Eminent Domain: 17, The Meeting in Courtroom A

The Friday posts are chapters from my fiction project, Eminent Domain. They’re long, and they’re not for everyone, but if you read, I’d be glad for your comments, critical or otherwise. 

17 The Meeting in Courtroom A
Monday, Feb. 22, 1988

Alex was almost right when he suggested they would be sitting up front facing the crowd like a tribunal. Instead, the tables had been arranged in an L shape. The smaller table facing the crowd was for Ross, Jonathan Lee Esquire, and the Honorable Tom Del’Olio. The longer second table, perpendicular and a little offset, was for the four of them. Phyllis was seated over to the left with the court stenographer, who had been hired for the occasion as well.

They walked in together at 6:45 and took their seats up front. Tom Del’Olio didn’t stay seated for long; almost immediately he jumped back up and walked over to shake hands, or pound people’s backs, or schmooze. “That’s what the guy does best,” Henry said under his breath.

Of the five from the local office, Phyllis seemed the most at ease. She was smiling at people in the audience and waving at every new person who walked through the door. She knows almost everyone, Alex thought. He looked around. He knew Angie. There she was sitting near the back with Burton Stewart and a woman who must be Burton’s wife. She smiled and blew him a kiss. Bill Clancey and Pat, the photographer, and a couple of other people who must be reporters were standing in the back. And oh, good grief, there was Paulie Matson. He looked away quickly to Keith and whispered, “How many of these people do you know?”

“Eh, I don’t know… a few. Don’t worry about it, Boss,” Keith said. “Let’s hope Ross and his buddies do all the talking.”

“I’m counting on you to sound intelligent, Keith,” Alex whispered.

“We want your trust and we will work hard to be fair and unbiased,” Keith grinned. “Hey, we’ve got Dana, she’s pretty and smart and literate. It’s all cool.”

“Then why am I sweating?” Alex asked.

“Just remember your line,” Dana said with a straight face. He couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.

The crowd was large but seemed subdued; Ross had been right about people behaving in a courtroom. Those in attendance cut a wide swath across socio-economic and political lines. There were long-haired thirty-somethings, corduroy-jacketed university professors, community leaders from various groups, a few men dressed in camouflage hats and hunting jackets, farmers, and just folks. At 6:55 there were very few spaces left — just one section near the front, that would probably be filled when those standing and talking to Del’Olio tried to find a seat. The courthouse bell began to ring the hour, Del’Olio made his way to the front, and Ross stood up to welcome everyone to the SR 592 Informational Meeting.

Ross was his charming self as he introduced everyone up front. He made sure that all in attendance knew that notes were being taken of every word said, and every word said would be carefully listened to and taken under consideration. And suddenly, he went into Bureaucrat Mode — the tempo of his speech slowed and took on a monotone quality. He droned on and on about how projects get put into the Twelve Year Plan and the Three Year Plan and the differences between the two plans.

“His plan is to put everyone to sleep,” Keith wrote on the tablet in front of him, and Alex had to bite the corners of his mouth to keep from laughing. Suddenly he felt like he was back in seventh grade, and he relaxed.

Ross speechified for at least ten more minutes. When he finally stopped, several hands went up. “Yes, we will take questions,” he said, “but first I’d like for you to hear Tom Del’Olio speak.”

The Honorable Thomas Del’Olio got up and smiled at the crowd. He paused, as if he were waiting for applause, and when none came, his smile disappeared and he began to speak. Every sentence in his speech starts with I, Alex thought. I did this, and I’m going to do that, and I want your trust and I will work hard to be fair and unbiased. Next to him Keith burst into a coughing fit and needed a glass of water to finally subdue himself. Alex was afraid to look at him.

Del’Olio spoke for five minutes until he got down to the important points of sponsoring the road plan so it could get on the Three Year Plan. Then he went back to the I sentences. I am on the House Transportation Committee; I have friends all over the state who will cosponsor this legislation; I believe we can get this road fixed very very soon… And then he launched into why the road should be straightened. He had statistics in his hand, and he read them all. When he finally thanked everyone for listening and sat down, it was 7:45.

Hands went up all over the room.

Ross looked around nervously and pointed to the most mild-mannered looking person he could find. Ben Strait stood up and poked Willis who was sitting in the row in front of him. “Willis, you stand up too — If you don’t mind sir, we’re going to talk together, since we have similar situations.” Willis stood up. He was a large man who towered over Ben; he was wearing coveralls with an embroidered logo that read Jobe’s Towing, Inc.

Ross smiled. “Two for one — go ahead gentlemen.”

Ben cleared his throat. His glasses had slipped down on his nose, and he looked much like the stereotypical absent-minded professor. “I think everyone here agrees that the curves on Rte. 592 are very dangerous. My wife and I served dinner to the trucker who was killed in the accident and urged him to wait out the storm.” His voice faltered. “These…. these weeks have been very emotional for us. But the point I’d like to make is that our store, and Willis’ gas station and towing service are both situated on two curves that are most certainly considered dangerous. What is going to happen to our livelihoods, our businesses, our houses, if these curves are straightened?”

