Mayoral Musings: Too Close to Home

By: Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

With the Virginia Beach shooting, we add municipal buildings to the list of places where rampage occurs.

On various occasions over the years, I’ve often said that there is no layer of government between municipal and the street. That’s not in any way meant to be a complaint or a criticism, but simply a statement of what I believe to be true. 

What I mean by this is that municipal government is the layer of government that residents interact with on a regular and intimate basis. Municipal government is the layer of government that is most visible to people followed by county government (think San Bernardino shooting). It’s not that the other layers of government don’t impact our lives; it’s just that there is a certain distance—whether real or imagined—the higher up the food chain we go. 

That distance doesn’t exist so much with municipal government. Our interactions are up close and personal with our residents whether the dialogue comes at a City Council meeting, out on a street corner, or in the corridors of City Hall. That closeness and intimacy was what crossed my mind when I heard about the gunman in Virginia Beach who killed 11 municipal employees and a contractor getting a permit while injuring four others, including a police officer, all in a moment of madness. This particular shooter wasn’t just a random citizen but a former employee who had tendered his resignation earlier in the day.

Reading the accounts hit close to home as I pictured the colleagues I work with at City Hall. In Virginia, some of those killed had worked for the Virginia Beach municipality for decades and I immediately thought of our most senior employees who have logged decades working for our community. Others killed in the attack worked in the finance department, planning department, and code; I thought about those in Bridgeton who work in these same capacities.

All of it struck close to home because I could easily picture the end of the work day at the Virginia Beach municipal building just as I can see it here at our City Hall Annex on Friday afternoon when employees are ending the week and getting ready for the weekend. It’s a common scene, an everyday scene, a boring scene and one you simply take for granted because it’s so mundane. For me, there’s a certain comfort in the routine, because if municipal government is anything, it’s mostly ordinary—until it’s not.

Perhaps it’s a commentary on our society or it’s just the way things are as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, but we’re now routinely thinking about security, whether it’s the buzzers on the doors or the panic buttons spread throughout municipal offices. More places are doing active shooter drills and gaming out what to do if the ordinary becomes extraordinary. I guess we’re all accustomed to thinking this way after goodness knows how many mass shootings in schools, churches, movie theaters, nightclubs, and now municipal buildings.

It hits close to home because you never know what will be that one thing that sends a soul over the edge or into a murderous rage. In this case, it was a former employee and we know “disgruntled employees” can be found anywhere. Yet, we also have our share of angry citizens. This is not surprising because goodness knows there are times that we fall short in municipal government, though we try not to. 

Being “municipal” as we are, the reminders of our shortcomings are often daily ones in the form of the trash that wasn’t picked up, the pothole we’ve not yet gotten to, the snow that remains to be plowed, or the grass that needs cutting, just to name a few. Could one of these things be the trigger or will it be a code violation or tax bill? I pray not.

Disgruntled employees aside, because that’s its own thing, I know that residents can get annoyed or be frustrated about a municipal issue and I know they often have good reason to be. Being able to help residents and solve problems, or at least make some measurable progress for them, has always been one of the things that I’ve appreciated most about having no layer of government between us and the street. I guess Virginia Beach hits close to home because it reminds me that these absence of layers, the very closeness and intimacy I’ve valued most about municipal government, can also leave my colleagues and me feeling exposed and vulnerable.