Being that I am in my last couple of weeks of employment with the County Journal, I wanted to give some final thoughts on the most ongoing chain of stories I’ve followed in my two years with the newspaper: the City of Potterville, beginning with the election of four new city council members, to the firing of former city manager, Wanda Darrow.
My observation of the Potterville city spectacle started late, relatively speaking, but it was by no means lacking angle, intensity, or tension. From the beginning, when I first interviewed the three newly elected council members of the 2017 election, Duston Twichell, Jennifer Lenneman, and Bruce Kring, I knew I’d touched on something that was not only sensitive, but volatile. The three council members ran as a unit, were elected via write-in ballots, and came in with an agenda to renew the tarnished image of Potterville by cleaning up city council and keeping the city manager in check. However loosely held that agenda may have been, pushing it was a tribal effort, one that would provoke a cascade of debates, arguments, grueling council meetings, legal action, accusations, and public comments and podium grandstanding that were like something out of a reality TV show.
Simply put, I knew little to nothing of the backstory and years of tension and drama that had taken place in Potterville. I was curious why three citizens decided to run together for city council, and I wanted to share their story and concerns. The day the edition with the article about the new council members hit the shelves, a strictly news article that simply parroted the polemic of said councilors elect, I received three phone calls contesting the article. One call was from a citizen, another was from a former city council member, and the other was from then city manager, Wanda Darrow.
The citizen called rather as a warning, not necessarily to argue the article’s legitimacy. The former council member, however, thought publishing the article was a dubious dig against past governing bodies and their decisions. (It wasn’t.) Darrow, who I quickly discovered by that day’s call and a few city council meetings that followed, was toxically focused on saving herself from bad press, called to tag the three council members elect as liars, and to call me “fake news.” This she followed by mentioning that she had not yet read the article. The phone calls were a fast and simple indicator that there was a defensiveness in the community surrounding city council, the city manager, and the last several years of decisions coming from city hall.
One of the grimmest details from that time, which is still too easily glossed in conversations about the pettiness of the conduct in Potterville government, is the vacancy left by Ryan Martin, the fourth councilor elect from the November 2017 election. Martin committed suicide before taking his oath of office. The pettiness of the then still blossoming rivalry within the council reached its full potential (though not its full intensity) as fingers quickly pointed at the new council members for putting too much pressure on Martin. All this before the new council even had its first session.
By the time the first session came around on Jan. 25, the tension had not cooled. The first session was a four-hour long debate over a lawsuit involving Potterville Public Schools and Benton Township Fire Department, as well as the city manager’s communication with the city’s attorney, the competency and qualifications of the Potterville Fire Department, the roles of city manager vs. those of the council, argument over an incident between councilwoman Lenneman and councilman Hartson, and more. The new council did, however, vote to rescind the submission of the lawsuit against Benton Township and PPS. Mrs. Darrow, during the same conversation in which she called me “fake news,” attacked me for mentioning “frivolous lawsuits” in the same article. Had she read the article, she would’ve seen I was quoting councilor elect Twichell. True to his word, he voted to end one frivolous lawsuit in his first session of council.
One of the other few productive decisions made during the lengthy meeting was the selection of Rebecka Jo Lewis as Martin’s replacement on the council. Lewis had only lived in Potterville for approximately three years by that time, and was hopefully going to bring a fresh perspective to the council. Over the course of several months, despite her many attempts to convince the public otherwise, she aligned herself with the new, reformation focused, go-for-the-jugular camp in the city council.
In writing this I found it difficult not to go back through a moment by moment, event by event, meeting by meeting recount of the last year. Suffice it to say one can go back and read the archive of stories themselves if he or she so chooses. One who does so will find those moments, events, and meetings following suit of the first. Council meetings running over three hours in length, closed sessions, harsh words from city attorneys, public disruptions, the council chamber filled to capacity, testimonials from city employees, inconsistencies in various reports and communications, pointed words between councilors, and pointed words between councilors and the city manager is the pitiful and far too brief overview.
Upon reflection, it is surprising how much of the last year’s battles can be identified simply as petty bravado. Unpaid bills met with subsequent attempts for emergency meetings to pay them, personal protection orders met with tactless grandstanding, and obvious deceit countered with every possible juvenile attempt to catch a hand in a cookie jar were only a few expressions of the pettiness of these quarrels. There were reasonable arguments and actions to be made for sure. Indeed, it may well have been some of the ephemeral and lowest of the low squabbles needed to take place in order to change a culture, or at least to expose the layers of corruption and deceit laid out during Mrs. Darrow’s tenure.
But the Potterville community found itself caught in the middle of the firestorm. City employees simply trying to do their jobs were used as political weapons or as intimidators. Third parties were sought to give testimonies over events to which they gave no second thought. The city found itself at odds not only with its township, but its own school system and the county it belongs to. A benevolent 27-year old mayor was recalled from her chair despite the obviousness of her integrity, character, and honesty. Citizens, who were vocal about their desire to see a wholesome approach to conflict, were met with hostility and eye rolls. The agenda of the new council members was achieved, in part, but it’s not unreasonable to ask, “At what cost?”
To be certain, for any citizens still debating or wondering, Mrs. Darrow and her family have been implicated in theft and financial fraud in the city. It’s plain as day, there is no question. To echo the words of councilman Twichell on the evening the council voted to remove her with cause, “Although there were about 30 pages of letters in support of the city manager, almost none of them have anything to do with what’s going on here.”
The last 10 years, and the last year, are dripping with the apparentness of Mrs. Darrow’s poor leadership and abuse of power. One could just as easily argue the apparent incompetency of previous city councils. It’s never just one thing. But if I can make one appeal to all readers here, to their minds and collective conscience, it would be this: when someone is accused more than once of abuse of power and mismanagement, when there is a high turnover rate in his or her office and departments, when his or her family members happen to land frequent employment and financial opportunities, when he or she is frequently at the center of lawsuits, and when he or she shows an odd interest in protecting his or herself from public scrutiny, it is time to investigate, especially when he or she says there is nothing wrong, attempts to discourage investigations and inquiry, and has something to lose. (Those who don’t get this allusion to a much larger conflict, investigation, and sociopolitical debate either never will get the comparison, or refuse to acknowledge the similarities.) Ongoing conflicts of this kind in Potterville, despite the copious details and subtleties included, can often be traced to center points, usually from a top down problem. Some problems, behaviors, and corruptions are self-evident.
Witch hunt or no, for all the tactless, juvenile, and sloppy attempts to prove something was awry from the top down in the Potterville city government, the ragged troop that set out in November 2017 to hold its top city official in check found the hand in the jar. In the end (though this is certainly not the end, but only the end of my observation), however, no one was faultless or guiltless.