of disappointment, looking down, using two syllables to mutter it.
Andrew concluded, “Stay in touch. If we find stronger evidence, I’ll look into it.”
One week later, Marsha handed Owen a phone message from the mayor.
The paper slip read: “I know what you did at the DA.”
“Problem, Owen?” Marsha asked.
“Ahh, nooo. Just had to check something out with the district attorney.”
“You sure have your hands full with that mayor, acts like an old time plantation boss-man. If there’s anything I can do . . . ”
Owen organized the clutter on his desk, looked out the window, then paced his office. He sat back down and picked up the phone.
“Thanks for taking my call, Andrew. Got a strange message here from the mayor, says he knows what I did.
“Hmmm,” Andrew Dennion responded.
Owen felt his face flushing. “Look, I thought our meeting was completely confidential. That’s why I went to your office. Not even my secretary knew what we talked about. What’s going on?”
“Owen, the meeting was confidential. The notes I took sit in a locked file cabinet for pending investigations. I think you need to check your home front.”
“Your Chief Shipley called two days after we met. I filled him in. Didn’t he tell you?”
“No, he didn’t. I told him and the city attorney that we met and there was no action, for now.”
“Owen, do I need to tell you to be careful?”
Mayor Murray’s blood pressure pounded like a heart-hammer. Friel—so self-righteous—thinks he’s the appointed protector of the civic good. I’m the one who got elected. I’m the one who stands up in public, tells people what I would do for the city. I answer all their stupid questions.
No one elected Friel, not even as dogcatcher. Just a business manager, paid to do what he’s told. Too much education for the job. Hell, what use is a master’s degree, anyhow? Maybe that’s where he gets his ‘let me protect you from yourself’ attitude.
I look out for the community and that means taking care of folks who built this city and continue to give. They’re the ones who pay for our municipal services.
Friel encourages the council to pay attention to marginal folks, always referring to “Joe and Jane Taxpayer” in his public speeches. They don’t pay the freight. The businesses do. Guess I can’t say it like that anymore. Got to be careful about minority references, too. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong; just gotta watch out how I phrase things.
The mayor scheduled the city manager’s annual performance review two months early.
Owen entered the conference room wearing a forced smile, his breathing shallow. He felt caterpillars scampering up and down his spine.
The mayor concluded the review with a verbal fishing line, and attached the bait.
“Well, Mr. City Manager, you have satisfactory marks from most of the council, but I’m still unhappy with the way you interact with the elected mayor of this town. You think you are the mayor and city manager and everything else. You don’t do what I want. I don’t think you know how to work with a mayor. That’s a big problem in this city.”
The fatigue of a long day piggy-backed on the tension the city manager carried. It was now 11:40 p.m. He concentrated too hard on what he wanted to say; the how-to-say-it well, left him.
Owen bit on the bait.
“Listen, I’ve worked for several mayors. They didn’t run all over town wearing their egos on their sleeves and trying to cut phony deals. They always put the city first, even sacrificing personal income.”
“Wait a minute, Friel.”
“No, you wait a minute.” Owen leaned forward and glared at the mayor down at the end of the conference table, a continent away. “Simple, Mayor. The rules are you get a majority of council votes on an issue, then I carry out your policy. I’m sick and tired of your one-man show and undermining me and the city council. It hurts the city. I don’t trust you any further than I can throw you.”
Silence became the elephant in the room.
Peering over his half-framed reading glasses and heavy jowls at the red-faced city manager, the mayor declared in an uncharacteristic whisper-tone, “I think we’re adjourned for tonight, ladies and gentlemen.”
Smiles on Murray’s two faces declared: “Mission Accomplished.” Now we’ve got a municipal employee who disrespects his elected officials. Strike Two for this city manager. I’ll turn Friel into my shoeshine boy yet.