Diplomacy or blackmail?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 31, 2007

State officials have demonstrated how they can switch on the diplomacy.

At a public session Monday night in Southampton High School’s auditorium, representatives from the governor’s office did their best to allay fears that building an air base to be used for Naval fighter training somewhere in a rural portion of the county is unavoidable.

Earlier in the month, an announcement came from the governor’s Office of Commonwealth Preparedness that the state government, along with Naval officials, selected 10 Virginia sites close to Hampton Roads to build an 8,000-foot runway to relieve the congestion of Navy fighters training in the air over Oceana Naval Air Station and at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field. Four of the 10 are located in Southampton County.

In a word, the public and its elected and appointed officials were outraged. The public was outraged that the government could decide without input to disrupt personal lives by building such an airstrip that also brings with it incredible noise.

The fear of outright losing property to the government, or seeing surrounding properties lose their value spawned a flood of letters, considerable ill-will and a wave of suspicion.

Public officials were outraged that their state government identified potential sites without consulting local governments, giving the appearance that there was a break in the chain of governmental command. The lack of communication beforehand also left the local officials looking ill-prepared.

Assistant County Administrator Jay Randolph said as much. At a meeting of the county’s planning commission — the first public gathering since the surprised announcement became public — said,

“We were completely left in the dark by the governor’s office. I was a little disappointed in the governor’s office.”

In short, distrust was in the air.

On Monday in front of more than 500 residents starving for more information, Robert P. Crouch Jr., assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness, and his deputy, Steven Mondul, addressed the board.

Then Crouch offered a most revealing admission: “The governor is not going to compel uninterested communities into negotiations with the Navy.” He went on to say: “Nobody’s asking you to swallow the pill. What we’re asking is that you be open-minded.”

Accomplished diplomats possess a gift for making their point without stating it directly.

Earlier in his presentation, Crouch told supervisors that the governor is worried about losing the base at Oceana if a suitable landing facility — in either Virginia or North Carolina — cannot be found.

“We want to keep a naval presence in Virginia,” he said. “We’re concerned that there will be this big sucking sound of squadrons leaving Oceana if (the auxiliary airfield) moves too far away.”

Not stated was the potential loss of 12,000 jobs currently available at Oceana, and the millions of dollars pumped into the state’s economy.

So the diplomats dispatched by the governor said all the right things Monday night while keeping the wrong things to themselves.

We can’t help but think we didn’t witness diplomacy as much as we endured blackmail.