Click below to read an early edition of my Ruston story:
Bradley Huson hadn’t finished reading when the groans rippled through the packed room in Ruston’s schoolhouse.
At the meeting last month, the councilman proposed sweeping changes to the town’s rules for meetings, including limits on public input.
After Huson was done, audience member Jim Wingard stood up and yelled, "We have a constitution in the United States of America, and it provides guarantees freedom of speech!" He pointed to Mayor Michael Transue. "You are going to be in with me Superior Court next week!" He then turned to the council. "I’ll see all of you (in court next week!"
While Transue stood up and tried to calm Wingard down, Huson motioned to adjourn the meeting early.
Wayne Stebner swiftly seconded the motion. A woman in attendance started screaming at Huson. Others shouted at the council.
Huson then leaned back in his chair, turned to Transue, smiled and said, "As soon as they’re silenced, I’ll withdraw (the motion). Otherwise, I’m going to walk out, go home and finish my dinner."
The motion passed. Transue scolded the audience for their disruption, and then Huson withdrew his adjournment motion.
Such is the rabid state of Ruston politics today. Residents in the town of 750 near Tacoma’s West End say the rhetoric is the worst it has been in years – maybe ever.
Issues over development, services and possible annexation force wedges among citizens and politicians alike. Council members and the mayor agree on little and bicker at meetings. Activists have taken to the Internet to voice their concerns. Four council members have resigned in recent months. The former police chief says his firing last month was political. Personal attacks are common. Consensus isn’t.
"Folks have very definite opinions on issues – you can see that in the meetings – and they’re well-dug-in positions," Transue said. "I think there are 5, 10 15 percent take one view, then 5, 10, 15 percent take the other view. And then everybody else is in the middle. It’s the bell curve.
"When those polarizations occur, that’s when tempers flare."
Huson said balance of power in Ruston is shifting – and it’s difficult for some.
"They have no political power" he said. "They’re scared and they’re like caged animals. When you throw a bunch of animals in a cage and scare them, that’s how they behave: like the town council meeting."
SOURCE OF DIVISION
Don’s Market & Deli embodies Ruston’s small-town charm. It’s the kind of store where shoppers can buy groceries or sit at the counter for a sandwich and milkshake. Don Torbet, the store’s namesake owner, often works the register. And he’s also the town’s fire chief.
From his store at North 51st and North Winnifred streets, he looked out the storefront window and pointed to a crane towering over the surrounding one- and two-story buildings.
"You see that?" he said. "That’s why things are so divisive."
The crane is slowly building The Commencement, a seven-story condominium that has become more than just another construction project. Then-Mayor Kim Wheeler sold the rights to the schoolhouse’s playground for $4.25 million in 2004 to help keep the town afloat. Opponents of the building say it’ll increase traffic, strain services, block views and change Ruston’s unpretentious feel. Supporters maintain the influx of money is vital for a former company town with a small tax base.
"Before the Commencement, the town council meetings lasted 45 minutes, and they were attended by two or three people," said Huson, a condo opponent. "The whole Commencement thing was the beginning of the galvanization of residents in Ruston."
The Commencement is at the center of a crop of issues concerning the future – or demise – of Ruston. The redevelopment of the former smelter site the waterfront has proved divisive. The police and fire departments face uncertain futures. Huson is pushing to switch from a strong-mayor government to a city manager format. Possible unincorporation and annexation to Tacoma looms.
Two dominating personalities collide at town government meetings: Transue and Huson, who enjoys support of fellow council members Stebner and Dan Albertson on the five member council. Both say their disagreements aren’t personal but the two banter about the other.
Huson calls Transue "lazy and a micromanager" and believes he’s "a horrible mayor." Transue’s comments are more veiled, but his problems with the council sound like they’re directed largely at Huson.
"I think what we have is comparable to a large family squabble," Torbet said. "Members of families are generally more comfortable telling each other what they’re thinking."
The political divisiveness frustrates many residents.
"I don’t think it’s productive," said Sandra Alvstad, a 12 1⁄2-year resident. "I think it’s creating a lot of inefficiencies, and it’s not logical to me. I can’t figure out what’s driving this. It’s some root cause that we haven’t found yet."
The political turmoil appears to be worsening.
At a Jan. 14 study session, testy exchanges between Torbet and Albertson and between the mayor and an audience member prompted Huson to make a motion to adjourn the meeting after 20 minutes. That led to shouting matches between members of the audience and the council.
Later that week, Jim Reinhold was dismissed as Ruston’s police chief. His attorney said the firing was political and without due process; Transue doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
Two days later, Councilman Bob Everding resigned with two years left in his term. In his resignation letter, he called the town’s government "presently dysfunctional".
The three events contributed to a tense atmosphere at the council meeting on Jan. 22, when Huson’s proposed rules changes led to the outbursts.
Huson’s controversial motion included changes to ensure meetings wouldn’t exceed two hours, that all public comments will be held until right before adjournment and that each person would be limited to one, two minute comment period.
Jim Hedrick cast the sole vote against the rules changes, and his frustration with the other three remaining councilmen was palpable.
"To me, it’s like they want everyone to see that they’re using their power," he said later. "In a little neighborhood town like this. My God, this isn’t Detroit. This isn’t Seattle. This isn’t King County. This isn’t Olympia."
TAKING IT ONLINE
It didn’t take long for reaction to hit the Internet, the latest battleground for public opinion.
In an opinion piece entitled "Is Ruston Still in America?" posted on Ruston Home, former councilwoman Karen Pickett wrote that the rules seemed like "an overreaction that viciously rubs salt on a very wounded community. It feels a bit more like old-style communist Russia than America in Ruston right now."
One commenter was blunter: "Tonight, Ruston council members Bradley ‘Mussolini’ Huston, Dan ‘Adolph’ Albertson, and Wayne ‘Mao’ Stebner revealed their vision for the future of Ruston in a new land they want to call Amerika."
A rival online newsletter, Ruston Connection detailed the political turmoil but said the rule changes helped "council members take control of the Council meeting agenda to restore orderly and civil public discourse and to get business of government on track again."
The connection is run by Sally Everding, the wife of Bob Everding. It produces monthly newsletters, posts audio of council meetings and runs occasional articles. It appears to be closely aligned with Huson, Albertson and Stebner.
HOW TO FIX IT
Few in Ruston are happy with the current state of politics – but, like everything else, there’s no agreement on how to fix the situation.
If the root truly is lingering contempt over The Commencement, Hedrick said residents need to accept that the condo building will rise.
Huson maintains the pains are just part of the shift in power. When the old guard realizes it’s no longer in charge, he said, things will get better.
Stebner said Transue needs to remove people from public meetings when they interrupt proceedings. Transue, meanwhile, wants people to be more civil and wants more public comments.
There has also been talk of bringing in a mediator, but some reject that as too expensive.
"I don’t know if some of these bridges will ever be able to be rebuilt, but time can heal," Transue said. "People are so passionate about their views, but when things turn ugly, those wedges get driven in harder and harder, and they’re harder and harder to get out. It’s a difficult thing."