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Friday, July 06, 2007

Thoughts and Commentary on Special Council Workshop

Yesterday at the Veterans Memorial Hall, the city council had a workshop on Improving Transactional Effectiveness with Lisa Beutler from the Center for Collaborative Policy as the facilitator. I think Ms. Beutler did an outstanding job of facilitating discussion and on some of the smaller issues that arose the workshop might be helpful, but with the big issues, I just do not see a gap that can be bridged. One of the big problems with this sort of format--and in this session the city council only had discussion they took no action--is that change does not occur without ownership of the problems and I saw a lot of finger pointing, but little acceptance of ownership of the problem.

The council met for four hours to discussion a variety of topics. The general theme was that on most issues there was a large amount of agreement. Areas of disagreement are however well known and "based on known, stated, philosophical perspectives. This divide is representative of the community and the discourse in the Council is echoed by the public in multiple settings." There are unproductive interactions. Personality conflicts were the most frequently cited issue.

This article will discuss five of the more heated themes, it is not an exhaustive list, and I will be largely laying out the parameters of the dispute and then my take on the issue itself.

The first topic is the notion of civility. There are two aspects of this that make up the five themes. First, the idea of questioning of fellow council members' motivations and the second will be the treatment of staff.

Councilmember Don Saylor suggested that it was "uncivil" to question the motivations of fellow councilmembers. He suggested that the councilmembers could disagree on the issue but there was a general notion by all of the councilmembers that each one was doing what they thought was best for the city. Honestly, I do not disagree with this viewpoint.

What I have a problem with is that Councilmember Saylor should begin the discussion with the suggestion that he is as guilty of this as anyone--if not more so. The confessional approach here would be more sincere and less of a morality lecture.

This all dates back to a February city council discussion when during the course of debate that was far from heated Saylor said,
"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."
And yet we can point to at least two prominent examples where Mr. Saylor was on the other end of this debate. On September 19, 2006, during a discussion on a living wage ordinance, Mr. Saylor questioned the motivations of Councilmember Heystek bringing up the discussion:
“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.”
In May of 2006, Councilmember Saylor also characterized a presentation on the passage of a resolution by ASUCD in support of civilian police oversight as "at best ill-informed and at-worst and probably at the heart is malicious, cynical, and politically motivated."

I welcome a discussion of civility, but I think it has to start from the place of introspection. What I see here is that Mr. Saylor is trying to use this as a campaign issue. Indeed, the Democratic Booth on July 4, Mr. Saylor, a non-partisan candidate, placed two of his campaign pieces on the table, one of them was a photocopy of his article in the Davis Enterprise where he talked about civility. As such, it is difficult to accept this discussion as anything other than politically motivated, but of course, then I am questioning his motivations and that would make me uncivil.

The second point brought up and this one was transparently aimed at Mayor Greenwald, was the treatment of staff. City Manager Emlen, who is of course in charge of city staff, suggested that the staff does the best they can to produce the reports that they do and their recommendations represent their best assessment based on the information that they uncover. There was a general consensus that the staff should go to greater lengths to provide all sides of the argument in their report, even if they end up recommending against it.

The suggestion by council is that councilmembers are free to question the staff. They are free to disagree with the staff. Mr. Emlen made it clear that they do not take it personally if a councilmember or even the entire council disagree with their recommendation. That is part of the process.

The complaint was that some members did not treat the staff with the professional courtesy that they thought was due. It is entirely acceptable to question staff, but not to publicly berate or embarrass staff.

I can see both sides of the story here. On the one hand is the need to maintain professional courtesy to individuals. However, I do not think the counterpoint was as well articulated as it needed to be. From where I sit, there are times when the staff is either unprepared or they get tunnel vision. The councilmembers have a severe disadvantage in this system. They do not have their own staffers. They also lack the time and expertise to research on their own. So it is easy to suggest that the councilmember is free to disagree with a staffer, but when there is an information asymmetry that disagreement becomes more problematic.

