Damascus volunteers abandon ship in protest
Councilor calls the move grandstanding, while mayor says their work was already done
In the wake of Monday night's mass resignation of 15 citizen volunteers from three Damascus committees, one city councilor dismissed the move as grandstanding, citing support for disincorporating the city as the true motivation behind the collective resignations.
On Monday, June 3, in what volunteers called a show of dismay and disgust over the forced resignation of former City Manager Greg Baker, the entire seven-member code development committee resigned, as did six out of nine members of the citizen involvement committee, plus two out of seven members of the city's budget committee.
That's half of the citizen volunteers in the city's four advisory committees, leaving just the planning commission and budget commission intact.
"You have brought shame, embarrassment and ridicule to the city," said Dean Apostol, who tendered the code development committee's resignation. "I simply cannot trust this council to do anything right when it's done so much wrong."
During a hastily scheduled closed-doors executive session, called at Baker's request, on May 24, councilors accepted Baker's resignation as part of a negotiated settlement paying him $321,460 on condition that neither he nor the city sue each other.
The forced resignation so outraged former city councilor Mary Wescott, she resigned on the spot.
Councilors rewrote Baker's contract in mid December, just before three city councilors who did not run for re-election left office and before being replaced by three newly elected councilors two of whom are considered to be politically aligned with controversial Mayor Steve Spinnett.
The new contract included a much more generous severance package for Baker, as well as a $10,000 settlement in exchange for him agreeing not to sue the city for defamatory statements the mayor made.
During Monday night's standing-room-only meeting, 15 volunteers resigned citing Baker's forced resignation and saying they no longer wish to be associated with the City Council.
Chris Hawes, chairman of the Committee for Citizen Involvement, also tendered his resignation from the city's budget committee, as did David Gleason, whose parting words to the council were, "You fellas really missed the boat when you voted to push him (Baker) out."
It's not the first time a volunteer committee in Damascus has resigned en masse. Citizen involvement committee members resigned in protest three years ago citing disrespect from then-Mayor Jim Wright.
Following the en masse resignations, Spinnett thanked the volunteers "for all your service to the city." But during a recess, he said their actions would have little effect on city business. "The code team finished their work anyway, and the town halls are over," he said. "Their jobs for the most part are done."
Members of the code development team recently completed a draft of the city's code for consideration as part of the draft comprehensive plan. Citizen involvement committee members hosted 30 town hall meetings to get input from residents on the draft comprehensive plan in the hope of having residents vote on it in November.
The plan is crucial if Damascus is to remain an incorporated city and defeat a proposed ballot measure to disincorporate. Hawes, who is spearheading the disincorporation effort, said he has twice the number of required signatures needed to put the measure on the November ballot.
He's just waiting for Wally Bothum to return to town before Hawes submits the signatures for verification. Bothum, along with another Damascus resident, filed the initiative petition paperwork to collect enough signatures to place the disincorporation measure before voters.
The rural community of 10,000 voted in 2004 to incorporate as a city to have more control over how it is developed.
Sharon Huffman, who resigned as vice chairwoman of the citizen advisory committee, took great offense to the mayor's response to their resignations.
"It's a really sad thing for the mayor to say, 'Well, we used you all up, we don't need you any more,'" she said.
She also was horrified by a statement made by Councilor Mel O'Brien, who said the volunteers were "grand standing."
In an email regarding an article on The Outlook's website recapping Monday night's meeting, O'Brien said "most, if not all" those who resigned favor disincorporating Damascus, adding that many had terms that were expiring at the end of the month.
"And in my view, I could not reconfirm anybody out to destroy our city," he wrote. "And it was a concern of mine they were even on sensitive policy recommending committees, some of which were leading the disincorporation movement."
"Well, that's not true," she said.
While Huffman and Hawes openly favor disincorporation, she said most of those on the committee do not, at least not until the council pressured Baker to resign.
"I think what is disconcerting is that he is saying that if he disagrees with someone, he won't appoint them as a volunteer," she said.
Apostol said only one member of the code development team openly supported disincorporation: Wally Bothum.
After all, the code team was tasked with drafting code essential to the comprehensive plan, which is needed if Damascus is to remain a city.
"We were doing this because we were trying to make it work," Apostol said. "I was not for disincorporation until the action the City Council took to force Baker out. That pushed me over the edge."
Former citizen involvement committee member Keith Marshall said he used to volunteer with a group dedicated to saving the city from disincorporation. After Baker resigned, Marshall bowed out.
"He's trying to read CCI members' minds," Marshall said regarding O'Brien's assertion that most of the volunteers who resigned support disincorporation. "I don't know how he could draw that conclusion."
Tony Passannante, who also resigned from the citizen involvement committee, said O'Brien just plain doesn't get the message behind their resignations.
"He's completely missed the point of social protest," Passannante said. "These people who resigned, they're making a statement. And they're people who are not used to quitting. We're not looking for controversy. We're reacting to an untenable situation."
As for whether volunteers' terms are ending, "That's irrelevant," he said. "I had a year and some to go, but I don't need this."