KEVIN LEININGER: It’s time for Mayor Tom Henry and Clerk Lana Keesling to bury the hatchet, and not in each other
When I wrote earlier this month how Mayor Tom Henry had been driving with an expired license plate since the day before Christmas, I tried to keep things in perspective by pointing out such a violation “hardly rises to the level of scandal.”
How wrong I was.
I’ve been a journalist in this town for more than 38 years, and I can’t remember a press conference quite like the one a visibly emotional City Clerk Lana Keesling conducted Monday in which she accused Henry of bullying and retaliation for the $100 ticket he received from one of Keesling’s parking officers just two days after my story was published. Keesling presented evidence to support her claim: emails from Henry stating her Citizens Square parking spot would be reassigned, along with Henry’s alleged serial admissions that the change was indeed in response to the ticket.
That was followed Wednesday — just hours before Henry gave his annual State of the City address — by Keesling’s release of a recording she secretly made of a Feb. 8 conversation with Henry she contends proves her “retaliation” claim.
Such a big spat over what started as a relatively small deal might be almost humorous in a perverse sort of way if it were not so serious, potentially harmful and in desperate need of a speedy, amicable and lasting resolution. It’s a comedy of errors could have been easily avoided.
The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles could have issued a permanent plate to Henry’s city-owned car in a more timely manner. When that didn’t happen, the city could have extended his temporary plate at no cost. When that didn’t happen, he could have heeded Keesling’s advice and avoided parking on the Citizens Square lot, where one of Keesling’s officers might see it. When that didn’t happen, Henry could have made sure the fine was paid instead of responding in such a petty and unprofessional way.
Because none of that happened, a legitimate but admittedly minor story originally dismissed by Henry and ignored by every other media in town is now Big News. And why not? The story has gained some compelling elements: politics (Henry is a Democrat, Keesling a Republican); gender (Keesling repeatedly suggested — unfairly and unwisely, in my opinion — that Henry would have responded differently had she been a man); and so-called “fake news” (one of Henry’s emails suggested the “juvenile” News-Sentinel “doesn’t have any other stories to write about.)” It’s even morphed into a hi-tech replay of history: Keesling, who won office in 2015 after I reported how undercover video documented office partisan politicking under predecessor Democrat Sandy Kennedy, now using undercover audio of her own to support her claim.
Frankly, it’s past time for this nonsense to end.
Henry extended an olive branch Tuesday when he announced the imminent restoration of Keesling’s parking space. Although some might consider his email to Keesling about how “It’s become apparent the reassignment of parking spaces at Citizens Square has caused you a lot of angst” to be slightly snarky, it was nevertheless a welcome first effort to break the ice. That Keesling chose to respond by releasing the audio restating her previous contention that she had been “bullied and retaliated against for doing the job she was elected to do” was an unnecessary escalation of a situation that demands calm.
The audio reinforces some of Keesling points, true, but offers few new insights. She is, clearly, still angry that Henry dismissed the conflict between the two as a mere disagreement instead of an abuse of power, but in fact he has not explicitly denied or contradicted her most damaging accusations.
In other words, she had made her point and prevailed: She enforced the law, properly defended herself and her staff and exposed actions that deserved public scrutiny. She should be satisfied with that, and Henry should be gracious enough to offer the apology Keesling still deserves, and she should be gracious enough to accept.
To do otherwise, or to exacerbate the situation further, would inject an air of partisanship into the mix a year before the next city election. As Henry’s Wednesday address reiterated, there is much to celebrate about where Fort Wayne is today, and its prospects for an even better future. A candidate’s temperament is always fair game, but building a better city should be the goal of whoever is elected the next mayor or clerk, and Henry and Keesling — both of whom have many talents strengths — should now demonstrate they have the strength to forgive, if not forget.
Whatever happens, leave it to the voters to remember.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.