I recall the water discussion from January. Water is an issue that is so complicated, you almost have to rely on experts for information. Mayor Greenwald asked questions of staff, staff said several times on the question of deep well aquifers, that they did not recommend it or could not do it. But Mayor Greenwald was not asking them that question, she was asking about quality and supply. The staffer three times refused to answer her question without editorial comment. Finally Mayor Greenwald forcefully pressed her point and Councilmember Saylor and Mayor Pro Tem Asmundson complained that Mayor Greenwald was harassing staff.

In an ideal world you would not have to do that, but there are times when a councilmember is trying to get an answer and they do not have the information to agree or disagree, and staff is editorializing rather than answering the question. It may look rude and disrespectful, but the staff is not doing their job. This was not thoroughly discussed yesterday and it needs to be.

The third point was Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson complaining about the term "council majority." There was the suggestion made that the votes often entail a variety of different configurations. That may be true. But there is a general 3-2 split on the big polarizing issues and with very very rare exceptions, it is a stable majority. In fact, when the Anderson Bank Building received a 3-2 vote, that was the first time I can remember on this council where a major vote had Councilmembers Saylor and Asmundson on the minority side. The council majority is a fact and it is a useful fact to describe the cohesiveness of that particular coalition of Councilmembers Saylor and Souza with Mayor Pro Tem Asmundson.

Along the same lines there was disagreement as to how to proceed after a 3-2 vote. "Some members felt that once the Council had voted then the body should move forward as a team, leaving the conflict behind."

However, as Mayor Greenwald pointed out, that is not how politics works. Councilmember Souza countered that once a law becomes a law, no one cares what the vote split was.

Both of these viewpoints are correct, but let us be realistic here. The fact that it is for instance, official US policy that we are fighting for Iraq, does not mean that the minority simply gets behind the policy. Rather the minority fights against the policy and consistently reminds the public as to who voted for this policy and who voted against this policy. There is no way around that. And the council is not going to be any different. The council majority does shape the direction of policy and it is incumbent upon the minority to disagree and try to rally public opinion against a given policy. That is the way politics works.

On the other hand, it was pointed out that it was good strategy once a policy is passed to attempt to make it as palatable as possible. The example that came up was the work that Councilmember Lamar Heystek made after the Third and B Street project was passed. I agree that it is a good idea to mitigate unfavorable votes as much as possible, but that does not mean that someone should have to accept a policy and move on. That's just unrealistic.

Finally, a heated debate occurred over the issue of Rosenberg's Rules of Order, in particular the structure of debate. The current council policy is for staff presentation, questions, public comment, a motion, and then discussion. The set rule is that you cannot have discussion without a motion and the concern is that there could be discussion about the motion which could potentially shape the motion and also save time.

Here, Councilmember Saylor was most adamant in support of the current rule. He argued that this would lead to an attempt to filibuster. However, as Councilmember Heystek pointed out, filibusters in local government do not lead to halting policy, they lead to getting home later at night. Therefore it is not in the best interest of the council to filibuster or to speak overly long. Moreover, as several suggested, there was nothing in the current policy that prevents someone from speaking for a considerable amount of time on a given subject. Mayor Greenwald argued that the relaxation of the rules could reduce the length of time spent on questioning.

There seemed to be a reluctant agreement that they could relax the rules with the chair having the discretion of moving the process along if the discussion got too long-winded.

In the end, this council is half-way through their term together and 11 months from the next council election. The one thing I would like to see would be a formal discourse, where everyone refers to each other not by first name but by title: "Councilmember," "Mayor," "Mayor Pro Tem." That may bring about more formality which would lead to be better civility.

However, overall I wonder exactly the utility of this discussion. Unless people are willing to be introspective and admit to their own shortcomings rather than pointing fingers, it seems unlikely that these things can change. And it was most distasteful for me to view some of the rank hypocrisy of given councilmembers who evidently do not believe their stuff stinks.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting