“OC” Doesn’t Stand for Ocean City

  “O.C. ” DOESN’T STAND FOR OCEAN CITY 

  A book review by Ben Leiter

I’ve always despised, feared, hated OC. That’s not “Ocean City”—like in Maryland or New Jersey. Or, the old TV show about Orange County.

It’s Organized Crime, what I’ve always called the Mafia. It has brethren, offspring, associates: the Russians, the Mexicans, Wall Street, and other gangsta relatives.  

Why my strong aversion? 

Maybe their ruthless bullying? 

Maybe because my upbringing—Red, White, and Blue American—pledges that’s not how we roll as a country. So we tell ourselves. 

Or, not playing by the rules? I’m big on following the rules, and coloring within the lines. 

Or, could be my firmly imbedded RC personal religious strictures, with their two thousand year history of proposed guidance on how to live godly, even though I’m not the pious type and have been known to laugh uproariously at medieval dogmas.

So, even though I enjoyed The Godfather I, II, III, et al. I still took offense at the manifest, unapologetic, irredeemable viciousness underlying the films. I probably didn’t mind the bad-guy-on-bad guy violence, but I was always put off by the cowardly abuse of the weak. 

Now, I’ve just finished another fantastic Don Winslow book, The Winter of Frankie Machine. 

Our protagonist, Frank Machianno, fronts as a bait shack owner on the San Diego oceanfront. Frank does part-time work as a hit man for The Families, as requested. They term it “a personal favor.” But, you better say yes. So, I really, really don’t like Frank. 

Then I start to appreciate him more because he has become reflective later in the book and in his life, the accumulating years catching him in their inevitable final embrace.

Here’s Frank, with more gray hair.  “…It was something in the paper about a crackdown on organized crime, and Frank just went off on a rant.

“Nike pays twenty-nine cents to a child for making a basketball jersey, then turns around and sells it for one hundred and forty dollars,” Frank said, “And I’m the criminal?

“Wal-Mart sends half the mom-and-pop stores in the country the way of the buffalo while they pay the kids who make their cheap crap seven cents an hour. And I’m the criminal?

“Two million jobs have gone adios in the past two years, a working man can’t afford a down payment on a house anymore, and the IRS mugs us like drunks at an ATM, then sends our money to a defense contractor who closes down a factory, lays off workers, and pays himself a seven-figure bonus. And I’m the criminal? I’m the guy who should get life without parole?” 

Well said, but yeah, I’m still not ready to pardon Frank, despite his philosophizing and his love for his daughter which threads through the book. Frank does take out some bad dudes—not on a date. 

I usually anticipate your average literary surprise. No spoiler alert, but Winslow caught me off guard with a wonderful twist at the end. Good for Winslow and good for Frankie Machine.

A brilliantly entertaining read.

Las Migras, by Ben Leiter

[Note: This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, GOD’S BETRAYAL: QUANTUM RESURRECTION, told from the point of view of Father Gabriel Garza, a renegade Roman Catholic priest who always puts the right-thing-to-do ahead of the rules. That’s why bad players have placed him on The Watch List.]

LAS MIGRAS
I knew they’d be coming sooner or later, especially with all the Trump anti-immigrant rhetoric. After all, St. Anthony’s rectory, down the street from Catholic University, was only a seventeen minute drive, with no traffic, from the White House.
 
I answered after the bang-knock on the heavy wood rectory door. I looked through the peephole. It was 4 p.m. and I thought to myself, was that preferred Nazi arrest time, when they took people out of their homes?   
 
Standing on my rectory front porch were three uniforms; one said ICE, the other two were local police-blues. I knew the neighborhood Blues personally, jutted my chin out and up in acknowledgement, they looked down and studied the spit shine on their police-issue footwear.
 
I blazed my anger at the ICE leader, “Got a warrant?”
 
“Father Garza, with respect, let’s do this the easy way. I’m just doing my job. You understand.”
 
