Alexandria officials tried to lock their lips against gossip last week, but like dieters lingering near an ice cream parlor, the urge overpowered grand intentions.
Just a few minutes after the seven-member council adopted informal guidelines prohibiting city officials and staffers from backbiting and uttering unfair negative comments, a war of words broke out in the council chambers.
Philip J. Hirschkop, the Alexandria attorney representing police Lt. John Stedman, started throwing flamed words when he demanded that three City Council members apologize to his client.
Stedman, like Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel and Sheriff Michael E. Norris, had been accused of wrongdoing last year. A special grand jury impaneled to investigate found the allegations richly detailed but totally unfounded.
"It has to be looked on as a terrible black moment in the history of the city," Hirschkop said of the damaging accusations that thrust city officials into the headlines. The attorney, who attended the July 2 meeting to ask the city to pay $5,500 of his client's legal fees, said council members Lionel Hope, Patricia S. Ticer and Robert L. Calhoun should apologize to Stedman for their part in seeking or funding the criminal investigation.
Hirschkop blasted Ticer for waivering between "conscience and party line" and Calhoun for making a motion last December to have the city launch an investigation into the allegations.
Hearing these remarks, Calhoun shot out of his seat and demanded an apology from Hirschkop. The attorney, who was seeking $200-an-hour fees for counseling Stedman, was believed by some council members to have used the grand jury affair as a political weapon against those who had prompted the investigation. Calhoun would not elaborate on why he was so furious at Hirschkop, and later he would say only: "I'm sorry I lost my temper."
And once the zip-lip rule was broken during the meeting, like a New Year's resolution, it seemed less imperative to keep. One high-ranking employe said that about one hour after the meeting ended: "I heard a council aide gossiping about another City Council member . . . so you can assess the value of the measure."
"The petty stuff will go on forever," Ticer said this week. "I don't mean to be too cynical, but I don't know if we can really stop second-guessing those in government and business." Ticer suggested that perhaps the most effective way to avoid negative comments was to cancel all City Council meetings.
Mayor James P. Moran, who campaigned on a "stamp controversy and accusations out of City Hall" platform and sponsored the antigossip guidelines, said he believed tongues were toning down.
"I haven't heard any good rumors lately," he said. "But most Alexandrians were at the beach last weekend. Maybe all the hot rumors were at Rehoboth."
Council member Hope declined to reveal if he heard or spread any gossip since the last meeting. But he said that if Moran had asked the council to vote on the guidelines instead of just informally agreeing to them, he would not have gone along with them.
"It looks foolish," Hope said. "It's childish. We're all adults and should know what to say and not to say." Besides, Hope said, "I don't see how you could enforce this gentlemen's agreement."
"Public embarrassment" will be the fitting and immediate penalty for serious, injurious gossip or "downright slander," according to Moran.
"I don't know what people are talking about now," said Sheriff Norris, who faces reelection in November. "But I'm usually the last to know, especially if it's about me."
Norris, who was rumored to be the target of a 1984 police drug investigation but was cleared by the grand jury, said the exchange between City Council members and Hirschkop last week reinforced his belief that "our City Council members don't mind saying something bad about someone else, but when they get called on the carpet, their hair stands up on their back."
Asked whether he planned to speak about the council during his fall campaign, Norris replied: "I'll try to keep quiet."