17-0 shutout cows Graham critics to silence (almost)

Not long after 17 witnesses for the defense had concluded their remarks, Town Manager J. Michael Graham gave his scheduled Town Manager’s report. Whatever it was supposed to be about, it wasn’t. Graham reacted emotionally to the outpouring of public support. Photos by Dan McDermott/Warren County Report.

Three of kind can’t beat Front Royal Town Manager’s ‘Full House’

By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report

A move to oust Town Manager J. Michael Graham at the Nov. 23 Front Royal Town Council meeting died a nearly silent death in the wake of a public outcry of foul play and shameful behavior from a full house of town citizens at the Warren County Government Center.

“Petty and small minded personal agendas,” were among the assessments of motives for such a radical town personnel move offered by 17 of 17 speakers addressing council on the subject during the public concerns portion of the meeting.

“Aghast,” “ashamed,” and “embarrassed,” were among the adjectives citizens used to describe their reaction to quotes attributed to Councilman Chris Holloway in a Nov. 21 daily newspaper article describing his belief Graham was unfit to continue in town employment due to personnel techniques and a lack of personal truthfulness.

“Such leaks to the local daily tabloid do nothing but embarrass this community,” former Mayor John Marlow said of the Nov. 21 newspaper article that appeared to have galvanized the public reaction of Nov. 23.

Following the scathing public critique of method and motive, Tom Conkey’s motion to remove the scheduled public review of the “performance of the town manager” from the Nov. 23 agenda passed by a unanimous roll call vote – but not before some chippy exchanges between Holloway and Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek.

Noting the criticism of the town’s “dirty laundry” being aired publicly in the media, Holloway countered that his initial move to review Graham’s job performance came in closed session. He accused Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek of “leaking out” the information of what transpired in that Nov. 9 closed session leading to his media comments in response.

Hrbek has admitted his remarks in a Nov. 14 newspaper article critical of the last second Holloway addition of a Nov. 9 closed session review of Graham’s job performance may have escalated the situation toward the scheduled Nov. 23 public review. However, Hrbek defended his criticism of Holloway for attempting to ascertain in a Nov. 9 closed session “vote” or “straw poll,” whether the votes were there to fire Graham in open session that night without a full council present.

Hrbek essentially called Holloway a liar for asserting publicly that he did not know the vice mayor would not attend the Nov. 9 council meeting. – “I know that not to be true,” Hrbek said as tensions rose following the 17-0 public opinion shutout of Holloway’s stance on Graham’s termination.

While Holloway did not respond directly to Hrbek’s remark, Sayre, another publicly cited supporter of Graham’s ouster, claimed that if there was a Nov. 9 closed session vote on Graham’s termination “before God as my witness, Tom Sayre did not vote” in the much debated straw poll/vote.

Prior to the “liar, liar – pants on fire” debate with Hrbek, Holloway plead his case in response to the public outcry against his Nov. 9 tactics and Nov. 21 media quotes.

“When you’re sitting up here there’s a lot more to it,” Holloway asserted. He said he was “ashamed” of how the town has been run under Graham’s management. Spotting former Vice Mayor Tim Darr in the audience, Holloway, added, “I see Tim Darr out there … Tim Darr knows what I’m talking about.”

Darr, present through the entire Graham public comment, did not speak, nor offer a public opinion on the current state of council-town manager-town administrative affairs.

However during his remarks, former Mayor Marlow noted he was part of the town manager search committee formed in 2006 in an attempt to bring some stability to town administrative leadership after three years of staff and administrative turmoil. While Marlow admitted to committee concerns about brining in a private sector person with no municipal experience, he added pointedly, “Maybe he was too strong for some of the people he reported to. Maybe he’s smarter than some of the people he’s reporting to.”

At the conclusion of his comments, Marlow warned council not to publicly embarrass its town manager. “How will that impact future applicants?” Marlow asked, adding pointedly, “The last thing I ask you to do, is try not to embarrass yourselves.”

The parting shot drew an ovation from the full house of Graham supporters.

Marlow wasn’t alone in his support of Graham.

One speaker drew applause, not as he concluded his remarks with a flourish, like Marlow and others, but simply for approaching the podium for public comment. Former Councilman and long-time Town Manager Walter Duncan reminded a council with four first-term, less than two-year tenured members, that when Graham took his job it seemed likely the town would have to sell its electric utility department due to soaring costs that were becoming prohibitive to the ability of a small municipality to support.

Three years later, the town not only has a long-term contract with the AMP-Ohio municipal network stabilizing costs, but pass-thru fees have been reduced at the federal level, and the town seems poised to be at the forefront of a U.S. solar energy production revolution. That latter development was cited by several other speakers, including Glenn Wood and Tom Eshelman as the potential happy ending to the 20-year-old Avtex Superfund nightmare.

But while the showing of past and present town officials was impressive, perhaps most tellingly in Graham’s favor were average citizens who said they found Graham accessible and responsive to individual and neighborhood concerns.

Not long after the 17 witnesses for the defense had concluded their remarks, Graham gave his scheduled Town Manager’s report. Whatever it was supposed to be about, it wasn’t. Graham reacted emotionally to the outpouring of public support.

He commented on his role, his personality, his love of his hometown and his job, and the difficulty on his family of some of the criticism he has faced here. He described his 2006 arrival at town hall to find a dysfunctional and demoralized town staff in the wake of a series of five, permanent or interim town managers within three years. But Graham said that staff had turned itself around and made whatever he has accomplished as town manager possible.

While Graham said he was committed to his contracted four years here, he added, “If this council thinks my management is detrimental to this town and wants me to leave, all they have to do is ask.”

Graham lightened the mood, at least somewhat, when he admitted that whatever else he had, had to report, he had forgotten. – “That’s about all I’ve got,” Graham concluded to a standing ovation of a full WCGC meeting room.

Less than a half hour later and obviously lacking a necessary fourth locomotive, the apparent three-councilman freight train (Holloway-Sayre-Lauder) poised to run Graham off the town’s administrative track, derailed with the unanimous roll call vote to drop a public performance review from its agenda.

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