He looked Hispanic to me. The small metal name plate on his uniform pocket said Juan Carlos. A small gold crucifix peeked out from under his top shirt button, right behind the official, cheap, black tie. Didn’t know if that cross was an accidental reveal or pre-planned attempt to win me over.
 
“Crappy job,” I said. “No me holas.”
 
“Father, Father. Come on, ’mano. I’LL BE BACK! You know, with a warrant,” he said.
 
“I’m not your damned ’mano and you better bring Arnold with you, instead of just the locals.”
 
The locals looked up at that, thin smiles to match my own.
 
“That a threat?” the ICE man asked.
 
I eye-lasered him, all the way to the back of his skull. 
 
***
 
He returned in ninety minutes. Stood on the porch.
 
Knocked.
 
I opened the door, reached for my cell phone, pulled it out, and started punching numbers with my thumbs.
 
“Don’t bother,” ICE declared. “It’s cleared up and down the line. We’re coming in. Now. Got it?”
 
I took two steps back, raised my right arm and threw three rapid signs of the cross in the air between us, angrily yelling in Latin the names of all the saints I could think of and when I ran out of names, I yelled the opening  of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres . . .”
 
When I ran out that narcississt’s historical, genocidal polemics, I supplemented with the opening of Virgil’s Aneid, “Arma verumque cano . . .” for the first two pages I had been required to memorize in seminary about men and weapons in the Trojan War.  I was running out of material, and started to use the old Latin Mass intro, “Introibo ad altare Dei . . .”
 
“Wha . . . what’re you doing?”  said ICE Officer Juan Carlos.
 
“First, I am excommunicating you from receiving the sacraments or even attending any Christian church of any denomination while you engage in your unholy work. I have special dispensation from the Archbishop to excommunicate in grave emergencies.”
 
“What? You’re kidding me, right? You guys don’t do that anymore.” A hint of doubt creased his now furrowed brow.
 
“And,” I added, “I am damning you and your entire family to eternal hellfire by calling on all our known angels and saints in heaven who bear witness to your persecution of these chosen people of our faith.”
 
“Yeah, right,” he said, with a wannabe sneer that didn’t quite make it, along with a nanosecond flicker in his left eye. He paused, turned to the accompanying officers, and then stared back at me.
 
His mouth opened, closed. 
 
A hoarseness grew in his voice as he threw it back across his right shoulder, “Okay, guys. Enough of this foolishness. It’s past end of shift. We don’t need this crap. Let’s go.”
 
As he turned around on the porch,  I saw him scratch out the rectory address on his official ICE clipboard.        
 
I was more on edge than normal, given who had been residing in my basement for the last two weeks until I could get them placed somewhere, somehow.
 
A skinny thirteen year old boy and his eleven year old sister,  journeyed all the way from Chiapas in southern Mexico, right next door to Guatamala. They had ridden trains, starved and frozen in the cold nights on top of boxcars, and finally crossed the Rio Grande at a desolate place where the water appeared shallow in the starlight. But they had almost drowned when they lost their footing in the swirls of the deep, dirty river.
 
I couldn’t image how they made the trip alone with only a few pesos. Then, it came out. His pretty sister had to do things they refused to talk about. The Mexican gangs, their own people, were a bigger threat to their personal safety than the Mexican federales or the American border patrols.
 
Those gangs, I really would like to damn them.    
 
Three days later, Juan Carlos returned to St. Anthony’s rectory under the cover of darkness and apologized.
 
We worked out a system. He’d always come to the rectory, without a warrant, I’d refuse to admit him, he’d come back the next day with the paperwork, which gave me enough time to move the terrified immigrants with no place to go, over to some parishioners who were part of the active underground.
 
I handed Juan Carlos a three by five index card to take with him. I had written out Ezekiel 13:10: 
I will tear down the wall that you have whitewashed and level it to the ground, laying bare its foundations. When it falls, you shall be crushed beneath it: thus you shall know that I am the LORD. When I have spent my fury on the wall and its whitewashers, I tell you there shall be no wall, nor shall there be whitewashers.
 
