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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Commentary: Who is Saylor to Lecture US on Civility in Public Discourse?

As I read Davis City Councilmember Don Saylor's treatise in the Davis Enterprise Sunday on civility in public discourse, the first thought running through my head is who is Don Saylor to be lecturing to the community on civility. This is a man with a widespread reputation in this community for treating people in a very non-civil manner. He has berated many individuals in front of others when he has had disagreements with them. Moreover, in public discourse Mr. Saylor often gets away with making very malicious, cynical, and critical statements of others due to the measured way in which he speaks.

In February during the course of a discussion on the Cannery Park proposal Saylor spoke from prepared text to suggest:
"I want to make one small observation, in our council ground rules, under the first paragraph, it says that each councilmember should treat each other with respect and dignity even when disagreements arise. I feel disrespected and treated without dignity when my motivations are questioned and it is assumed that I am leading to something that I have not said."
The irony is that while his opponents on the council were suggesting the council majority had ulterior motives for their proposal--to eventually develop the Covell Village project--their criticism was not directed at any individual and the tone was very civil.

Nevertheless, since that point Councilmember Saylor has taken on an increasingly rigid tone toward adhering to already overly rigid rules for council discourse. Rules that have likely contributed to the overly formalized style of discourse and that seek to prevent discussion and debate between the members.

The measured outburst in February was nothing new for Saylor, in fact, it was the latest in a long string of carefully phrased statements that sound reasonable in tone but in words and in meaning portray at times biting criticism.

During a discussion on living wage that Councilmember Lamar Heystek had been encouraged (by his council colleagues) to bring forward as an item written by a councilmember.

When Councilmember Heystek did so several months later, Councilmember Saylor accused Heystek of playing politics.
“There’s just a number of questions about this. To bring it up as a discussion is appropriate. To bring it up as a full-blown ordinance for a first reading, that’s not talking about policy, that’s talking about politics in a lead-up to an election.”
Remember this was after Councilmember Souza specifically encouraged Councilmember Heystek to bring forward this item as an item by a councilmember.

Councilmember Saylor also complains that certain actions by the public have produced a "a chilling effect on the practice of community."

As the result of this, he argues,
"Many residents have told me they no longer feel they can "safely" participate in public discourse; they are reluctant to write a letter or speak in public for fear of vilification."
In fact, it has often been the actions of city council members that have produced this kind of atmosphere. Councilmember Saylor and his colleagues are as guilty of that as anyone.

Last spring, the ASUCD Senate passed a resolution in support of the creation of a civilian police review board. Rob Roy, a UC Davis student and also a candidate for the city council, presented the resolution to the city council during public comment. Saylor then proceeded to accuse him of presenting a distorted account of events and calling this manipulation "cynical," "malicious," and most likely "politically motived."

In April 2006, Councilmember Saylor delivered a long monologue to the community in response to the dismissal of the charges against the 16 year old accused of a hit-and-run. At one point he basically called this family a liar from the dais, suggesting that descriptions of the interactions between the police and the family had been "misrepresented to the point of comic book caricature." The ensuing public response by the police, the district attorney's office, and the city council where the then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson, a close ally of Saylor, apologized to Davis Police Officer Pheng Ly and later suggested that the minor had "learned her lesson" had a chilling effect on the willingness of individuals to come forward with complaints against the police department, for fear of the type of disrespect and ridicule that Saylor now accuses others of.

In fact, that whole episode was marked by incivility on the part of Mr. Saylor's colleagues. At one point after the Human Relations Commission had presented their report on the police complaints, Councilmember Ted Puntillo, a strong ally of Saylor, remarked that the report was "not worth the paper it is written on." During public comment in February, Ruth Asmundson tried to silence a UC Davis administrator in charge of minority student retention derisively claiming "we're not listening."

There was also the over-the-top political attack upon then candidate Lamar Heystek last spring, officially penned by Mr. Saylor's wife at Mr. Saylor's behest or approval. Julie Saylor accused Heystek of among other things sexism and misogyny based strictly upon a tongue-in-cheek column he penned for the California Aggie.

Mrs. Saylor concluded her attack by suggesting that Mr. Heystek should not be considered a viable candidate for council:
"I recommend that Lamar Heystek get a decade or two distant from his Aggie column before anyone consider him a viable candidate for council. This is not a comment about chronological age. We need to choose candidates with the emotional maturity, balance, perspective and experience to serve our whole community."
The irony of course for many observers is that Mr. Heystek is likely the most congenial and often the most mature and respectful member on the council, addressing his colleagues by their formal titles, disagreeing with his colleagues without being disagreeable. In short, in his brief time on the council, it is Mr. Heystek and not Mr. Saylor who embodies the ideal of civility that we ought to strive to be as a community.

None of this even speaks to the numerous complaints of Saylor's rude and bullying tactics with the public, city staffers, fellow councilmembers, commissioners, and other public dignitaries in front of others. I have heard first hand accounts of Mr. Saylor yelling and berating members in public, though no one wanted to go on the record with their accusations. However, I have heard numerous first and second hand accounts on the matter.

There was however a respected faculty member at UC Davis who served on a city commission. At Farmer's Market he approached Mr. Saylor, they exchanged some pleasantries. Then as he tried to engage Mr. Saylor, Saylor turned to walk away. As he caught Mr. Saylor's attention, Saylor rudely exclaimed, "are you still here?"

Councilmember Saylor wants to have a discussion on civility? He had better start with his own conduct at times, because his reputation on this matter is not a good one.

I have been concerned for a long time at the rigidity of council rules for discourse which require first a systematic period of questioning and then no discussion prior to a motion. That means that there cannot be a discussion on what the motion should be. That means that there cannot be a lot of give and take between the councilmembers. As I observe the city council, I note that it has a far more rigid discussion format than either the school board or the county board of supervisors. I also note that the city council likely has the most contentious relations between its membership. That is not to suggest that the school board members or the county supervisors are not in disagreement at times because they clearly are. However, the city council is much more hostile toward each other.

In recent weeks, Councilmember Saylor has been bringing up procedural points continually, but I think those points actually are producing more contention and animosity than would be the case if those issues were relaxed. Moreover, one of the biggest points of contention has to do with at what level discussion should take place--at the subcommittee level or in public. By placing important matters in subcommittee, you have largely taken the public out of the process.

From my discussions with members of the community, nearly everyone has been appalled by the audacity of Councilmember Saylor's editorial. They believe that he is the last person to complain about incivility. And frankly, he has never jumped on one of his allies on the council when they treat the public uncivilly at meetings, he only uses it against his adversaries. This editorial and discourse by Mr. Saylor seems to use his language, cynical, mean-spirited, and likely politically motivated. I think most of the community can see through items such as this.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting