What did they know, and when?

Published 10:35 pm Thursday, May 28, 2009

The defining question of the Watergate era came to mind this week during a review of reactions to the surprising news that Suffolk Economic Development Director Cindy Cave had suddenly “resigned” her position without even providing two weeks’ notice.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” That was the question famously posed by Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee as senators grilled John Dean about the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters offices at the Watergate Office Building. Underlying that question was the assumption that President Richard M. Nixon was sure to have had some idea about the activities of those who worked for him.

Americans expect that their elected officials at all levels of government have a pretty good handle on what their administrators are up to. That’s why it was so hard to fathom the comments of Mayor Linda Johnson and various City Council members regarding Cave’s sudden departure from an important leadership position in Suffolk.

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“It’s not really my business,” the mayor is reported to have said this week. This is the same mayor who, during the election campaign last fall — on the heels of a string of sudden departures by high-level city employees — told Suffolk News-Herald readers, “There is no ‘revolving door’ in Suffolk’s administrative leadership. The ‘revolving door’ myth is perpetuated by those who resist any change.”

Ten high-ranking city officials — including eight at the department-head level or higher — have abruptly left the city’s employment in the last two years, but the mayor wanted citizens to believe there is no “revolving door.” Now, it would seem that she and other City Council members would like citizens to believe that Suffolk’s elected officials don’t even have a real right to ask the city manager what’s going on with her staff.

When Sen. Baker asked John Dean his famous question more than 30 years ago, it would soon become evident that the President knew far more than he originally had led Americans to believe he did. It beggars the imagination that Suffolk’s economic development director — one of the city’s most important administrative officials — could be forced to resign without the mayor and City Council knowing more than they’ve led citizens to believe this week.

And if they really didn’t know what was afoot on Market Street, that fact could be even more distressing than any reticence about sharing the details of Cave’s departure. Most disturbing of all, however, is the assertion that it’s “not really (their) business.” Who’s in charge at City Hall, anyway?