Old Buck Kambarn, island businessman and salty sage, had a saying that many here still recall: Giving some people a credit card is like giving a monkey a hand grenade.
And lest anyone forget this bit of wisdom now that Kambarn has died, quaint little Chincoteague has roiled itself into a tragicomic political drama that has rocked its town government. The mayor was suspended, the town manager resigned and the police chief was fired. And many are urging a state police investigation.
The tale is about a detour gone bad and a son made good. It's about good old boys and a brand-new bridge. But none of it would have come to light without that devil of modern finance that Kambarn warned everybody about: the credit card.
Chincoteague is a seven-mile-long Eastern Shore island best known for the fire department's roundup of wild ponies each summer, a tourist magnet. The town population of 3,500 swells to several times that size during July and August, but it's no longer the fishing village that tourist brochures claim. The oyster houses that once dotted the waterfront are shuttered. Several other businesses now sport "For Sale" signs. Tourism is about the only healthy industry left.
The political mess, which has since been aired in town meetings and in a county courthouse hearing, began in March when a delegation of town officials arrived in Orlando for a national conference on hurricanes, a constant threat for an island barely sheltered from the storms of the Atlantic Ocean.
But the officials later acknowledged that they played hooky instead. Mayor Harry S. Thornton, Town Manager T. Stewart Baker and Police Chief Willis Dize drove a rental car six hours south to Key West, where they ate on the town's dime and visited a Chincoteague friend, a powerful businessman who spends his winters in Florida. The hotel rooms in Orlando, which the town's taxpayers had also paid for, sat empty.
When the town officials returned to Chincoteague, rumors spread about their long detour. And though a certain sloppiness with town funds had grown common, the trip to the Keys was a new and shocking low to many here.
That's when Charlie Kambarn, youngest son of the legendary Buck Kambarn, decided to get to the bottom of things. The younger Kambarn, long divorced and running his father's boat dealership and real estate business, was regarded as a well-liked playboy. At 48, his hair is nearly all white, but he's soft-spoken and boyish, with a tendency to mumble.
His deep island roots and mild personality gave him credibility other critics lacked as he sought to expose the Florida adventure. "It took somebody like Charlie, because Charlie's never stepped on anybody's toes before," says Reggie Stubbs, owner of Island Motor Inn.
"No one thought in their wildest dreams I would get this far," Kambarn says now, sitting in a restaurant in khaki shorts and a green Izod shirt with the collar folded the wrong way. Then he adds: "Things went on that just wasn't right. It was a `good-old-boys network.' . . . It will be a long time before anyone eats and drinks big on the town of Chincoteague."
In the beginning of May, Kambarn began filing Freedom of Information Act requests, formal letters requiring that details of a government action -- in this case, the expense account reports for officials on the trip -- be made public.
Despite some grumbling, town officials eventually produced the documents, though not before charging Kambarn $1,300 for photocopying. From the credit card receipts, out tumbled the tale. There was the $2,075 hotel bill from Orlando, including $365 for "lobby bar/pool service." There was $320 for a dinner at Charlie's Lobster House in Orlando. There was $420 for a rental car that traveled 831 miles in six days.
And then the kicker: $54.31 for a lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe in Key West, signed with the initials "TSB" for Town Manager T. Stewart Baker.
Other nuggets turned up in the receipts, which show: The mayor's wife bought $281 worth of Christmas gifts at a Salisbury pewter shop. At the hurricane conference in 1997, town officials had spent $344 on a dinner in Houston. The receipts also revealed a fondness among town officials for Crown Royal whiskey, valet parking and meals at the restaurant chain Hooters.
All this came at the expense of a town budget of only $3 million and despite a written policy requiring thrift and restricting daily meal costs to $30 a person.
Soon after news of the spending spread, Baker resigned. The Town Council fired Dize, the police chief. And an Accomack County judge suspended Thornton, the mayor, pending further review of the case.
The three generally have refrained from public comments about the trip and other spending, though none has publicly disputed the general facts of the case.
Attorneys for Thornton and Baker declined to comment. Dize's attorney, Rick Matthews, criticized the town for not having a formal grievance hearing before firing the police chief, who plans to sue over the matter if not returned to work.
"He was fired for doing what the mayor and town manager told him to do," Matthews said.
But even with the removal of the three central figures, the fight is far from over.
Kambarn and others are pushing for a state investigation of the island's finances, though some here question the severity of the penalties against the town officials and say the scandal should be allowed to die.
"This type of thing has gone on years past. . . . Nothing was ever said," says David Cole, husband of a Town Council member, voicing a common sentiment. "They all should have been dealt with in a less severe manner."
Others are more angry and contend that the same gang of good old boys has run the town too long.
"It feels like everyone's really been taken advantage of," says April Stillson, co-owner of AJ's restaurant. "There's just a lot of things the town could spend the money on."
The scandal, and the resulting shift of political power on the island, has touched an important issue.
Chincoteague has long needed to replace the aging steel bridge to the mainland. A new, wider bridge will cost about $30 million. And where the bridge lands on the island, many contend, will affect traffic, fire department response time and the fate of downtown itself.
State transportation officials will make the final decision, but not before the Town Council has a chance to make its recommendation in the fall.
The conventional political wisdom on the island holds that the Town Council was leaning heavily toward a location south of downtown for the bridge before the recent political shake-up pushed the powerful town manager and the mayor out of office. Now, nobody seems to know where the votes are for the bridge location.
While that issue heats up, the Town Council has voted to refund Charlie Kambarn the $1,300 he spent getting the receipts from the Florida trip. And nearly everywhere he goes on Chincoteague, folks treat him like a celebrity, urging him to keep up the fight.
"The next person who goes on a hurricane conference better pack their lunch," jokes former Town Council member Donald Leonard, who acknowledges he charged a few drinks to the town in his day. "The well's run dry."
CAPTION: Chincoteague has long needed to replace the aging steel bridge to the mainland. A new one will cost about $30 million.