Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Eric Goes to the Mayor

Interviewing a politician on his way out of office is like being a vulture laughing over the carrion. The tendency for schadenfreude is rife, yet there’s also a tinge of sadness in watching someone exit defeated.
Ocean City's mayor is leaving office June 30 on the eve of a new administration that will take power the following day. With only a week remaining, the mayor reclined in a leather swivel chair behind an immense conference table in his Egg Harbor Township law firm and reflected on the past four years.
The mayor’s critics treated him like he was an amalgamation of Nixon and Voldemort. They called him a liar and said he was trying to stifle dissent, that he was skirting the pay to play law and that he was colluding with a lumber company to embarrass council when rainforest wood for the Boardwalk wasn’t delivered on time.
If you talked to anyone who hated him, they said he was using lawyering strategies to argue and persuade his way through issues and not cooperate with council or the public.
To them, it was all about the mayor winning the argument. Everything else was political theater.
His critics circled the wagons and just pounded on him. Instead of accepting the regular bullshit spewing from City Hall, they questioned motives, produced documents and brought to light what the administration didn’t want the public to see.
A perception was that his administration was so overzealous in keeping shit hidden that it changed the rates for public access to records under the Open Public Records Act. Though the fees were lowered after a citizen filed a complaint, the stench still hovered in the air.
He did accomplish the things he set out to. He got council to pass a series of zoning ordinances that changed building density in residential and commercial areas. He’s credited with many aesthetic improvements in town, and a movement to redesign the downtown commercial district as a more visually-attractive place to shop.
Yet despite these accomplishments, he rubbed people the wrong way. One criticism was that he took no prisoners and had a strong-arm approach when it came to his own agenda. Not in any brutish sense, but one of intellectual wordplay, logical gymnastics and legal maneuvering. He would often argue with council, somewhat disparagingly, jabbing them with the tenacity of a prosecutor.
He was a keen administrator who knew how to get grants and other funding and to give his town a financial advantage. Where other towns were barely making it, Ocean City rested comfortably or nearly as comfortably as it could during a financial slump.
He was like the captain of a runaway ship who lashed himself to the wheel, steering it away from the jagged rocks while his critics cowered in the crows’ nest warning of impending danger.
I really think he loved this town. I think he cared about its people and its future. That’s one area where his critics can go suck it. He wasn’t as aloof or apathetic as people portrayed him.
I saw how he handled himself with residents and guests over the years and I think he really wasn’t a touchy-feely politician. So be it if he was uptight. That’s Ocean City for you.
I can’t help but feel that this is somehow a Shakespearean tragedy, the tale of a proud king who wouldn’t mollycoddle his subjects but ruled with cold distance and absolute authority. Along the way the king faltered and instead of showing humility, was overtaken by hubris and ego.
One thing you can say about him; he stuck to his guns. He wasn’t indecisive and hated to lose.
After I had shut the recorder off, the mayor confided in me, “You know, the one thing I regret was that you and I never really got a chance to know each other. That’s unfortunate. We never really communicated.”
Probably because you tried to get me fired by ratting this blog out to my editor and accused me of bias because my landlord was one of your biggest critics, I thought.
“But you never invited me over for coffee or cake,” I said, paraphrasing Brando in The Godfather. I’m always good for movie references.
“Maybe we could play squash or badminton together,” I suggested.
What could I say? When he first got in, he was a straight shooter and told me everything. As time passed and his administration ran into criticism about rainforest wood on the Boardwalk, the city solicitor overbilling the city, a possible violation of the pay to play law when a donor gave him $500 and later was approved as city public defender and when residents weren’t notified of a city building that impacted their neighborhood, the mayor changed.
Suddenly his tone wasn’t so open.
It became very brusque and sharp. It was an administration in a tailspin, doing damage control to avoid the crash.
Yet I always called him or the business administrator to get quotes. I felt the administration should be represented in any article I wrote. His administration was well represented in print, even when everything was falling to hell.
Over the past year, his confidants drifted away and once loyal supporters defected. In the end, he was left with a controversial legacy, many critics and little support.
In January, he announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election. He spent the last few months circulating through various city events, relaxed and jokey, confident that his time in office was nearing an end.
Perspective keeps us grounded. Realizing he was just the mayor of a small seashore town in New Jersey and not Pol Pot or Idi Amin is important. Americans love complaining about their political leaders. It’s the new national pastime, right up there with incessant tweeting and gossiping about who’s fucking the Kardashians.
He wasn’t some berserker from Asgard or mighty Olympian god sent to earth to govern mankind. He was just an old man in a suit who the people entrusted with a public office. He was flesh and blood and flawed like the rest of us.
If you want to know who a person really is, give them a position of authority.
The people of Ocean City know the man who governed them for the past four years.

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