or none of the above
It’s obvious, even to someone who spends eight months of the year 551 miles away, that there long has been a concerted effort — well beyond normal electioneering — to unseat Marion Mayor Mary Olson.
In many regards, next week’s election isn’t so much a battle between Olson and Councilman Todd Heitschmidt, with dark horse Steve Unruh thrown in to liven things up, as it is a battle between pro- and anti-Olson forces.
This isn’t the first time Olson has faced such a battle. Four years ago, the city endured a humiliating debacle when various elements of city government, at the time including David Mayfield and Gene Winkler, attempted right before a previous mayoral election to have Olson prosecuted for enquiring about the financial stability of a business that received city money — a business that, as it turned out, later went broke. Both Mayfield and the business’ owner were former highway patrolmen.
After a five-month inquiry, the state declined to recommend action, citing “long-standing bad blood” between Olson and Mayfield, who at the time was city administrator. In fact, rather than pursue charges against Olson for defaming the business, as Winkler had seemed to be requesting as a council member, the KBI came closer to questioning whether Mayfield had defamed Olson.
Mayfield later resigned and ran for council, only to be disqualified for petition irregularities. Unfortunately, the squabble did not end there. Those attending council meetings since then have almost universally come away with the impression that some in city government — notably Heitschmidt and Mayfield’s successors, Doug Kjellin and Roger Holter — have frequently spoken to Olson in a decidedly demeaning manner.
Outside of council chambers, several have long engaged in private efforts to portray her first as senile, a word that several of those involved specifically used, and later as disorganized and unable to communicate clearly.
The rumors were so pervasive that this writer made it a point to attend as many council meetings as possible. The question was whether Marion’s problems seemed attributable to weak leadership or whether the concerns expressed were more about that fact that Olson is both older and female in a political world that seems more comfortable functioning as the County Commission does — with benign despotism that borders on well-intentioned bullying.
We found Olson to be a unique personality — sometimes a bit schoolmarmish, sometimes trying others’ patience while insisting on getting answers to questions, but often making astute judgments and always keeping the long-term interests of the city at heart.
We found no less in Heitschmidt — a sharp, dedicated and insightful business leader whose patience is more than occasionally tried by those he perceives to be less enlightened than he.
The shame here is that both individuals — warts and all — can’t somehow cooperate rather than confront. For what it’s worth, Olson seems remarkably unconcerned with her own political image while Heitschmidt, who will remain on the council even if he loses, repeatedly points out that, in the end, he and Olson usually vote the same way on council issues.
What’s concerning is the unprecedented focus to the anti-Olson campaign, reminiscent of the anti-Mayfield campaign that led to her original election and that of council member Jerry Kline. Not only is a former economic developer and longtime Mayfield crony organizing a social media campaign for Heitschmidt. Members of what was presumed to be the non-partisan Marion Pride Committee have taken the unprecedented step of joining in writing a letter endorsing him.
This newspaper, meanwhile, has been accused of being pro-Olson, ostensibly because of our coverage of yet another election-eve dust up — this time over whether Olson’s legal authority to nominate a new city clerk was usurped. One of our city’s more cowardly residents anonymously, threateningly and flat out wrongly assailed the admirable professional ethics of news editor Adam Stewart for providing balanced coverage of that story.
While Olson has seemed concerned mainly about the impact this dust up will have on the candidate in question, her opponents have argued that the procedure used was the same as was used to select a previous clerk. At the same time, they freely admit that Olson was dissatisfied with those procedures and that the procedures resulted in hiring a clerk who lasted only two weeks on the job.
Whatever the outcome of next week’s election, it’s time for both sides to accept whatever leadership emerges and stop the sniping over backroom dealings, whether they be about zoning regulations hurting development, truck parking in Jex Addition, tower approvals for the county jail and the rest of a long litany of brush wars that have broken out as skirmishes in an ongoing battle between those who want leadership from a mayor and those who prefer it from an administrator.
In many ways, the most sensible vote in Tuesday’s election would be to vacate the position of mayor and start rethinking the role played by Marion’s uniquely convoluted government structure. But that would be a wasted vote. So pick your side, see whether you prevail, then agree to accept without question or combat the will of the voters for the next four years.
— ERIC MEYER