A beige pop-up tent — borrowed from an ally on the mostly hostile Seat Pleasant City Council — has become the place from which recently evicted Mayor Eugene W. Grant conducts municipal business.
Beyond the zippered entrance, Grant sat in a folding lawn chair Friday, next to a white, plastic table that held his mayoral nameplate, tape dispenser and City of Seat Pleasant coffee mug. An American flag on an eagle-topped pole stood behind him as he signed city paychecks and heard constituent complaints about verbally abusive police officers, the high cost of electricity and grass in public areas that needs to be cut.
It has come to this.
In a region where political infighting is as ubiquitous as Beltway traffic, the leaders of a small and needy city on the Prince George’s County-District border are trading barbs and accusations for all to see and hear.
The residents of Seat Pleasant (population 4,500) say they want Grant and the council to focus on the growth sweeping the District and the county to take advantage of the city’s proximity to a Metro station, easy downtown access and the excitement of new development.
Instead, those elected to govern the city are issuing dueling media statements, with Grant saying he was completely ousted from the government building on Addison Road and the council saying he can still meet with residents there, just not inside his actual office.
Council members say they didn’t know what other action to take after complaints that Grant — a vocal man who is not always the most patient listener — has repeatedly lost his temper with city employees and berated them.
Grant, for his part, says that every idea he has proposed for improving Seat Pleasant has been quickly shot down by antagonistic council members.
“These people have been fussing for years,” said Sylvia Tyner, 84, who gave up on city government meetings ages ago but showed up at the tent Friday to support Grant. “We’ve got crime, no jobs, drugs — and something needs to be done about that.”
City Council members voted 4 to 2 (with one member absent) to force Grant to vacate his City Hall work space, after logging 13 complaints about his behavior over his 10 years as mayor (a total of 44 people work for the city).
Grant said Friday that the allegations of mistreatment are unfounded. “It is my obligation to ask the tough questions that sometimes people don’t like asked,” Grant said. “I was not elected for a popularity contest. I was elected to do a job.”
But City Council member Eugene Kennedy — who was mayor for three terms before Grant narrowly defeated him in 2004 — said he and his colleagues feared that Grant’s behavior could provoke physical retaliation from an employee and end up costing the city.
Getting him out of the office, they believed, would help Grant realize that his bullying was inappropriate. “It was reaching a danger zone,” Kennedy said. Looking back, he acknowledged that the council should have met with Grant and had a discussion before voting on his ouster.
Although he is not banned from other rooms in City Hall, Grant took his banishment as a challenge and launched a “#mobilemayor” campaign on social media to draw attention to his situation. “This office belongs to the people of Seat Pleasant, Maryland — not Eugene W. Grant,” he told reporters and supporters assembled Friday morning on the lawn outside City Hall.
“We should not have acrimony,” Grant said, speaking with the fervor of a preacher at his own tent revival. “We should not have divisions among the elected officials.”
His supporters responded with “Amen.”
Prince George’s County Council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), who represents the area, said she is eager for officials to reconcile so Grant can return to his office and the publicity-generating disputes can cease.
She said she wants to “shift the focus off the individual to the community,” particularly so she can move forward with economic-development plans for the Addison Road Metro station, just across Central Avenue from City Hall.
But in the meantime, he has pledged to set up his tent all over the city to meet with residents. Businesses and homeowners also have offered him work space in their stores and living rooms.
“It doesn’t take brick and mortar to be a mayor,” said Grant’s attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon.
He said he is reviewing Seat Pleasant’s bylaws to see what options may be available to Grant. Some supporters asked Friday whether Grant had the power to freeze city assets in protest of the eviction, or whether residents could withhold their city tax payments until the matter is resolved.
“If he can’t be mayor, there is no sense in having a municipality,” said Yvonne Sumner, who has lived in Seat Pleasant for 50 years.
Gloria Sistrunk said she serves on the city ethics board and can’t understand why the employee complaints were not brought before that panel before the council took action. She called the fixation on Grant’s behavior a distraction from critical issues.
“There’s no confidence in the city anymore,” she said. “My question is, what are you doing for the city?”