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Respect, Decorum, Civility

One of the most interesting parts of a city council meeting, and one of the most overlooked due to its place on the agenda, is “Comments from Mayor and City Council.” Occurring near the end of every meeting, it is a time when councilors – free of time limits – share announcements, thank people doing good work in the city, express remorse or an apology, ramble about whatever is on their minds, or verbally dress down other councilors while attempting to appear above the fray.

– – – – – IN OUR OPINION – – – – –

Often the comments are mundane. Other times, like October 11, the strife that runs throughout the current council is on full display. That night, two topics dominated the comment period: Thom Moton’s departure and a certain board appointment.

As is typical when an upper management staff member leaves (yes, there have been enough to constitute an observable pattern of behavior), council shared parting words with former assistant manager Moton, who has taken a position as city manager of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Comments ranged from Kandie Smith’s “I’m not going to trip you up on the way out” to Rose Glover’s “I love you and I’m proud of you,” with most of the comments expressing respectful recognition of the hard work Moton has done for the city and giving him good wishes for the future.

Council comments on the second topic, the board appointment, were delivered in a variety of styles. There was the unemotional and matter-of-fact statement, the expression of personal offense, the impassioned reprimand (including some table-pounding), and the mild – but clear – threat.

Taking a closer look at the councilors’ comments gives an apt snapshot of the characters that populate this governing body – and point quite decidedly to the source of this dysfunctional panel’s discord.

The Comments

The first to deliver comments, Calvin Mercer apologized to the public for failing to look into a citizen appointed to the Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial city board. Mercer said, “If I had had the background information on this nominee regarding his past noncompliance with a special use permit issued by the very board to which he was being nominated, I would have raised a question about the nomination.”

Acknowledging that council’s “practice has been to yield to the council member making the nomination and vote that person in,” Mercer said, “this person’s record with the city, for me, would have risen to the level of being an exception to our practice of routinely voting in nominations.”

Possibly setting the stage for a future proposal, Mercer wondered, “Perhaps we should have some policy of procedure about getting information like this to us.”

Kandie Smith, the councilor who nominated the individual, had “no regrets” about her choice. Sparing and direct as always, she said, “Sometimes when you go through a situation you learn more about the process of how things should happen, and after me speaking personally with him I was very confident and comfortable with him being on the board.”

Dennis Mitchell, a friend of the now-contentious appointee, expressed his offense at Mercer’s apology: “We as elected officials expect a lot of scrutiny but to begin to target volunteers for our boards and commissions and to openly, I’m going to say defame them is ridiculous.”

Mitchell went on, “So he’s not in compliance of a special use permit. Now I guess that overrules him being able to serve on any boards and commissions. I think that’s wrong.”

Succinct and respectful, Marion Blackburn passed along the concerns of her constituents and said, “I have all faith and confidence that he is going to be a good and strong member of this board.”

Max Joyner stepped back from the particular issue to cast his observations of recent trends in council action and shed some light on why the body has become so dysfunctional.

“Certain members of this council are making everything this council does so political. In the five years I’ve been on the council, I’ve seconded nominations to people I didn’t necessarily agree with politically or whatever. It was that council person’s right to make that pick and I respected the judgment they had whether I thought… I’ve seconded a lot of picks I didn’t really think they’d make the best person for that job just out of respect for that councilman. It’s getting where now we’ll have to have a background check for everybody for everything and just dig up dirt or whatever and I just don’t understand the process. But this is the second time in three months that this same type of criticism of an appointee, a volunteer is being used [Blackburn voted against an appointment of Joyner’s in May] and in the previous five years it’s never been used. I’m just sorry to see that we’re getting to this state.”

The “state” to which Joyner referred is not one that should be greeted with remorse. It is one where decisions for guiding this growing city are thoughtfully considered instead of passed through by a governing board of yes-men. Leaving behind the small-town, good-ole-boy network is sure to be a difficult transition for those accustomed to operating without being challenged or held accountable.

Prone to turn any discussion into a rambling, wandering monologue on life, shootings, personal finances, trains, injuries, hugs, windows, you-name-it, Rose Glover reigned herself in after a mere (!) ten-minute stream-of-consciousness diatribe based loosely on the theme of, well, let’s see: There’s the board appointment, there’s anti-university sentiment, there’s what seems to be an accusation of racial bias, there’s defense of her own voting record, name calling, fist pounding, calling out three other councilors and the mayor by name to distinguish between them and the other two who (obviously) can’t be trusted. And of course there’s a warning to her colleagues to compromise, culminating in a passionate appeal for the two unnamed councilors to stop being so obstinate and uncompromising. And then the big closing, in which Glover exposed her own capacity for compromise: “I’m not dealing with you anymore.”

Read it for yourself. (Or just skip down to the section on the mayor if you don’t have time for exercises in experimental prose.)

