This past week Frank Ottofaro of Hampton passed away. Many people in Hampton know that name because the fight he has had with the City of Hampton pertaining to eminent domain for the last decade. Mr. Ottofaro had a rental house that was taken by the city to build the power plant (Bass Pro, Lowes, BJ’s) in Hampton. Mr. Ottofaro did not want to accept what the city offered and took them to court. He was even more upset because he said that they never even built on that land and knew there were not going to when the case went to court. The case ended up being decided in a divided supreme court which favored the City of Hampton. Most assumed Mr. Ottofaro had lost and that would be the end. However, Mr. Ottofaro still had his freedom of speech. He used it at every council meeting for the next decade to tell everyone what the city had done and make sure no one forgot. Sometimes the conversations got very personal as he specifically blamed the city manager at the time who is now a council member. At one point Mr. Ottofaro was talking about how people had to stand up for what is right like Rosa Parks had done. To which Council George Wallace stood up and yelled back at Mr. Ottofaro he had no right to speak Ms. Parks name all the while Councilwoman Leary tried to pull Councilman Wallace back in his seat. So this issue was taken very personally on both sides.
The council tried many things over the years to stop citizen input and used him as the reason why it was ok to do so. They limited the amount of time people could speak. Suggestions were made that people could only speak once every couple of months. One council meeting which allowed for citizen input was removed but later the citizen input section was restored by the current council. The tactic that makes me most upset was current council members belittling citizens who spoke during public input sessions. They said citizens just wanted to be seen on TV or wanted attention. I am always suspicious of people who can not argue their side of a position but just belittle people in hopes they go away. I soon began to hear this same comment restated by some city employees. This would make most people give up. Not Mr. Ottofaro.
Some people will remember him as the man in the wheel chair in the back of the room who gave out lifesavers to people waiting to speak. I will remember him as a man who was determined to stand up for his and other rights even though he knew the City of Hampton would never change their mind.
Mr. Ottofaro is an example of why we need people who won’t “get over it ” or “move on.” He reminds me of other people who also stood up and spoke out even when it was dangerous. Some for whom it did not work out well for like Socrates. Socrates wandered the streets of Athens talking to people and supposedly sometimes yelling at people. He was put to death but his student Plato made sure his teachings were passed on. Another example is the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who stood on the Boston street corners passing out his paper of the liberator and talking against slavery. He also was run out-of-town. But he continued to speak and publish his paper which soon got a following all over the United States. And my favorite the suffragettes who just stood holding their banners on the streets demanding the right to vote. However, it took almost 90 years and while most of the original protesters never got that right thankfully the generations to follow did. These people never gave up they stood up for what they thought was right and voiced what their opinion. Often trying to silence a person gives them more of a platform as other people notice and begin to listen.
Someone told me when they heard Mr. Ottofaro had died that they knew there would be some people celebrating in Hampton City Hall. I found that to be a sad statement. Some people may look back and say he lost. However, the results of his efforts I think prove them wrong. His case is taught in some of our law schools a an example of how not to do eminent domain. When the bill was being proposed for the constitutional amendment to protect private property one of the house defenders of the bill who is from Virginia Beach used his case as an example. So Mr. Ottofaro opinion while ignored in Hampton was taken quite seriously by many outside of the area.
In the daily press letter to the editor one writer referred to Mr. Ottofaro as a man of principle and said in the end he had taught us all a lesson. He went on to say that Mr. Ottofaro’s motto was Winston Churchill’s “never , never, never give up.” I am very glad that I had the privilege of getting to meet this gentleman.