Flying (Paper) Tigers: Why did the leaders of Alexandria’s England Authority abruptly resign?

One week ago, with no fanfare, no advanced warning, without even an office party hosted by his colleagues, Jon Grafton, a man who has been at the helm of the England Economic and Industrial Development District (also known as the England Authority and formerly known as England Air Force Base) for more than 24 years, drafted a hastily-written resignation letter, attached a two-page document of talking points touting his accomplishments and a fancy, colorful brochure. And then, he e-mailed the announcement to his board members and a small handful of local news outlets in Central Louisiana. This should have been a huge deal. Grafton had essentially served as the monarch of a tax-free enclave built on the remains of a decommissioned air force base in the heart of Louisiana, and during the past two and a half decades, he helped to transform the place into a federally-subsidized retirement and golf community with its own business park, fine dining restaurant, and boutique hotel, all anchored by a new, striking, $150M+ airport terminal. Bill Clinton was so impressed he visited the place when he was president. The Wall Street Journal extolled it as a model for military base re-use. In recent years, the air park, which is situated directly next to the city of Alexandria, has added millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and landscaping improvements. Grafton’s retirement should have been major news, but the local media barely paid it any attention. No one outside of Central Louisiana bothered to mention it. The story, however, isn’t just about one man’s resignation after 24 years on the job, because, as it turns out, he wasn’t the only person who resigned from the England Authority last Thursday afternoon. So too did Grafton’s long-time deputy, Ronnie Hair. As the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. According to multiple, independent sources, all of whom have direct knowledge of the chain of events leading up to the dual resignations, Grafton and Hair left the England Authority on the same exact day that the state legislative auditor paid them an on-campus visit, though they had been given a two-day advanced notice. The Bayou Brief reached out to both the state auditor, Daryl Purpera, and Jon Grafton, and at the time of publication, we have yet to hear back. (Full disclosure: Although I have only interacted with Grafton on a small handful of occasions, his wife was my sixth grade World Geography teacher. I adore and admire her, which makes this a tough story to write). Local news organizations in Alexandria are independently aware of the suspicious timing between the auditor’s visit and the resignations of the England Authority’s two most powerful, long-time officials, but, as one media professional told me, they are awaiting the results of the actual audit before publishing anything speculative. After speaking with more than a dozen people familiar with the story and after reviewing and reading the past twenty years of financial disclosures, audits, and news coverage about Grafton, Hair, and the England Authority, I respect the local media’s collective decision to refrain from mere speculation. However, I believe it is in the public’s best interest to know as many of the facts about this as possible in order to ensure that the people of Central Louisiana have a more complete understanding of the context and a more informed perspective on what should be done to guarantee the future of one of the region’s greatest assets. **** “Here’s a young punk, a grade school teacher, who has no experience in what he’s doing at all, wasn’t elected by you people,” former Alexandria Mayor Tillie Synder once quipped about his own city clerk. “No one knows who Jon Grafton is; he lives in Pineville. Most people don’t even know him, can’t see anything but his eyes; he has one of these heavy hippie type beards.” Before the age of the reality-TV president, before there was 24-hour-a-day cable news, Tillie Synder, the chief executive of the largest city in Central Louisiana, built his political brand and his following by insulting his colleagues and his neighbors on a nightly television program, a precursor to Alex Jones’s InfoWars, a show in which he yelled and grunted about absurd conspiracy theories, all while beaming into the living rooms of the 40,000 or so people who called him “Mr. Mayor.” There’s a good chance he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness: As mayor, he drained the city swimming pool and then restocked it as a catfish pond; the poor bottom-feeders died from chemical poisoning almost immediately. He once called an African-American councilman “an Uncle Tom” and “a chimpanzee,” and when he was asked to apologize, he instead doubled-down, referring to him as a “monkey man” and daring him to bring along “your own bananas” at their next political debate. This was in 1982, the year of his political comeback; John K. “Tillie”  Synder would recapture the Mayor’s Office, after sitting out a term, and he’d do so by winning the majority of African-American voters. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Tillie lambasted the young, long-haired city clerk, a detail mentioned in the late John Maginnis’s masterpiece on Louisiana politics, the book The Last Hayride. Jon Grafton may have looked like a bearded hippie, but, by most accounts, he could think circles around almost everyone in City Hall. They knew it. He knew it. And to many, it made him obnoxious. After several years serving as city clerk, Grafton, as one former elected official who worked with him at the time told me, had “overstayed his welcome,” though, still, no one ever questioned his tenacity and smarts. The England Authority was formed in 1991, after then-Gov. Buddy Roemer signed Act 142, and almost immediately, Jon Grafton seemed like the most natural and logical candidate for the position: He already knew practically everyone in town; he had a built-in rolodex of political officials and business leaders, and he possessed the equivalent of a phD in public administration. “Plus, we could finally get him out of City Hall,” the former official joked. **** Grafton officially joined the England Authority’s payroll in January of 1994, and the first four years of his tenure were, by any objective measurement, a smash success. On a freezing afternoon in March of 1996, Air Force One touched down near an outdoor stage that had been set up on the tarmac, and President Bill Clinton descended the steps of his plane and then glided up the stage, alongside Alexandria’s beloved, five-term mayor, the late Ned Randolph. England Air Park was, his wife Deborah later said, the most definitive part of his political legacy. Half of Alexandria had shown up