Working with a small-town story

My second-week team story had the slug CITYADMINISTRATOR. I wasn’t happy with the final product, mainly because it turned out only as a text piece (my fault for misplacing the photo on a drive, and not finding it until after the deadline), but also because I thought my reporting could have been much stronger. I was fighting a cold most of the week and felt a little out-of-it during the reporting process. My partner and I made two trips to Ashland, which were informative, but could have gone better as information-gathering sessions. This was my first experience reporting a small-town story, and my career up until now has mostly been involved in working with people who want media attention.

The story had to do with Chris Heard, a city administrator who angered a group of small business owners in Ashland in one way or another – accusations had some basis in action, but much of the complaints had to do with Heard’s “attitude” as an out-of-towner.

When I discovered this story, I’ll admit I was excited. I thought I’d found something great that would catch people’s attention. In my experience, stories like this tended to start arguments, which has always been one of my marks of a great story. Unfortunately, that’s not what this was. A variety of factors resulted in this week’s story not becoming the lightning rod of excitement I’d hoped for. Coming down with a cold didn’t help, as it put me out of commission during a couple of the most important working days for the story, and fortunately Miranda Wheatley was able to take a little of the slack (she was certainly more familiar with small-town people than I was, and her interviews produced some good results.) The multimedia components I’d envisioned, similarly, just weren’t there.

Chris Heard, the subject of the story, shut himself off to us, meaning we were missing a couple important pieces of the story. While he spoke with us, there just wasn’t enough substance there. And on Tuesday, less than two days before the final project was due, our story took a radical shift when Heard’s main opponent, Alan Beckett, backed down and apologized for causing a fuss.

On the whole, there was probably an interesting day-turn story in here somewhere. I wish I could have nailed it down. But it’s also possible that this small-town drama just wasn’t as interesting to a non-small-town audience as I’d thought it would be.

Alan Becket (left) whispers to Chris Heard (right) before the commencement of the city council meeting in which he apologized to Heard on June 1, 2010. Becket had been one of the loudest voices calling for Heard's removal until that night. (Davis Dunavin)

From petition to handshake, Ashland’s City Administrator weathers residents’ anger

Davis Dunavin and Miranda Wheatley

When Chris Heard took the job of Ashland city administrator in December 2007, he planned on friendly lunch meetings with local business owners. Instead, at the city council meetings in May, his constituents called him “condescending,” a “bully” and someone who “displays an air of pompous arrogance.”

In the most recent meeting, with the city council pledging to support him through the year and his main critic apologizing to him in person, Heard appeared to have survived the storm of criticism. For many locals, the controversy has been exhausting and aggravating in a town not used to media attention. Some have refused to speak to the media or spoken only on condition of anonymity, while others have expressed a wish for the entire ordeal to “just be over.” But how did the city’s administrator end up in the center of a firestorm?

From the beginning, Heard was an outsider in this tight-knit community of about 3,000. He took the position after the departure of Ken Eftink, Ashland’s first city administrator. Heard, a graduate of Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, came from a well-traveled background. During his college years, he spent time working one of the most deadly jobs in the world – on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. His previous job had been as assistant city administrator in St. Robert, Mo., a larger community with almost 10 times the staff.

But with a smaller budget and less staff, Ashland was a different story. Taking over from Eftink meant taking charge of a population that had nearly doubled since the last census. From the many different accounts of their styles, Eftink was more relaxed in his approach and easy-going in his enforcement of city regulations. In conversations with business owners and records from city council meetings, Heard more often has followed the letter of the law.

“Is he the friendliest person to work with? No. But that’s not what we’re paying him to do,” said city attorney David Bandre. “He’s efficient, and he’s an excellent city administrator. He does a good job.”

Heard’s problems with business owners and residents of Ashland came to a boiling point on May 4 when a yelling match erupted at the city council meeting and more than 40 people presented a petition calling for his removal.

Cory Myers of Myers Construction drew up the petition that listed a dozen or more characteristics about Heard that made him unfit to be city administrator.  The petition said Heard “delights in making life miserable for anyone having to deal with him,” and that he “thrives on being in control.” The writers of the petition also accused Heard of “playing games of revenge.”

Throughout the criticism, Heard has refused to go on the record with reporters, saying only that he can’t comment on the story. But he said he takes his job seriously.

At recent city council meetings, Alan Beckett has been one of Heard’s most vocal critics. In an interview, his soft voice contrasted sharply with the degree of his anger toward Heard.

“He needs to move on down the road,” he said. “Somewhere else that’s a little less community-oriented. Someone looking for a dictator, not a democracy. I believe in my heart we have a serious problem here … This guy’s doing nothing more than just handicapping us and we sure don’t need that right now.”

Beckett’s disagreement with Heard began over the replacement of an old trailer in his mobile home park. Set-back regulations in Ashland kept Beckett from simply replacing the old trailer with a newer model. Beckett asked for a variance from the city council.  After a lot of discussion and three weeks of waiting, he went around the council and got a variance from the Board of Adjustments. The process left him bitter over his treatment by Heard.

In minutes from the May 4 council meeting, Darryl Woods, majority shareholder of Ashland’s Main Street Bank, accused Heard of pulling city money from the bank and “moving it to Wall Street.” In an interview, Woods expressed fear that Heard’s personality has hurt Ashland’s image and its prospects for future business.

“Ashland prides itself on a community-based group of people,” Woods said. “I feel like we’re being portrayed as anti-community and cold and rigid by his representation. I feel like it’s stifling growth, it’s stifling business, and we want someone who better represents what this community’s all about.”

Earlier this month, however, the mob of voices died down and only a single voice spoke up about Heard.

Beckett returned, this time with an apology.

“I’ve set down and tried to come up with a little different approach tonight. I’m not up here raging mad,” he said in a five-minute speech that referenced his connections to the community of Ashland.

Bandre said the city’s goal is to make Heard a little more “people-friendly,” including working with a mentor on his demeanor and working with Mike Jackson, Ashland’s mayor. Jackson has supported Heard, and the council has confirmed that Heard’s contract will be in place at least through the end of 2010.

Ashland aldermen have agreed to create an Economic Development Committee that will help keep business owners informed about changes and regulations in the community.

And though tensions have eased, Beckett made it clear at the meeting that it wouldn’t take much to light a fire under him again.

After shaking Heard’s hand, Beckett added, “I can assure you, I can fill this place up next meeting with business people and people from the community, and if you don’t think I can, try me.”

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