As the saying goes, there can be a universe in a grain of sand. Likewise, those attending last night's Salem City Council meeting got insights into how things at City Hall are generally going.
In short: not well. Not for those of us concerned about government transparency, trust, and citizen participation.
The three go together. Transparency. Trust. Citizen participation.
For example, when people feel like the Mayor, city councilors, and other officials are being open and honest with them, trust is fostered. When people trust that what they say will be listened to, and can make a difference, they're more likely to participate by emailing ideas to the City of Salem and testify at public hearings.
Yesterday it was encouraging to see quite a few people show up at the City Council meeting who hadn't been part of such goings-on before.
The Topic of the Night -- whether early sales of recreational marijuana should begin October 1 at Salem's medical marijuana dispensaries -- brought out a different crowd than the usual suspects of gray-haired activist baby boomers.
What was discouraging to me was how many comments of this sort I heard and read online after the meeting.
Man, those guys sure disrespected the public. I can't believe how rude the Mayor and councilors were. Now that I've seen how the city council operates, I'm never going to another meeting.
Something needs to change at City Hall.
I'm hopeful that the new City Manager, Steve Powers, will bring a new approach to how city officials relate to the citizenry. But we're still going to have the same Mayor and city councilors, so they need to get with the program and change their attitudes toward transparency, trust, and citizen participation.
Right now there's a lot of denial going on in the council chambers, mostly (if not entirely), among our right-wing Mayor and council majority. They look upon criticism as an attack, questioning as a threat, open discussion as an annoyance.
Yet I and others who testified last night were viewed as the troublemakers. Or at least, as the people who needed to understand the good intentions of City officials, rather than the other way around.
I've encountered this quite a few times before from Mayor Anna Peterson and her Chamber of Commerce backed-and-financed conservative council majority. When I hear them whine about citizens not understanding the marvelousness of what they're trying to do, I'm reminded of a song by The Animals from my teen years.
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
Well, everybody is misunderstood some of the time. Human communication is a tough thing to do rightly. But if you're always feeling misunderstood, you should look more at yourself, and less at other people.
Last night Councilor Brad Nanke got all incensed at how the many people who emailed the City Council, asking that early sales of recreational marijuana be approved, didn't understand that the council already was planning to do this.
Except, he never explained how anybody could have known this, a fact I made clear in my own testimony. (See "The Salem City Council accuses me of misinformation -- I call them out on this." And here's a video of me correcting Nanke's false statements.)
Nanke and Councilor Jim Lewis just kept saying, in different ways, trust us; we'll do the right thing; there's no need for citizens to weigh in on what we're doing. Which is very bizarre, striking as it does at the heart of what drives Oregon's public meeting laws.
Nanke, Lewis, and Peterson don't seem to realize how nonsensical their trust us attitude is. The Mayor has even said that City staff don't make mistakes, so there's no need for citizens to oversee their actions. After watching a council work session about an Urban Tree Commission, I wrote:
She said that because the City Council hires the “right” City Manager, who chooses the “right” directors, who hire the “correct” people to work under them, “right” decisions are going to be made.
This also was the underlying vibe at last night's council meeting.
The band of conservative councilors acted as if all the people who sent emails urging that early sales of recreational marijuana be approved, and those who testified to that effect at the meeting, should have sat on their hands, or smoked some weed, and allowed the City Council to do its thing without interference, because Big Council always knows best.
Like I said, bizarre. Also, illogical.
Nanke strongly implied, and almost said outright, that it should have been known (somehow or other) that the City Council was going to approve the early sale of recreational pot. But this runs afoul of Oregon's open meeting law, which requires that deliberations by a governmental body be made out in the open, not behind closed doors.
I urged citizens to email the council about this issue and to testify at yesterday's meeting during the public comment period. After all, the City Council isn't supposed to have already decided how to vote on an issue before it hears from citizens and goes through a process of open discussion before the vote.
So Nanke's and Lewis' trust us pleas made no sense. Democracy is founded on an assumption that reasoned arguments and solid evidence presented transparently in an open public process are supposed to guide policy decisions.
See an essay of mine on my other blog, "Naturalism needs to rule public policy debates." The arguments I made for excluding religious dogma from the public policy arena hold equally for excluding private "backroom" reasons for doing this rather than that.
For instance, I said:
A group is playing poker. A hand has been dealt. The cards have been played. Everything is on the table for examination. A player with four aces prepares to pull in the chips she has won. Until she hears…
“Stop. I won this hand. I’ve got a straight flush, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 of clubs.”
“No, you don’t. We can all see your cards. You’ve got nothing.”
“Ah, those aren’t my real cards. My real cards are invisible. Only I can see them — give me the chips I’ve won.”
Who would do that?
The game has been played fairly. The only cards that count are the physical ones handed out by the dealer. There are rules for deciding which combinations of cards win out over other combinations. If someone brings in supernatural invisible cards, this makes playing a fair game of poker impossible.
Leave out the word "supernatural," and this metaphor applies almost perfectly to last night's city council meeting.
Nanke and Lewis wanted citizens to trust in the Invisible "cards" only they could see that, supposedly, meant that the early sale of marijuana policy the council would approve could be trusted to be a "winning hand."
To which I and others appropriately said, no way. The Mayor and city councilors need to put their cards openly out on the discussion table -- reasoned arguments and solid evidence -- just like interested citizens do.
Only then can the policymaking process work as it should, with transparency, trust, and citizen participation.
But these things are in short supply at the Salem City Hall these days. People with much longer memories of how City officials used to do things tell me that Mayor Peterson and her right-wing council majority are the most dismissive of public input of any City Hall administration in many, many years.
I've testified at quite a few City Council meetings. The prevailing mood when I've done this is akin to how my wife, a retired psychotherapist, tells me domestic abusers (almost always men) treat their women.
"Honey, I'm hitting you for your own good. You just don't understand how much I love you. You deserve what you're getting. Just trust that everything will work out fine if you obey me and do as you're told."
This, of course, is a bunch of denial-crap. As is the oft-heard complaint of the Mayor and her city council majority: you citizens don't understand that you should trust us, even though we're treating you badly.
Well, I for one am not going to put up with this.
And It was pleasing to see so many other people with the same attitude in the council chambers last night. I'll trust City of Salem officials when they prove that they're worthy of being trusted.
A litany of prior missteps during the past couple of years I've been involved with local politics shows that there is a long ways to go before Salem citizens can feel that the folks at City Hall truly care about transparency, trust, and public participation.
See, for example:
Outrage: the true story of Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings
Pringle Square developer poised to take some of Riverfront Park
Salem Public Library might be converted to a police facility
Salemians were excluded from police facility planning
City of Salem took over Salem Downtown Partnership for lousy reasons
Salem's Third Bridge planning reaches new level of absurdity
Salem City Council gets it wrong on Howard Hall
Salem's downtown parking dysfunction continues
And the topic of the day:
Salem City Council might ban marijuana sales -- secretly
So, yeah, folks in Salem have a lot of really good reasons not to trust Mayor Peterson and her council majority. It's possible for them to earn back that trust, but we'll need to see actions rather than words.
Actions founded on...
Trust. Transparency. Public participation.