that afternoon to listen to the president. I was there, nearly fourteen years old, tagging along with my family, and somehow, I found myself shaking hands with the Commander-in-Chief. It wasn’t just a memorable moment for me, though; it was one of the most iconic moments in the history of my hometown. On that day, President Clinton officially transferred the property deed of the base to the chairman of the England Authority, the late Jim Meyer, and then said to the thousands of us gathered, “I have to tell you that I have been all over this country looking at military bases. I have worked with communities all over America, personally, to help them start their communities up and to use these bases as economic assets. There is no place in the entire United States that has done a better job than Alexandria has.” It was a cathartic experience for Alexandria; the city had, just a few years prior, been almost certain that it was on its last gasps. The base closure was devastating. Thousands of people moved away. Property values plummeted by 25%. Unemployment was skyrocketing. But the vision behind the revitalization of that old air force base and the leaders who believed in and implemented that vision turned something that seemed like a symbol of doom into a point of pride. Jon Grafton will always deserve an enormous amount of credit for building back that community pride. Unfortunately, though, while the massive infusions of federal dollars bolstered the renewal of the city’s old air force base, it also, eventually, became a source of tension within the community. Alexandria is 57% African-American, and since the England Authority’s inception, the board has never even been remotely close to reflecting the city’s demographic make-up. Currently, there are only two African-Americans who even work for the Authority, neither of whom are in executive-level positions. Because leadership is made through political appointments (incidentally, two of the ten members are nominated by the Chamber of Commerce), its policy and spending agendas are too often either in competition with or completely in opposition to the municipality and region it is supposed to serve. The other obvious problem with a quasi-public entity that relies exclusively on taxpayer money but is governed by an unelected group of political appointees: Oversight and accountability are enormously challenging, and it’s far too easy to forget the job is about public service. **** In the case of Jon Grafton, this first became apparent twenty years ago. In 1998, Grafton was putting the finishing touches on a home he constructed in Charles Park Extension. (Alexandria is a small town; my late father was the developer of that subdivision). One of Grafton’s employees accused him and Ronnie Hair, the same deputy who also resigned last week, of stealing fencing and landscaping equipment for his personal use. Grafton fired the employee, Joe Slowenski, and as a consequence, several members of the England Authority made a concerted effort to fire both Grafton and Hair. On June 24th, 1998, commissioners met for more than two hours to determine the fate of the two men, in a meeting that was completely closed to the public and the media. By the end of it, Grafton and Hair were given a vote of confidence; their jobs were safe. And then, only a few days later, Grafton continued his purge. From June 30, 1998: For more than three months, the story dominated the headlines of the local newspaper, The Town Talk. It was an enormous scandal at the time, and prominent Alexandria lawyers scrambled to find their way into the drama and put their names in print. All three of the men Grafton fired, it turns out, were former employees of the Air Force base, which garnered them a great deal of public sympathy and support, and Grafton was frequently described as arrogant and abrasive; members of his own commission spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly express their dislike of him, and some spoke publicly about replacing him as soon as possible. Of course, it never materialized. Both Jon Grafton and Ronnie Hair survived that scandal and remained at the top of the England Authority for another twenty years. Allies and friends of Grafton claim he resigned because of a commission that had splintered into opposite, warring factions and because of health concerns related to a recent heart attack he suffered during a public meeting. That, of course, does not explain the strange and sudden timing, nor does it explain his deputy’s decision to also resign. And while we do not yet have the report from the actual state legislative auditor, we do have this most recent report from the England Authority, which was filed with the auditor. There’s an interesting and noteworthy “audit finding” buried all the way down on page 50. **** In the past, I have been critical of the England Authority’s raison d’être. It baffled me when Grafton decided to compete against the city of Alexandria for development and educational funding opportunities. Three years ago, for example, the England Authority attempted to wrest away a $23 million community college campus from the city. More recently, the England Authority is set to spend nearly $4 million to construct a “community center” that is actually designed to compete against city-owned and privately-owned convention centers, and if you dig a little deeper, they haven’t exactly been subtle about their true intentions. The slideshow the engineer presented during a recent public meeting makes no mention of the actual “community” this center would service (because very few people live anywhere nearby), but it does reference the competition: I have previously argued in favor of sunsetting the England Authority, because it strikes me as offensive and fundamentally unjust for a federally-funded and unelected political subdivision to throw around millions and millions of tax dollars on vanity projects when, only a few miles away, where people actually live, there’s a need for basic infrastructure improvements. However, considering the England Authority now has the opportunity to start fresh, with new leadership, I would be more than happy to give the next administration a fair shot and an open mind, but there is one caveat: No one on the commission should be allowed to nominate a candidate as their next Executive Director. Small town, good ol’ boy nepotism discredits the Authority’s legitimacy more than anything else. These commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to the nation’s taxpayers to seek out the very best talent, wherever they can find it, and if they cannot appreciate that obligation, they should follow Jon Grafton’s and Ronnie Hair’s example and resign immediately. There’s a saying in the military: “In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor.”