Then I said, “Tell your ICE friends Hispanics are the Lord’s new Chosen People. And, the Old Testament God doesn’t screw around.”
 
Ezekiel was a Hebrew priest and prophet. He held that each man is responsible for his own acts. I was a priest. We were both priests, useful ones.
 
Many of the Jewish prophets were killed by their own people.
 
My explanation for the two basement apartments always stayed the same. Whenever someone on Juan Carlos’s search team got suspicious about the rumpled, dirty sheets, I’d say, “Careful there, the D.C. homeless carry some exotic, viral, fellow-travellers. Don’t touch anything without your latex.”
 
They always left the basement within ninety seconds of my helpful medical advice. And then seemed in a hurry to raid some other hapless facility saying things like, “We’ll finish our paperwork out on the street.” Or, “Let’s get back to the vehicles in case other calls have come in.”
 
***             
 
What? You think they’re going to arrest a priest? Let them try it and see what happens.
 
Daniel Berrigan was my hero.



Last Days of the Donald

      LAST DAYS OF THE DONALD

By Ben Leiter.

[Author note:  This prophetic story came to my attention because I know people who know people, from my eighteen years of government service in Washington, D.C. But I worry. Did someone feed me “fake intelligence?” While I am not sure events will unfold as described, I believe these are the options.]

Speaking into the hi-tech, encrypted cell phone, impervious to miscellaneous Russians: “Carrie Homeland here for Bourbon.” She stood looking out the seventh floor windows of the large complex ringed with a forest of Northern Virginia green.

“Bourbon here, eighty-proof,” came the clear audio back through the small speakers built into the iPhoneX which Carrie held in her hand. 

“Thank you, sir. We need to meet. Secure room here at The Campus. Anytime this evening.”

“Okay. I’ll be there at 6:45. We have to do this?” Bourbon asked, clearing his throat from the surprise of the call he had been dreading all week. 

“Yes, sir. I promised I’d ask for this meeting only if we were at a certain point. We’re there. Time for patriots to step forward, and you’re one of them.” We’ll see, thought Carrie.

“I’ll have a uniformed Marine guard meet you at the entrance and transfer you to his vehicle and bring you in through the underground garage. Someone will park your car and return it when you leave. 

The CIA facility in Langley, Virginia often carried the moniker of a college facility, “The Campus.” Eight of the best bourbons are produced in the Bluegrass State, represented by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

“Bourbon,” a more respectful code name than the staff suggestion of “M&M.” Carrie  Homeland smiled to herself. Her code name was pretty cool and and easy to remember if you subscribed to Netflix. No convoluted words or letters. It contained sufficient deniability, always necessary for a CIA Director.

***

In the specially constructed secure-room with the interior plastic laminate, and the low level electronic pulsing buzz within the wall, a cocoon against cell phone signals, Carrie Homeland shook hands with the Senate Majority Leader, aka “Bourbon.” 

“No one else, sir. Just us. Complete deniability.” Except for the videotaping, she thought.

Except for the videotaping, Bourbon thought.

“I don’t mean to be abrupt, sir, but please let me brief this quickly. I know you don’t want to be missed at your residence since your wife is in his cabinet.

“There are options. The easiest resolution—the President resigns for health reasons and to spend more time with his teenage son, usually the most difficult years for kids anyhow. In return, the Vice President, after he is sworn in, will pardon Trump and his family for all crimes, including the Russian money laundering and previous tax evasions. 

“They all get to move on with get-out-of-jail-free-cards, if they are family. If not family—collateral damage. Maybe not fair to non-family members, but Trump always treated others as disposable anyhow. This moves us past the Donald Trump national debacle and stops further decline of the country. It brings Putin’s winning streak to an abrupt close. Allows us to start fence mending with NATO and others. If Trump fights option one, the next option will be impeachment and conviction.”

