The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance
City Council, May 6
Withholding the Routley report “was not the best”
An emotionally charged meetingMarc Knapp
Everybody knows that Mayor Riley changed his mind about the release of the Routley report. Last Friday, the Mayor announced that the release of the report would be delayed indefinitely. By yesterday, he had changed his mind and announced that it would be released on May 15. For us, the surprise was not that he changed his mind. The surprise was the first decision, to delay issuing the report. Commissioned by the City, the report was expected to be the most definitive on last year’s tragic fire at the Sofa Super store. The Mayor surely was aware of the indignation a delay would stir among the citizenry, and particularly firefighters and the families of the fallen. The stream of citizens appearing before Council over the last few months seeking the release of the report can hardly have escaped his notice.
Need to review photos and other reports, Mayor claimed
When the Mayor announced last Friday the indefinite withholding of the report, he cited the need to review new evidence, in particular photographs of the fire that came to light following requests to the public by the Post and Courier. He also indicated that reports by State and Federal authorities would not be completed for some months. These needed to be reviewed before finalizing the Routley report, he said. But the authors subsequently said that the report had been finalized and nothing was likely to change on receipt of the other reports.
But decision to withhold report “was not the best”
At last night's Council meeting, the Mayor confessed that the decision to withhold the report “was not the best”. He had discussed the issue with families of the fallen firefighters, and City firemen. They had expressed disappointment and more, about the postponement. “Working out what is the right thing to do is the hardest thing”, he said.
Notwithstanding the fact that the decision to release the report had been broadcast over local media earlier in the day, some 30 or so firefighters or family of the fallen turned up at last night's Council meeting. They planned to urge the immediate release. But their comments were made moot by the Mayor's change of mind. Notwithstanding, a number still rose in Citizens Participation and declared the importance of the report and the need for the immediate release.
Most moving speech in Council hearings we have heard
The most notable speeches were those by Mary Hutchinson, who lost a son in the fire, and by her other son. Mrs. Hutchinson made the most moving speech we have ever heard in City chambers. She spoke of her grief and her long experience and association with the City's fire department. She asked plaintively when will “the City hold anybody responsible for the deaths” of the firefighters.
Her son spoke next and in similar vein. He asked why he and his mother never heard from the City. What was going in relation to memorializing the dead was learned from others. He spoke of the lack of trust in the City in the wake of the fire. The release of the report “will be the beginning, not the end” of the Sofa Super Store issue. “There will be accountability” he declared.
“This is not over”
Mr. Roger Yow, of the local firefighters union, followed Mr. Hutchison and commented on the moving speech of Mrs. Hutchison. “This is not over”, he stated. “We need to be sure that it (the Sofa Super store fire) never happens again”.
As we listened to Mrs. Hutchison, we traveled a small part of the way to feel her grief. What hell it must be to travel all of the way. We confess to teary eyes by the time she returned to her seat. And we wonder what the Mayor felt. We hope it was a similar emotion to ours, and wonderment that he even considered delaying the report’s release.
Did other factors sway the Mayor?
Were the Mayor’s emotions the sole consideration in his change of mind? We can’t help wondering whether there was another factor. We did not canvas all of the Council members but we got a feel yesterday that many were very displeased about the earlier decision of the Mayor to withhold the report. We don’t know, but if it came to a vote on Council, it is possible Council would have voted for the immediate release. And if the vote came after Mrs. Hutchison’s speech it might have been unanimous….OK, with a clear majority.
The test now will be the Routley report itself. The earlier decision by the Mayor to delay the report spawned thoughts of a cover-up - for what other reason would the Mayor want to delay its release? Its authors said it was complete, and nothing would be gained in a delay. The authors also were experts in their field and chosen by the City.
Planned delay of release will spawn greater scrutiny
Most of us expect there will be criticism of the City and the Fire Department in the report. How trenchant this will be, we don’t know. But the original decision of the Mayor to delay the report generated suspicion. The report is now likely to receive even more scrutiny by citizens and firefighters. And with the delay that the Mayor originally sought, motives ascribed to the Mayor’s madness in delaying the report will gain greater currency.