After failing the day before to deny a rumor he was resigning as Greensburg mayor, Lonnie McCollum called The Signal just before noon last Friday to say he was indeed stepping down from the post to which he was elected 14 months ago.
Three weeks to the day after an F5 tornado leveled his hometown, McCollum indicated he no longer felt up to dealing with either the sense of loss brought on by the storm, or the lack of uniformity in the survivors’ vision for rebuilding the devastated town.
“Everything I’ve worked to put into this town is gone,” McCollum said. “The shortsightedness of those who want to do it (rebuilding) fast, cheap and easy is too strong. I’m not up to fighting it. And the meeting the other night made it clear there’s too many that have no faith in the government taking the lead in putting this town back together.”
The reference to a lack of confidence in government stems from nearly 90 minutes’ worth of what McCollum calls “bickering” at a heavily attended city council meeting May 21. Local implement dealership co-owner Kelly Estes served that night as spokesman for an evolving group of business people concerned with commercial redevelopment, questioning moves the council had made a week earlier in response to the crisis.
Two of those actions—suspending the neighborhood revitalization act and imposing a graduated building permit fee schedule—were singled out for criticism by Estes in particular, in addition to expressing concern over an across-the-board building code that would add expense to the rebuilding of his business.
Though McCollum stated midway through Estes’s presentation he’d already determined to veto those two council actions, the former mayor said Estes “just kept right on going.”
McCollum referred to the questioning posture of Estes and others as a changing tide that doesn’t bode well for Greensburg’s rebuilding.
“Now the momentum in town is for letting everyone put it back the way it was, and now they think they can if they raise enough hell,” he said.
Saying he wanted to step down before everyone in town “hates me,” McCollum responded, “I don’t know” when asked if he planned to stay and rebuild in Greensburg. “I’ve got kids in other places, but I still might build here. I just don’t know right now.”
Asked about the timing of his resignation, McCollum acknowledged it “could have been better,” partially because of the added burden his departure places on City Administrator Steve Hewitt.
“He’ll have to stand his ground for what is right,” McCollum said. “But he can deal with a lack of unity better than I can.”
Just how much of a setback McCollum’s resignation could prove to be was a question Hewitt addressed when contacted Friday night, saying “Some can look at it as a setback and some will. But you know what? Some people cannot come back and rebuild, due to age, financial reasons, family issues. Lonnie’s age may be a factor in his decision (he turns 62 in August), requiring him to make a tough decision. His family has to come first. I’m disappointed he didn’t hang on a little longer, but he has to do what’s right for him and his family.”
Acknowledging the rebuilding process is one filled with “ups and downs”, Hewitt referred to McCollum’s resignation as one of the inevitable “bumps in the road to recovery” that the town “has to get over to move on.” Asked if he knew of any council members who might be leaving as well, Hewitt said he did not. “But if we lose any, which I hope we don’t, we’ll have to move on as we do with Lonnie’s leaving.”
Hewitt also said the current situation is one in which the council might want to reorganize, going from a seven-member format to five, especially since “no one has a district anymore since all the housing is gone. They’re all at-large members now, and they might want to consider going to a five-member council and mayor format.”
For the moment, however, the council is reduced to six since councilman Jon Janssen moves from vice mayor to mayor. Rather than going to five members, the council could also act to appoint a resident to fill Janssen’s vacated spot.
An outspoken member of council “sharing many of Lonnie’s views” according to Hewitt, Janssen will assume the mayor’s chair at Wednesday’s city council meeting. Hewitt expressed confidence in Janssen, saying, “he’ll be a good mayor for us. His outlook and approach isn’t all that much different than Lonnie’s.”
Hewitt seemed to agree with the factual basis for McCollum’s fear of many residents wanting to settle for less than what a rebuilt Greensburg could become.
“Yes, some want this done yesterday, but we can’t do it (rebuilding) fast and cheap,” Hewitt said. “It has to be done the right way. At the same time, we have to get all the people involved. They’re trying to make life-changing decisions in two to three weeks and that’s tough.
“But something they need to realize is that nothing is going to go back to the way it was. I know a lot of them want that, and they think they don’t need any rules and regulations in rebuilding. They just want us to let them put it back any way they want, but that’s irresponsible.”