When issues concerning power and privilege are spoken about they aren’t some trite evocations of abstract, liberal, pie in the sky concepts. They are important dust of the earth realities for all of us. Here in Norfolk it doesn’t take long to see the rising dust of privilege and power and who has it; it’s very often so thick that it’s choking.
Just take a look at the recent decision our city council made to spend $30,000 on a special election to fill Andy Protogyrou’s empty seat on August 23rd. You heard that right. Our city will be spending an extra $30,000 outside of an already meager and tight budget for a small ward election before a massive Presidential election in November. Adding Ward 1’s council election to the Presidential election in November would only cost the city the amount it would take to print the extra ballots. The cost would be significantly lower. Almost $0.
So, why would our council want to spend so much money on such a small election? There are several considerations that they had to make. Our council members expressed that they are eager to fill Protogyrou’s seat before their annual retreat early this fall in order to, as Mamie Johnson claims, come together as a family, a unit, and discuss important city issues that they will face in the coming year. They also expressed concerns that the residents of Ward 1 deserve to have an elected official representing them as opposed to a temporary, council appointed representative who, as Tommy Smigiel claims, would not be as committed to the appointment. Since their last working session the council has appointed Nicole Carry to this temporary seat, which Mayor Kenny Alexander stated that she “blew it out of the water.” Many believe Carry to be an exceptional public servant who will not take this appointment lightly. Why then would Smigiel suggest that she would not be committed to that appointment? Semantics, I guess.
All of the council’s concerns to the regard of a quick August 23rd election are important and worth consideration. Residents who make it out to special elections are usually politically minded and very well informed voters, though they tend to be few. However, those constituents are going to be voting on the Presidential ballot anyways and will be well informed about all of the the national and local issues that they will be voting on. Their vote will be counted either way. Wouldn’t it be worth considering taking advantage of higher voter turn out in November? Taking the onus of coming out for two elections off of the voter?
The council did consider these concerns, but Graves suggested that the council race would get lost in the “hullabaloo” of the Presidential election. Well, allow me to interject that there needs a better reason to spend $30,000 than the fear of “hullabaloo.” Having a November election not only would take advantage of higher voter turn out (71.78% statewide turnout in 2012) and cost relatively nothing, it would give the public much longer to engage in important local discourses with the candidates and the council. With an August 23rd voting date, it only gives 45 days for the candidates to campaign, knock on doors, attend civic league meetings and engage in a thoughtful dialogue with their constituents. That actually does not help increase voter knowledge and discourse, it limits it. That, to me, creates more “hullabaloo” than our November election, with or without Donald Trump.
But, let’s return to the business of power and privilege; this is when that becomes extremely important to this conversation. What has emerged from this issue is the disturbing language and lack of sensitivity that some of our council members have adopted concerning our city’s budget and it’s distribution. Several civic leagues from Ward 1 have directly contacted the council requesting that we have a special election for their ward in August, and the council naturally is taking that into consideration. Spending $30,000 on the residents of Ward 1 so that they can have a representative is something that they deserve, Graves suggested. When discussing how this election will be paid for, she is quoted from that working session as saying “Marcus (the city manager) is the money man! I’m sure he can find $30,000 from somewhere!”
This is an extremely egregious and insensitive comment for her to make. Did the council ask if finding and spending this $30,000 could be better spent elsewhere? Is there a more pressing need in our city? Do members on our council ever ask “the money man” to pull money out of thin air to spend on our residents living with bed bugs in public housing? Or to spend at schools that are infested with mold and cockroaches? But it wasn’t just Graves. Tommy Smigiel said that $30,000 is just merely the cost of office furniture. We have people living and going to school in squalor but, hey, office furniture. What and who will it take for our council members to turn their attention to our residents who lack access to privilege and power? Why didn’t Angelia Graves, who represents Ward 7 and some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Norfolk, ask if $30,000 could benefit some of her constituents living in poverty and crime? Who is contacting the council for them and requesting that the “money man” find funds to provide toilette paper at Booker T? Do they not deserve to be given the same access to magically appearing money?
Our city representatives need to take a long, hard look at their priorities and the optics of how they talk about and spend our money. It is obvious that our residents who are the most desperate, who lack power and privilege, are consistently overlooked and not adequately cared for. Any one who walks around Calvert Square or Lafayette can see that these are areas of town in our city that are very often overlooked. And that simply is not okay.
The important question of asking whether or not this is the best use of $30,000 was never asked by our council. Not once. No one asked if there is somewhere else that this magically produced money could be better spent. No one asked if there is anywhere else where there is a more pressing need. No one even considered our residents who are consistently left in the dark about our local politics and spending. That should concern us. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is big and wide in Norfolk. Because this is not about the small figure of $30,000 in a billion dollar city budget. It is our council realizing that $30,000 to most in our city is worth so much more than office furniture. It is our council realizing that $30,000 is on average 2 1/2 years worth of annual income for the residents in Young Terrace. It is our council remembering that several important reading and math specialist positions were removed this year in our schools. That $30,000 could restore one of those positions. It is about our local leaders consistently overlooking our public servants and our poor and disadvantaged citizens. If we want to continue the conversation about systematic racism, police brutality, power, and privilege, we need to hold our city representatives accountable to their comments and their spending.
Let me end by encouraging you to go to city council meetings. The next meeting is Tuesday, July 19th. Go and let your council members know that we are listening. That we are not going to allow them to continue mishandling our money and leaving out those who lack access to power and privilege from the conversation. You can even organize groups of residents in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods to attend council meetings with you. Give them rides. Give them knowledge and power. Give them a voice. Let our council members know that we’re all watching. We’re all listening. We’re all working to dismantle injustice. And like it or not, we’re all voting.