But, a pint or two in at my favorite new Harrisburg brewery, a friend and I began raising our voices over something we actually agree about—that we’re both angry, really angry, at John Campbell.
For sure, we’re not alone. The disgraced former Harrisburg treasurer upset plenty of people who had trusted him with their confidence and their money.
Heck, two months before Campbell’s arrest on theft charges, TheBurg helped host a party in his honor as he departed Historic Harrisburg Association, where he had been executive director. And my friend and I both were members of organizations where Campbell has been accused of taking money.
So, I guess we needed to vent, which we did, loudly, in contrast to the sounds of folks happily enjoying their La Dolce Vita drafts and their mutual company and the din of the jukebox at Zeroday Brewing.
We vocally debated Harrisburg’s version of “he who must not be named,” but, in the process, disagreed about something fundamental.
I hold many of us at least partially responsible for the phenomenon that was John Campbell; my friend doesn’t.
“He was a con man,” my friend said. “How could anyone have known that?”
Con man, no doubt. But I insisted that Campbell never should have had such positions of authority in the first place.
“He was a 21-year-old kid still in college when he was hired,” I countered, insisting (without success) that Campbell should have been flagged as too young and too inexperienced to serve as director or treasurer of anything important.
A person, I believe, is responsible for his own actions. However, that also pertains to the supporting actors, those who played lesser parts in a situation that goes spectacularly wrong.
I feel largely the same way about the city’s financial collapse.
Former Mayor Steve Reed, without question, tops the list of people responsible for Harrisburg’s fiscal chaos. However, in a flow chart of blame, you could list, in descending order, Reed’s direct underlings; the professionals who advised him; the Harrisburg Authority; members of City Council; the Dauphin County commissioners; numerous state officials; the supine media; and the voters.
Not that anybody has accepted this blame. A few years back, during a state Senate committee hearing on the city’s massive incinerator debt, every witness called upon, including Reed himself, denied responsibility. Evidently, Harrisburg’s near-bankruptcy happened without anyone causing it.
In fact, during the Reed administration, signals abounded that his consolidation of power was troubling and that the city’s finances were increasingly out-of-whack. Some residents tried to sound the alarm, but they invariably were shouted down, mocked or ignored.
You could make a long list of the ill-advised projects that the Reed administration championed, often financing them through strange, convoluted deals. For the sake of this column, I’ll limit my focus to what might be the most surreal—Reed’s attempt to build not one, but “five nationally scaled museums” (his words) in a poor, tiny city in central Pennsylvania.
New museums typically are born in one of two ways. In the first, a group (usually a non-profit board) tries to raise money for a building and/or its contents. In the second, a wealthy patron donates items—and sometimes foots the bill for the building, as well.
Harrisburg didn’t follow either path. The museum idea originated in the mind of a single man, Steve Reed, without any of the detailed preparation and painstaking planning needed to embark on a massive venture like starting a world-class museum (much less five of them).
In a nutshell, Reed got hold of public money and began buying stuff because he wanted to—and because he could.
Over a decade, he packed an enormous warehouse (and several other buildings) full of thousands of items from his sprees, spending untold millions on things that ranged from the genuine and valuable to junk and fakes. Lacking expertise, he vacuumed up lot after lot, often overpaying for the good and the bad.
The majority of objects were for an Old West museum he wanted to build, but some were for an African-American heritage museum he proposed and others for a Sports Hall of Fame he hoped to construct on City Island. There also were artifacts that didn’t seem to fit into any category—wood from a Colonial-era ship, transcripts from the Nuremberg trials.
Eventually, he got one “nationally scaled” museum built, the National Civil War Museum, but only because he learned that former Gov. Tom Ridge was a Civil War buff. So, according to project architect Vern McKissick, Reed quickly carved out a Civil War collection from his vast Old West stash and, though luck and salesmanship, got the state to foot the bill for the building.
This is local government gone completely off the rails. I half-laugh, half-cringe when I imagine Reed and his surrogates darting around the country attending auctions, sweeping up inventory, packing it all up, shipping it to Harrisburg, unpacking it and storing it in whatever dusty corner they could find for future museums that had no realistic path to ever existing.
But that’s what happened, and a lot of people knew about it—officials and politicians, consultants, city workers, the media, some in the general public. Yet year after year after year, it went on.
Typically, I’m not big on assigning blame, as I find resolving a problem more important than determining who’s at fault. However, in the case of Campbell and Reed, I believe it’s important to examine if we, as individuals, are in some way responsible. By understanding our own roles, we lessen the chance of a future rogue mayor, thieving treasurer or whoever might try to scam us next.
We all know the cliché that it takes a village to accomplish something good. Well, sometimes, it also takes a village to screw up royally.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.