“But would it get through the Senate? asked Bourbon. “You know you need sixty-seven. Sixty seven isn’t my head-count.” 

Bourbon, always the master of the needed number. His voice-waver said he wanted to be wrong on this tally and Carrie to be right with her numbers.

“Yes, sir, we’ve locked up the votes. Got the forty-seven Democrats of course, and we’ve got commitments from twenty-one Republicans.”

“Sixty-eight total? That’s cutting it pretty close isn’t it?” worried Bourbon, “and however did you get twenty-one of my people?” 

Carried responded, “Well, there’s another two who will come on board if absolutely necessary. Total of seventy. We’ve promised lucrative private sector employment to anyone defeated in their primary because of the impeachment conviction. Our contacts pervade all industries. You know that—including the liquor industry.” Point taken?

“The deal we made with Trump’s silent, big money backers is they get to keep Pence and he can run in 2020. You know how Pence was so ready to substitute as the presidential candidate in 2016 when the Billy Bush tapes broke. Pence will play ball. If not, he’ll be dragged in as a co-conspirator for not honoring his oath to defend the constitution and for by-stander abuse.”

“By-stander abuse?” said Bourbon. 

“I’m entering it into our secret, spy-crime-book as a new felony,” Carrie said. Intelligence humor.

Bourbon’s face scrunched up and he said, “What if neither option works?” 

Carrie realized Bourbon’s face hadn’t scrunched. It always looked collapsed. 

An uneasy quiet filled the room.

“Sir,” Carrie said, with practiced, professional gravitas, “there’s real powerful people out there. Think back. JFK let the Russians build that damned wall in Berlin, lost Cuba—did you know there were still missiles in Cuba after the Russian ships turned back? And, he was getting ready to pull out of Vietnam after his reelection. Kennedy’s family money was chump change compared to our big oil and the military-industrial complex back then. And, behind the scenes, influentials knew about his shared mistress with the Mafia guy and his other reckless sexual antics. Even Joe Kennedy’s money couldn’t keep the lid on all that forever. JFK became too unpredictable with some very risk-averse players. I’m not advocating this option . . . merely an historical observation. Even the CIA can’t control everything everybody does.”

Carrie Homeland sensed she was talking too much and needed to turn it over to Bourbon—better psychology. She made a verbal pivot. “We need to assess who can be most effective in delivering the got-to-go message to Trump. Who will he listen to? Option one is the best way for him, his family, and the country. We’ve already done it once, with Nixon. Messy, but it worked.”

“Hmm. I’m probably the one who has to tell him the Senate is lost, but who can go with me that he’ll believe?” Bourbon said. 

“How about Hannity?” Carrie said.

“Would he do that?” 

“He would, if I ask him.” Carrie said. 

“How do you know?”

“Not to be a smart-ass, sir, but I’ll ask Sean to read my lips as I form the words: ‘aiding and abetting the undermining of American institutions;’ ‘collusion to commit fraud;’ ‘facilitator of treason;’ and ‘fake news.’”

“Fake news?” Bourbon asked.  

“Yeah. Don’t you agree?” 

Carrie continued the assessment, unable to put the verbal ball in Bourbon’s court. Bourbon probably does some of his best work by keeping his mouth shut. 

“North Korea is now stronger than ever. Trump has betrayed NATO and the Middle East and Putin keeps Trump’s decades-old money laundering secret. Trump also agreed to cripple China. Putin’s worried, like all the Russians, about the 1.4 billion Chinese on the border of their  vast Russian open spaces. More Chinese speak English now than Americans. Russia’s whole economy is only the size of the GDP of Texas. Texans will brag about how big that is, but it ain’t country-big.”

Bourbon knows all this, but I need the videotape record. 

“Senator, it’s not just about Trump agreeing to option one and resigning; he has only a brief window to bring art to this deal, the most important of his life. He cannot afford to go bankrupt on this one. Dad’s not around to bail him out. The Mueller report is due in three weeks. Once it hits the streets, and it will—we’ve taken measures—we’ll have all the votes we need and more for conviction. No one escapes, only Barron.”