A murmur of voices swept across the room. Ross stood up and waited for silence. He half-turned and motioned at the table next to him. “I understand everyone’s concern. These Transportation Engineers, at this table, are the ones who are responsible for designing this new road. They are local. You know them; they know you. We have not sourced this project out to an engineering company from Philadelphia, or New York, or Chicago. Because we want you to have trust in them — that they will do their absolute best —  for you who live, and drive, and have your livelihood on Rte. 592.”

Willis was still standing. He looked directly at Ross and said, “That was very eloquently spoken, sir. And yes, we appreciate the fact that these are local people, but you didn’t answer our question.”

Jonathan Lee, Esquire, stood up. He was a small, trim Asian man with dark horn-rimmed glasses and thick black hair. His voice was quiet and precise. “In cases where the state has interest in private property it may, with due process, pay a fair market value to the owners of the property. Although it may seem like a complicated process, it can actually be done quite quickly and fairly to all parties involved. Sometimes only a small amount of property is needed, sometimes a large section. Buildings and right of ways, of course, command more remuneration; however, engineers generally try to avoid capital improvements if at all possible. Each instance is dealt with individually and fairly as the case allows, so no blanket statement can be given.”

The murmuring was louder after Attorney Lee sat down. Ross stood up and many hands went up at the same time. Ross pointed, and a man in a hunting jacket stood up. “I’d like to know if the road will go through the state game lands. I hunt out there and so do lots of people. There’s trails and ponds and acreage out there that I don’t want to be lost because of a road.”

Ross looked at the table of engineers. “I’d like to introduce you to Alex Goddard, the Acting Chief Engineer of PennDOT District 13. Alex would you like to comment on that question?” Alex stood up, thankful that the first question was actually one he could speak about. “We are only in the preliminary stages, sir, but at this point, we have no plans to put the redesigned SR 592 through the Conquonessing Game Lands.”

“Where is the road going?” someone called out from the back.

“Don’t answer that, Alex,” Ross said. “We are going to have an orderly meeting with hands raised.”

Immediately many hands were raised. Ross pointed, and Ethan Price stood up. He grinned because he was fairly certain Ross had been pointing at his more respectable looking father who was sitting next to him. But Ethan had grabbed the chance. “I’d just like to ask where is the road going?”

The crowd laughed, and Alex smiled. “I’d answer that if I could, but like I said, we are still in the preliminary stages. I don’t want to say one thing and have it not happen and I don’t want to unnecessarily worry anyone. I do want to make sure that you all know this: everyone of us who is working on redesigning this road, understands that these are your homes, your businesses, your farms. We are going to try our best to do the least amount of damage to your property. We will personally come to talk to you and explain what we’d like to do. We will welcome your input and we will try our best to be just and equitable with everyone.”

There was no crowd murmuring when Alex sat down, just silence. He couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. He looked at Angie, and she gave him a thumbs up.

Ross pointed to another raised hand; Linda from The Chronicle was sitting in the crowd disguised as a regular person. “What is the tentative budget for this project?” she asked.

Dana pencilled on her tablet, “Good question. I’d like to know that too.”

Tom Del’Olio stood up. “The projected budget is 53 million dollars. Of course, that can be changed by the legislature when it comes before them, but at that time, we will know more about the actual costs. That figure does not include any bridges, should one need to be built or re-built. The governor is supporting this road re-redesign too, as a way of bringing more jobs into this area. He has committed to support it, on the condition that all companies and labor will be local.”

There were more hands. A man who had on a yellow Hattiesville Hornets t-shirt stood up. “Why wouldn’t a bridge be included? The bridge over Fox Creek at Four Corners definitely needs to be rebuilt. I would think that’s an obvious oversight.”

Keith raised his hand to get Ross’ attention. Ross was looking flummoxed, so Keith just stood up and said, “I think I can address that question. That bridge at Four Corners is already on the Three Year Plan and slated for rebuilding next year. That is the project I‘ve been working on; Ross, can you explain how the two might be combined?”

Ross nodded. “Thank you, Keith. That’s it exactly. If there are already projects on the books for the road in question, they will be consumed by the new project and that budget transmitted to the new.”

A few more questions were answered, but once people realized that nothing definite would be discussed, they began to think of the time, and what they had to do tomorrow morning. Some folks, probably from Hattiesville, got up to leave. Jack had been sitting next to Mary and John — Elizabeth had stayed at home with Rufus and the kids — so he got up from his seat and went to stand at the back. There were plenty of business cards in his pocket; he wasn’t going to advertise, but if anyone asked him for one, he had them ready.



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