Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Salem, There Is Rarely Dissent

Neil Harvey, a government writer for the local daily, has a solid piece in today's edition (here) about the near-unanimous voting patterns of Salem City Council, something that is about as old as the city.

I covered Salem City Council something more than 20 years ago and some of my richest memories are of Council passing its consent agenda unanimously (these are items it believes it has total accord) and five minutes later a pack of lawyers would show up ready for battle on one of the issues only to find they'd missed the vote. They'd fume and spit and threaten, but Mayor Jim Taliaferro, as the saying went at the time, ran "a tight meeting." So tight that there was little discussion on most issues.

Taliaferro famously told people speaking on an issue, "We have all night to listen to you as long as you don't repeat yourself or repeat somebody else." That repetition often came far faster than the speaker realized and he'd be gavelled to his seat.

The rumor is old and persistent about council members gathering for lunch on the day of its weekly meetings and making its decisions then. The meetings in my time were at Tarpley's, a jewelry store and lunch counter (which served the best rolls I've ever eaten). The council table was in the right rear corner and nobody dared sit there before council had its gathering.

It was about as open as anything in Salem and as matter-of-fact. The old-line members will deny it today, but anybody who ate at Tarpley's in the 1970s and 1980s will tell you about it. I'm not sure what the legality about lunching was at that time, but today, it can't happen without public notice.

The last time I recall a dust-up of any significance in Salem was when City Council decided to develop land near the Salem Civic Center and put up a large water tower (pictured here) that later earned the nickname honoring the mayor at the time. Cleaning it up a bit, the water tower became "Sonny Tarpley's Penis." But this argument wasn't so much within Salem as it was with a group of "you ain't from around here, are you?" newcomers who were apparently some kind of environmental Nazis, if the rumors were true. The dissidents were branded nut cases, thrown out of council meetings and peace returned to Heaven. Sonny Tarpley's Penis still watches over that end of Salem.

One simple fact remains in all this: Salem voters would have it no other way. These people totally trust their governing body in a way that small towns often do and that larger municipalities never do. And, as the Italians under Mussolini contended: "The trains run on time."


  1. I've been in Salem now almost for 26 years. From my personal observations, members of Salem City Council have always been great listeners and supporters of its community members; from 1985 to the present.

    I am thankful for our fabulous baseball stadium (which you frequent regularly) and a beautiful YMCA where all second grade school children in Salem have the opportunity to learn water safety and a place for Salem High School SWIM TEAM to have meets as well as summer meets for the RVAA. Anytime I've had an issue or concern with the city, I known that I could call & speak to a council member and would be treated with respect and dignity.

    Sonny Tarpley was a wonderful council member and mayor, who treated my entire family as if we had been BORN and BRED in Salem. The same can be said of his wife, Joyce, who retired as a schoolteacher from Andrew Lewis Middle School and was a jewel. Last fall, Sonny received Roanoke College's highest honor for a citizen, the Charles Brown Award; an award that he richly deserved for his tireless efforts on behalf of the city.

    John Givens, Howard Packett, Alex Brown, Jane Johnson, Randy Foley and Lisa Garst are all people of quality and integrity. We are lucky in Salem that they are willing to serve. Of course, it is always easier to sit back and be critical of what it is being accomplished than it is to actually DO SOMETHING. Thankfully, our council members are DOERS and not Do Nothings!

  2. Donna:
    Did I criticize somebody? I simply recounted some things I saw up close and personal. I did not tell you some of the truly ugly, racist and elitist things I saw and experienced from past members of council. And I won't unless asked.
    My problem always was and will continue to be government without participation of the people and government without question, no matter how nice and well-intentioned the council members are. I like a good fight occasionally and thought the best government Salem had in recent years was the one that had some disagreement. I live in Roanoke by choice and never really considered living in Salem for reasons that reflect my value system. But I don't begrudge anybody else the choice to live where you please, like the kind of government you want to like and to speak your mind or not.

  3. Donna:
    The Tarpley name on the water tower came from Salemites, not me.

  4. I have NEVER heard any Salemites use that term and publishing this was not appropriate or necessary to your post.

  5. Donna:
    It's about opinion and I have one. Never much cared for the way Council operated, but then I was always an outsider and maybe Salemites are treated better than Roanokeites. In any case, I was generally offended by the closed nature of the decisions, the notion that these few men (and they were all men when I was there) knew best. Never have liked that attitude anywhere. As for Sonny Tarpley, from what I know of him, the penis joke would have had him in the floor laughing. Maybe I overestimate. And as for "appropriate," I know not that. Depends on where it's being said and if you come to this blog, you can expect the inappropriate.