Clap ‘em in Irons! | Street Jazz

Clap ‘em in Irons!

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There was once a joke about a Dickson Street bar - The Landing Strip - that applied equally as well to Fayetteville City Board or Washington County Quorum Court meetings.

They would search you at the door for guns or knives. If you didn’t have one, they gave you one.

This is an account of those thrilling days of yesteryear, when QC meetings were pretty exciting. It veers a little off-topic near the end, but then it snaps back.

And look, I wrote something nice about Dan Coody.

This is an excerpt from “Ozark Mosaic,” which makes a pretty good Christmas present! But then, I’m biased.

Washington County Activists: Clap ‘em in Irons!
Written by Richard S. Drake

“You’re fooling yourselves if you think the citizens who come to Quorum Court meetings are reflective of the citizens of the county. Many of them are here to try to influence you based on a show of group support.” - Charles Johnson, Washington County Judge, March, 1991
 
You should be ashamed of yourselves. You’ve been incredible pests, distracting our elected officials from their duties.
 
You mangey curs.
 
You’ve finally done it; you’ve attracted the attention of the Washington County political machine, and frankly, they’ve had enough. And who can blame them?
 
Perhaps it began with the incinerator, the first time the public reared up its head and challenged the will of the machine. After the incinerator (a fairy tale local bankers tell their children to warn them of the dangers of the unwashed multitudes) it got easier.
 
Ambulance companies, golf courses, improvement districts, and “authorities” of all shapes and sizes. Unexpectedly, the ordinary men and women of this county are realizing just how much political muscle they have, and to the movers and shakers, it is a terrifying notion. To think that hordes of people, many without benefit of higher education, would dare to challenge the testimonies of bought and paid for “experts” goes against traditional wisdom.
 
It also says something very ugly about the political process here in Washington County, and perhaps other parts of Arkansas as well.
 
Some years ago, an opponent of the incinerator project was dismissed by a Fayetteville official as being “just a painter,” as if this put him into some niche, a slot from which he could never (and indeed, should never) emerge. How could a common laborer have the temerity to think he had the education to speak up?
 
In a candid conversation with an instructor from the University of Arkansas last week, I was told that there is a natural prejudice in Arkansas against people from the working class. And, if you lack a college degree, it is like a double whammy against you. “They feel they don’t need to pay attention to you,” I was told. “It isn’t right, but that’s the way it is.”
 
No, it isn’t right; it is contemptible.
 
The current move on the part of the Washington County Quorum Court to limit public comments sounds reasonable, as does the similar move by the Fayetteville Board of Directors. Some meetings do drag on for hours, but these meetings often involve volatile issues which require a lot of debate.
 
Fayetteville Director Dan Coody is right to oppose the move, however. The County, and to a lesser extent Fayetteville, does have a terrible image problem in dealing with the public.
 
The Quorum Court's attitude was evident during the February meeting of the Policies and Procedures Review Ad Hoc Committee, well away from the intrusive cameras of Fayetteville Open Channel. A resolution was brought up which concerned changing not only the citizen comment period at the start of the meeting, but also to gut the minutes severely regarding the reporting of citizen views. No longer would your comments be reported accurately in the minutes, but recorded simply whether you favored or opposed legislation.
 
It seems to me that the recorded minutes are an historical document, and that often why people oppose or favor action is more important than the simple aye or nay. If JPs actually read the minutes, they could reflect on the views, and it might possibly affect their final votes, assuming of course, that they don't just declare an “emergency” and ram something through without public debate. They've gotten rather good at this over the last few years, which may account for a good deal of the public's ire.
 
JP Lois Imhoff stated that “Most people don't want to speak anyway. Perhaps we could simply ask for a show of hands from the audience.” You didn't see this comment in the local newspapers, did you? Don't bother looking; this incredible remark evidently wasn't considered newsworthy. Nor did you read this comment by JP Bennett Brogdon, an otherwise charming man who has a tendency to make ill-timed remarks: 
 
“The only reason we're having to deal with this in the first place is because last month somebody was upset that their pearls of wisdom weren't reflected in the minutes.”
 
I don't like speaking in public; I get the jitters, and occasionally stutter when I get nervous. But I was out of my chair in a flash, and when I was given leave to speak, I reminded the Court that, for most people, getting up to speak on live television is an act of courage which should be commended, and that snideness has no place in dealing with the public. One thing that people don't need is hostility from their elected officials. From the angry response, you'd have thought that I'd questioned their morals. 
 
Imhoff said, “We're the ones that face a hostile audience.” Perhaps she should consider why this is so. One JP said, “This is the first job I've ever had where somebody called me a goddamn liar.”
 
Well, he has a point. I was in attendance the night when someone yelled the accusation out from the audience. No matter the motivation, yelling something like that is incredibly stupid, because it just makes the court’s actions seem reasonable.   
 
But aside from this one action, I have seen nothing which deserves the attitude that the Court  so often exhibits. For the most part, the speakers have been polite, and well-informed.
 
Does it all come back to the fact that, for the most part, the speakers are working class, armed with only a high school diploma? I think perhaps it does. I’ve seen the same thing happen in the workplace, where young kids with a degree in almost anything can come in off the street and take a position away from a man or woman who has earned it by dint of their sweat and practical experience. There are plants in our area where morale is almost nonexistent, because management pursues such self-destructive policies.
 
Limiting debate on  public issues won’t turn the tide. The citizens of Washington County have learned an important civics lesson; they've learned that democracy can work, and that every voice is equally important.
 
Let's see what the Machine comes up with next.
 
Grapevine, March 15, 1991

rsdrake@nwark.com


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