“You know what’s in the report?”  asked Bourbon.

“Of course, all primary source-work. We’ve got wires inside the Kremlin and electronic gremlins in their Moscow computer servers they’ll never find. We know everything. We just don’t want to expose our surveillance hand. Need to milk it as long as we can. They’ll eventually figure it out, even if they can’t find our technicals. Our eavesdropping enabled Mueller to make his initial case, flipping witnesses close the President. It you had them all at the same Mueller deposition, you woulda thought you were in a room full of birds.”

“Room? Birds?” Bourbon questioned.

“Yeah, canaries singing their heads off.”

***

And so it came to pass that the forty-fifth President of the United States resigned from office due to his dangerously high blood pressure, brought on by the political stresses of the job to make America great again. “I’ve given so much to this country. Huge contribution,” he said to Sean Hannity before he boarded the helicopter with a farewell wave.

His alleged crimes were dismissed with the announcement that Trump had been an undercover Frank Serpico among Presidents, secretly advancing U.S. interests the entire time, while advising the intelligence agencies. 

After resigning, Ex-president Trump attended an unpublicized meeting at CIA Headquarters, The Campus, in Langley, Virginia. He was awarded a coveted hero’s star on the wall in the CIA lobby. 

Twenty minutes after he left the building, Carrie Homeland directed staff to remove the star and send it to Hillary.

***

Twenty months later, the Ex-president visited Trump Tower in downtown Moscow, staying in the Putin Executive Suite on the top floor for a two week getaway. It contained a fabulous spa designed by Ivanka. 

The huge residential tower had been constructed at remarkable speed with no red tape inspection-hassles. The architectural drawings had been completed in early 2016 and then shelved in the fall.  

Trump spent an hour each day, after a room service lunch including a cheeseburger and two scoops of ice cream, dictating his coming tell-all memoir with its working title, The Art of When to Leave. The guaranteed bestseller would divulge names, dates, and specific tactics to support the authors’s claimed reputation for masterful negotiations. It might even hint at certain payoffs, but his mind wasn’t made up on that, yet. 

His New York literary agent pressed him to finish quickly, providing additional hand-held recorders in every room to encourage more productivity. The Donald, at seventy-five—well, anything could happen. 

Something did happen. The one day Donald Trump decided to walk downtown Moscow, instead of using his assigned limo, he was struck by a large refuse truck and died at the scene, in the crosswalk. 

The truck’s VIN was filed off and the listed driver, Ivan Ivanovich, did not exist on the City of Moscow employee roster.  

###

BUT WE KNOW HE’S DIRTY!

[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.”

“So what?”

“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 . . . ”

“Thanks, Marsha.”

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.”

“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.

“FIRE THE STAFF”

[An excerpt from my memoir “CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN” by Ben Leiter — pen name — available at Amazon/kindle]

One day in the medium-sized western city, I received a visit from the new mayor. He wanted to chat. According to the mayor, we had staff who “weren’t with the program.”

He said he knew I hadn’t hired them; but, the longer they stayed, the more I would be identified with them.

Curious, I asked, “Who is the problem, Mayor?”

He urged me to find a way to get rid of the police chief, the city clerk, the city attorney, the city planner, and the city engineer.

Ironically, these were the best performers in the organization. They did their jobs well and exhibited a professional sense of public service.

I was totally furious and calm at the same time. I had NEVER before been confronted with such a wrongful, outrageous suggestion from an elected official.

Considering the circumstances and my feelings at the moment, I gave one of the most diplomatic responses of my professional life. I asked him why he felt that way and then further responded by saying, “Uh-huh,” and “I see.”

That was the end of that conversation. No heads rolled on my watch in that city.

Of course, he easily figured out that he could best remove the targeted staff by removing me, and so he started working on that human resources strategy.

