On Civility in Arnold

30 May

Arnold Mayor Ron Counts’ big push since the election (and to some extent before it) has been for “civility.” He wants to pass some sort of code to mandate civility among members of the city council (a major step towards civility occurred when Bill Moritz left the council, but I digress). Here is a proposed civility ordinance that has been raised up the flagpole in Arnold:

I have a number of concerns about this ordinance. My first concern is legality. Council members would be required to sign this ordinance in order to take office. Is that legal? Can the city create new qualifications for office that go beyond the state statute? If so, can it create this specific type of requirement – sign this document or you can’t get sworn in?

My second concern is the desirability of a conduct code. Is it a good idea to legislate civility? “Incivility” in Arnold seems to have come to mean “disagreement.” The best way to achieve civility would be to elect eight like-minded (and regime-agreeable) council members. Would this be best for the city? Absolutely not.

In fact, one could argue that it is the desire of those on the regime to shut others out and keep things secret that is the cause of incivility in Arnold. According to the article “Promoting Civility at Public Meetings: Concepts and Practice” from the Institute for Local Government – which is posted at the top of the City Council page on the Arnold website – exclusion can be a source of incivility:

Could the reason be that those contributing to the contentiousness feel excluded from the decision-making process? As hard as it may seem, the “solution” to the lack of civility may be greater inclusion of those who feel disenfranchised. This presents an interesting question to ponder. Will the inclusion of those who truly care about solving the community’s problems in problem-solving processes produce better results for the community in the long run?

Can one blame council members who have information concealed from them and have politically-timed harassment claims filed against them for feeling they have to resort to “uncivil” behavior?

My third concern is whether this will even work. Incivility on the council, I would argue, persists when he who presides over public meetings – in this case, the mayor – allows personal attacks from certain council members against other council members, and when the presiding official himself is on occasion snippy towards council members and residents at these meetings. As Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman argue, “Generally, civility is best fostered by a group commitment to parliamentary procedures such as Roberts Rules of Order.” This comes from the top.

Finally, this ordinance looks like it could easily be used as a tool to squash opposition. Look at item 2 under Prohibitions, which says “Neither the Mayor nor any Council Member shall in any manner dictate, encourage or discourage the appointment, hiring or removal of any City administrative officers or employees…” This looks to me like it is intended to thwart council oversight of city employees. We have already seen in Arnold that there is little accountability among city employees for various errors, and we see that city employees (Shockey, Boone, Waller) have been used by the regime to go after council members. If a council member were to start asking questions about the performance of an employee, the mayor and city administrator could use this ordinance to shut down any such inquiries and keep employees unaccountable. The same part of the ordinance does say “As a collective body the Mayor and Council Members may express their views…” about employees, but this sounds like this process would not result in any concrete action or serious questioning if the inquiring council member is not in the majority.

The next prohibition says “the Mayor or Council Members shall deal with City officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the City Administrator or Chief of Police solely through the City Administrator or Chief of Police.” Again, this will render council oversight meaningless if the Chief and Admin are uninterested in cooperating with inquiries into inappropriate or less-than-satisfactory employee conduct. These two prohibitions appear to have been written with Parks and Rec Director Susie Boone in mind. I argued that the issue between Boone and councilman Ken Moss was not “harassment” but professional oversight. City governance suffers if vigorous council oversight is not present.

I don’t see anything to gain from this civility ordinance (except for the part about city employees not holding elected office).

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  1. Wall Between City Employees and Elected Officials | Jefferson County Penknife - June 18, 2013

    […] discussed earlier Arnold’s proposed ethics ordinance, which I think has provisions that inhibit oversight and tools that could be used against political […]

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