The hearing opens and in walks Cary Malchow, a clothing-shop owner bearing political ambitions and what might as well be a lit fuse. He demands that the City Council investigate one of its own. “This city has a member on its council, Monte Murphy, who has been publicly accused of the ultimate misconduct,” Malchow begins.
Bang! Bang! Bang! President Sam Marshall pounds his gavel to protect his fellow Democrat. “Sir, we will not have any …”
But Murphy doesn’t need Marshall’s help. He makes his own defense. Publicly accused? “By who?” More interruptions. “No, wait a minute. He brung up my name. By who?”
Malchow calmly replies that he read about the accusations in the newspaper. Returning to his prepared remarks, the businessman cites a city code allowing for corruption inquiries, before he is cut off again.
“Hey!” Marshall shouts. “We’re going to stop this meeting if this continues …”
Malchow is undeterred. If Murphy consents to an investigation, then he can “prove his innocence,” Malchow says. “By saying no, you’re leaving no doubt in everybody’s mind of a cover-up and that the gentleman is surely guilty.”
At this pronouncement, all hell breaks loose in City Hall. “That’s enough! Marshall shouts, banging the gavel. “That’s enough! That’s enough, sir! You’ve had enough time.”
“No, I haven’t,” Malchow avows.
Marshall rolls up his sleeves in a cartoonish gesture. He looks ready to fight. “You’ve had your three minutes, sir.”
“No, I haven’t,” Malchow says. “We have set standards …”
“Sir!” Marshall yells.
“… for students …”
“… athletes …”
“… and coaches and teachers …”
“Get this guy out,” Marshall growls.
McShurley’s crowd of supporters jump to their feet and chant, “Let him speak! Let him speak!” Marshall gets up and declares, “This meeting is over.” He grabs his glasses from the council table and walks away. People are wagging fingers and shouting.
Within hours, the video is on YouTube. Four years later, Democratic and Republican voters remember it with pinched faces and rolled eyes. “And we wonder why people don’t vote in this city?” asks Virginia Nilles, Muncie’s head librarian, the force behind a civic group formed to fill the leadership vacuum at City Hall.
And why should voters trust City Hall? The rookie mayor’s arrogance and Democratic intransigence ensured that McShurley’s term was a disaster. Murphy was convicted of felonious possession of absentee ballots and stripped of his council spot (the charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor). McShurley got revenge against Marshall by laying him off from his city job (he had been a supervisor at the city’s street department while serving as council president).
Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, McShurley looks back on four years of voter discontent and says, “We have ourselves to blame.” In 2008, she had confessed that her election was the result of a less-than-honest campaign: While promising to bring new jobs to the city, she didn’t tell voters that they would have to settle for far less pay and benefits in postindustrial Muncie. “They want $30-an-hour factory jobs, $15-an-hour benefits packages. No continuing education,” a dismissive McShurley told a reporter a few months into her term. “They want it just like their grandparents had it, just like some of their parents had it.”
Four years later, McShurley has little regret. “Why wasn’t I more honest with voters?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question: “They didn’t want to hear it.” Voters may have lost faith in their leaders, but the leaders, too, have lost faith in the people. McShurley didn’t trust voters to accept the truth in 2007, so she danced around it. It’s no wonder that just 19 percent of the voting-eligible public cast ballots in last year’s mayoral race. And it’s a national problem: After a 50-year decline, just 14 percent of respondents in a 2011 Gallup Poll said that the federal government could be trusted “a great deal.” It’s a vicious cycle. Voters don’t like hard truths; so politicians spin us; so we don’t trust politicians; so politicians pander and lie to us.
In this, too, Muncie’s story is the story of America.
FIGHTING CITY HALL
“I’m here to appeal my weed citation.” Johnny Whitmire’s issue is the third item on the agenda for the Muncie Board of Public Works and Safety. For this official occasion, he wears a clean jean jacket. Despite everything he has been through, he’ll take a chance that government can help. The board meets every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the City Hall auditorium. A dozen people, mostly city employees, file in as board attorney John Quirk calls the meeting to order. The agenda fills one double-spaced page and hints at nothing special: Old business … Comptroller’s reporter … AT&T bill … Weed Appeal.
Sitting behind an elevated polished-wood dais, Quirk and two other board members look down on Whitmire when his turn comes. Quirk tells Whitmire that the house at 1900 W. 10th is still in Whitmire’s name. “It’s a fairly common practice,” he says. “Citi doesn’t want any liability should anybody get hurt on the property.”
“So I’m liable for a house I don’t live in or own?” Whitmire sputters.
Yes, Quirk says. “I move that we put a $300 lien on the property and waive your fine, Mr. Whitmire.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Whitmire asks.
Quirk explains that the board’s action would require whoever buys the house to pay the weed fee.
“What if I buy it back?” Whitmire wants to know. Despite everything, he still has hopes.
“In that case,” Quirk answers, “keep track of the times you cut the lawn, and we’ll add to our motion a waiver of the lien should you buy the house back from Citi. That sound fair to you?”
“Sounds like a deal to me,” Whitmire agrees.
The board votes unanimously for the motion. Whitmire wanders out of the auditorium. “Oh, my God,” Whitmire says, his eyes wide with a smile. “Something just worked at City Hall.”
Desperate enough to try, Whitmire showed up to fight City Hall at a public meeting attended by few other members of the public. Somehow, after his travails, he thought government would work. Even more miraculously, it did. A low-level city board gave a guy a break. Its members showed that institutions can respond to change and help people after all.
But it’s a small victory for Whitmire. He and his wife are still unemployed. He is no longer eligible for the federal mortgage-relief program. He is bankrupt. His credit is destroyed. And he’s living in a trailer, with no expectation of rejoining the middle class. He has been buffeted, again and again, by forces that never had his interests at heart.
As he strolls out of City Hall and makes plans to cut the grass at 1900 W. 10th St., this man from Middletown still has little reason to believe in the system that took so much from him.
This story is part of a yearlong series that examines America’s crumbling foundations and how to rebuild them. Find more on the Web at nationaljournal.com/restoration-calls.
CORRECTION: Whitehead says she had a good relationship with public-school teachers, contrary to a clause in an earlier version of this article. It was Leffel who complained about parent-teacher communication. Also, an earlier version misspelled Whitmire's name in one instance.