The Lego model of a new municipal building sits on a table outside what used to be the office of Mayor Eugene W. Grant, the top elected official in Seat Pleasant, Md., population 4,600. It is a symbol of everything that Grant, 49, fervently believes his struggling city could be.
Could be, that is, if Grant’s dreams weren’t constantly thwarted by what he sees as a recalcitrant city council, which torpedoed his first attempt to build a grander version of City Hall, and then booted him out of the building altogether two years ago to punish him for yelling at staffers.
Grant, who leads a local nonprofit group, did not go quietly, setting up a tent so he could meet with constituents and, eventually, commandeering his former office — now a conference room — once his nemesis city manager was fired and police got tired of kicking him out.
This year, he recruited a slate of council candidates to run against the incumbents he had decided would not support him. Elections were held last month, drawing just 359 voters. All but one member of Grant’s challenger slate won, with margins of 28 votes or fewer.
Since then, there has been chaos in Seat Pleasant, the childhood home of National Basketball Association all-star Kevin Durant. Citizens and officials are trading threats of lawsuits, allegations of voter fraud and warnings of possible misuse of money.
For Grant, there has also been rebirth. The new council will be sworn in Monday, and he fully expects its members to back his plan for a renovated municipal building like the one he had students construct with Legos, featuring a new third floor and a sophisticated technology hub that he says would be unrivaled in the small cities that dot the Washington suburbs.
“We want to make certain we are giving our taxpayers value for their tax dollars,” Grant said. “As with almost any politician, the ability to say you are the first at something is a hallmark of accomplishment, to show that African Americans can be at the cutting edge, that is tremendous.”
Grant’s grand plans for Seat Pleasant started in 2012. He wanted to build a $100 million municipal center that would offer taxpayers such things as senior housing and a recreation center — all paid for by private investors.
The mayor lined up the contracts and lobbied council members. He spent thousands of dollars preparing for a groundbreaking ceremony. But in late 2013, Eugene Kennedy, then a council member, led a revolt to block Grant’s project, saying it was too unrealistic for a city of modest means. The project’s termination marked the beginning of a war. By law, Seat Pleasant has a strong council and weak mayor. Grant, though, seemed determined to exercise power beyond his ceremonial, part-time, $9,100-a-year role. Council meetings became battles over the balance of power.
Grant gave orders to city staffers and never seemed to leave City Hall. Soon, employees accused him of hostile behavior. The council took his city car away and, in the summer of 2014, ordered Grant to pack his things. He defiantly pitched a tent on City Hall’s front lawn.
Within months, the mayor started drawing new renovation plans. He pared down the dollar amount, so as not to scare council members. And he found a new funding mechanism, just over the D.C. line in downtown Washington: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development program, which lends money to small communities for public facilities projects.
Grant applied for money to build what he called “Smart City,” an expansion of the half-century-old building into a sustainable and technologically advanced facility where workers could use data analysis to improve decision-making on things such as trash collection and road repairs.
The mayor knew he would need a sympathetic council to make this dream a reality. So he recruited candidates, including Lamar Maxwell, 32, an IT specialist who says Grant is like a father to him; Shireka McCarthy, a 25-year-old social worker who was flattered when the mayor said he thought she would bring “fresh ideas” to the council; Hope Love; retired Amtrak employee Gloria Sistrunk; and political veteran Charl Jones (Sistrunk and Jones were already contemplating a run for office when Grant approached them).
They formed a slate with incumbents Kelly Porter and Reveral Yeargin, sure votes and close allies for Grant in his nearly 12 years as mayor. The slate displayed their campaign signs together and, on Election Day, chanted as a team: “Who’s our leader? Mayor Grant! Who’s our leader? Mayor Grant!”
Among the targeted incumbents was Barbara Kennedy, who had replaced her husband, Eugene, on the council after he fell ill and had proved to be just as much Grant’s nemesis. She was defeated Sept. 12, along with every one of the sitting council members not on Grant’s slate except Aretha Stephenson, who beat Love in the Ward 2 race, 22 votes to 19.
Grant, who ran unopposed, won a fourth term with 318 votes. The losing council candidates have threatened to contest the results in court, alleging that some candidates and voters did not live in the city.
“Big changes are coming,” Grant was reported to have said as the results were tallied.
Stephenson said the mayor “told me he would get rid of me if it was the last thing he did. But I’m still here.”
Even before the election, the city government was in flux.
The job of city administrator had been vacant since January. When Seat Pleasant Police Chief Chris Cotillo stepped in on an acting basis this summer, he found paperwork that alarmed him.
The mayor, he told a packed city council meeting on Aug. 1, had signed contracts for Smart City that by law had to be signed by the city administrator. Architects, engineers and project managers had begun work before providing insurance liability forms and other required documents — a violation of city contract law.
There also wasn’t enough money budgeted to pay for the work, Cotillo said. The council had diverted $50,200 from the general fund, including $35,000 for a technical writer. Nearly $300,000 in additional bills were coming due.
The revelations further widened the chasm between Grant and some on the council, who said they were not told the city would need to lay out its own money initially.
“He wasn’t clear about any of the details,” said Charlina Watson, one of the council members who would lose her seat on Election Day. “He said it had to be done quickly, or the loan would not happen. If we were opposed, he accused us of not wanting the city to move forward.”
Cotillo, citing the advice of three attorneys, recommended that the council stop work on the Smart City project immediately.
“Are we going to continue to pay contracts for doing work where we have no funding source?” Cotillo asked council members at the meeting.
Grant accused him of “slanderous defamation.”
After shutting down attempts by citizens to ask questions, Grant’s allies on the board voted to move forward with the project.
Less than an hour later, they fired Cotillo as city administrator.
Longtime resident Thelma Lee called the outcome deeply frustrating, especially because she and others in Seat Pleasant care far more about the loss of a Safeway supermarket over the summer, and the lack of other basic amenities, than about getting a souped-up City Hall.
“It was like it was done kind of in secret,” Lee said about the mayor’s project. “To me, that don’t look good.”
On Aug. 8, the Agriculture Department approved the loan for Seat Pleasant. The city can now seek interim, low-interest bank financing for the project, using the letter of approval from the federal government as a loan guarantee. Once construction is complete, the Agriculture Department will pay off the bank loan and establish a repayment schedule for Seat Pleasant that could last up to 40 years.
Community programs director Denise MacLeish said the agency is closely reviewing the contracts Grant signed for Smart City and will carefully monitor the project to make sure it fulfills all relevant conditions and requirements.
It is not unusual for a grant recipient to spend money for engineering studies and architectural renderings before winning approval for a project, agency spokesman David Sandretti said, because those documents are required as part of the application. The Agriculture Department can reimburse some of those costs, he added, “but only to the extent reasonable and necessary as part of the loan to finance the facilities.”
Grant said every step of the project has included advice from legal counsel. He says personal enmity is driving his critics to raise objections and blinding them to what his project could do for the city.
“Every person who has been innovative, like Steve Jobs, have always had people who hate them because they are innovative,” Grant said. “And all those who hated Steve Jobs . . . they got an Apple product.”
The four newly elected council members said they agree with the mayor’s vision, though some of them are still fuzzy on the details.
At their first meeting Monday, the mayor intends to discuss his plan to invite President Obama and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to a signing ceremony with the Agriculture Department.
His estimated price tag: $40,000.