On Sept. 19, public and former elected officials had finally had enough of the bickering occurring in the name of democracy. A few of the 20 speakers praised some City Council members for the abrasive nature of their questions, while others felt a more cordial and professional tone was needed during deliberations.
Questions need to be asked, but the way these questions are asked doesn’t need to be framed in a confrontational manner. Using made-up facts as the basis for a question doesn’t help, and when the answer, based on real facts, doesn’t match the questioner's narrative, it isn’t very professional to attack the person providing the answers.
Part of “doing your homework,” as council member Victor Vega said he was doing before he asked questions, is to sit down with staff before the meeting and try to figure out what you’re studying.
As a planning commissioner, I have found that sometimes staff reports can be difficult to understand. They are always written by someone who fully understands the issue, but they frequently use government language to explain their point. It’s a language most people can’t comprehend.
This creates questions, and when I speak with the author I get a clearer picture and then ask questions during public hearings to make the report clearer to the public.
However, there are times when some changes are necessary. In those cases I discuss them ahead of time with staff and then initiate the discussion during the public hearing.
Now, back to the current council’s public behavior. There are five distinct personalities on this council, as there have been on every other council. Each of these people bring different opinions with them, which is good. Some are willing to negotiate, others will carry their flag into battle and not give an inch until their need is met. This is part of the current problem.
Trying a do-it-yourself conflict-resolution project, as council member Dirk Starbuck suggested, may not work unless all the participants enter the session with an open mind. If it turns into another city manager-bashing party and/or a clash of egos, the effort will only further divide the council and staff.
Council member Jenelle Osborne said it best, “as long as this is part of us evaluating ourselves and how we communicate with each other as well our city manager, I can support this.”
If they do some honest soul-searching and try to figure out some common ground, it could be helpful, but keep in mind some of those five egos may not be able to concede that they are part of the problem. In this case, a neutral third party to help guide the session may have been more useful.
Conflict resolution is a difficult job and if it isn’t handled properly could lead to more problems down the line. If this doesn’t work, both the council and the community will be poorly served.
Something dramatic needs to happen during this out-of-public view meeting, but the public will never know who said what or what happened unless one of the participants breaks the rules and tells someone.
Since this session occurs immediately prior to the regular council meeting, we may be able to tell by the body language and actions of council members as they deliberate touchy subjects. Or maybe not.
One thing is absolutely clear, the current level of rancor during meetings isn’t helpful to the governance of this city.