I was impressed that, mentally, I had spent no time weighing what to do. There was no hesitation regarding his silly demands. The mayor’s neighbor described him as, “Waking up in the morning, and it’s a different world every day.”

Initially, I didn’t understand what that meant. However, continued inconsistent interactions on his part made it clear.

Maybe I had the right stuff after all?

Years later, a successor to my City Manager job in that same city resigned with a settlement in excess of seven hundred thousand dollars.

FLY ON THE WALL IN HELSINKI

  FLY ON THE WALL IN HELSINKI 

“Mr. President, The-Donald! Welcome to Mother Russia. Excuse me …Finland. Not Russia, yet.

“Vladimir, my man. Good to see you again. Just call me ‘Donald.’”

“‘Just-Donald?’ No, not as good name as ‘The-Donald,’ like they call you back in America. I give everyone nickname, like your George W. do. Dubya, his name. Sit down. Sit down.” 

“Sure.”

“Thank you for meeting privately, The-Donald. No press. No interpreters. No pesky staff who always interfere. We don’t need no stinkin’ staff. We know what we want, right?”

“Yes, sir, we do. I want a deal.”

“Da. Da. We need deal. I know you are expert in these matters. I read your book. Well, my people read your book, Fire and Fury.

“What?”

“Hmm? Oh, no, no. I meant Put Art in the Deal. I would suggest rename it Putin’ Art in the Deal.”

“Sir, I think you mean The Art of the Deal.”

“Yes! Yes. That. You are great writer.”

“Thank you. I wrote every word myself. I am a master writer.”

“Well, I propose deal for you, but I know you will have huger hand.”

“‘Huger hand’? Oh, ‘upper hand.’ Well, sir, not with you. I have too much respect for you to take advantage. So impressed with what you have done with your fabulous country. Folks don’t mess with you. No special prosecutors, no nosy press. I should follow your example and annex Western Canada—you know, the White parts. Probably need to include Quebec. Cool city and Melania loves French. I like the Canadians, so polite, so friendly like my supporters in the middle of my country. Canadians—no trouble; of course, they’d have to give up their health care.”

“The-Donald, since we talk real estate, I mean to ask what would you take for Alaska? We sold it to you for $7.2 million in 1867. You had very good return on that investment. We think now is time to reclaim our property . . . for the right price, of course.”

“$7.2 million? That much? Is that the deal they called Seward’s Folly?”

“Yes, you understand real estate. Think of Mother Russia as the original owner of Alaska, the landlord, and we allow you sublet for 151 years. Maybe like your Monopoly game. You trade Alaska, I give you exclusive franchise for all new six star hotels in entire territory of Soviet Union.”

“Hmmm. How would that work? Well, I mean you are Russia now, much smaller than the former USSR.”

“The-Donald, no matter. Wait. New borders are coming. Soon . . . trust me.”

“Oh, I do. Our President Reagan agreed. ‘Trust, but verify,’ he said. I already trust you. No need to worry about “verify” details. That’s for staff. Did you know I have the best staff in the history of the United States? Maybe the world?”

“Nooo, The-Donald. I did not know this. I am not surprised. Your moves—so bold, shutting down that money-draining NATO and creating tariffs. Giving tax breaks to the rich so that they create more jobs. The proletariat cannot create jobs. And, bringing back cheap coal and all those high paying jobs underground. Brilliant.”

“Vlad, we should talk. I don’t like Alaska. Cold weather, no place for golf courses, can’t work on my tan. But I need a package deal.”

“Package? What in package?”

“You know. The tape from my little Moscow escapades. There’s only one copy, right? You promised.”

“Of course, only one tape. I have back in desk drawer in my KGB—I mean—Moscow office. We can do deal.”

“Great, Vlad. If you ever think about retiring, I can fix you up with great property management jobs.”

“You are too good to me, The-Donald. But, first I must count my fingers, after shaking your hand. You are so deal-maker.”

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