“There has been many times that I’ve sat here and seen council members, including myself, table an appointment until Thursday night, and then the Thursday they were appointed the application was turned in the same day. I don’t like it when we as a governing body call people out in public, and this young man had not committed a felon [sic]. He might have made some mistakes and not known what they were but he did not commit a felon. I’ve had murders at the clubs in my district. But I didn’t say get rid of the club because the owner can’t control everything that goes on in and around the club. On our P&Z [Planning and Zoning] board, I sat here and watched the previous council that had the P&Z and the Board of Adjustment stack the board. People on the P&Z board should have excused themselves from voting on the TRUNA issue because they were from TRUNA but they didn’t [the one member who owned property inside the district under consideration did recuse himself from voting]. So if we wanna call things out, call all the things out, don’t just pick one thing. And that bothers me because you throw these things out there and the one print media we have, they take whatever you say and they run with it. But that’s an opinion. Public forum is an opinion. Everything is an opinion. But we have been given the legal authority to act as council members for the city. And it just bothers me when that happens. It happened when [citizen in May] was appointed to the board. He was called out. I have never called out anybody who has been appointed to any board. You don’t have to be a doctor or a professor or a rocket scientist to set on most of the boards we have. But I’ve seen time and time again, it’s either somebody from the university, somebody from the hospital, something from that particular neighborhood [University neighborhood?] being appointed to boards. Let’s tell the truth, if we wanna say we don’t like somebody who was appointed because they violated a special use permit, I mean, he’s not an ax-murderer or anything like that. I don’t like it. And I think there are two reasons it was done. That probably wasn’t the only reason. The people on the board probably didn’t want him because he didn’t fit the description of what they think should be on the board. So you need to be careful because you all are continuing to divide divide divide. There’s no center lane for you. You can’t reach across the aisle. You can’t do anything. You just divide divide divide. As if the city weren’t already divided enough. We all know it’s divided because scientific study was done by an ECU professor that said it was divided black and white, and the things that people do sitting on this council make it even worse. You make it worse. It shows that you do not want to work with anybody. You can have an opinion about something that I’m very compassionate about and blow it down but I can’t make a decision on something I think is right. I don’t need anybody’s money because I wouldn’t have any debt if I collected money for my vote. Okay? I’m 62 years old. I shouldn’t have any debt, but I do have debt. So I am sick and tired of the innuendos and the mud-slinging and acting like a bunch of children, acting like a bunch of idiots, instead of a bunch of professionals. Now, whatever you want to say about it, whatever you want to write about it, I don’t care. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am sick and I’m tired of it. I’m sick and tired of it. This year more than any time, this council more than any time has been beat up, banged, knocked aside, accused of things, doing things, and it’s just like it was when the president was elected. The first day these new council members were sitting on the, sat on this board, there were plans to get rid of them because you don’t like them. You don’t like us working together, what is wrong with council members working together? If you would come to the center a little bit then somebody might work on your issue just like you work on your issues too. You’ve got to be able to work together. If I have an issue in my city and I am out of town and I can’t get to it, I call Max Joyner. I can call Kandie Smith. I can call Allen Thomas. I can call Dennis Mitchell and tell them to handle this for me. Even if it means going specifically to the place where the problem is, and it doesn’t matter how bad it is, they still go. So we need to just stop this stuff. It really bothers me to not be able to trust council members or just be upset with the way you are carrying things out and the way you are doing because it doesn’t look good to everybody in the city, because I get phone calls from people in your district who don’t like the way you’re doing things, as well as I get ‘em from your district that don’t like the way I do things. But I do things in the way that I think they should be done. And I am an independent person and I can make my own decisions. So from now on you can do whatever you want. I’ve got it off my chest, and I’m not dealing with you anymore.”

Last but not least, the man who sees himself as the adult overseeing the squabbling children (while really just being the teenaged babysitter provoking one band of the naughty children into poking the other with sticks), Mayor Allen Thomas:

“We have a very diverse council and I appreciate all of you, what you bring to the table. Period. And we’ll have differences time to time and honest differences can be handled civilly. And quite honestly I think that’s something we continue to need to work on with this board. I’ll never forget something Harvey Gant [former mayor of Charlotte] told me… ‘Young man, the difference, and it starts in DC and is starting to filter its way down, is a lack in civility and honor in government anymore.’ We have a choice. We can either ignore it and become part of the problem or we can push back and show honor and civility. That’s why it’s easy when people walk into this body and make accusations about you and try to get political. It would be easy to push back and make accusations and easy to get upset with things you read in the newspaper which aren’t honest and aren’t true, which case in point today. But that’s not the way to handle it. This is a non-partisan board for a reason that we respect our diversity. And when you see folks doing good things in the city, you need to get on board. I have a very short memory. I might disagree with someone on some issues but as soon as something’s done you need to get over it and not try to look at ways to create an advantage. You need to find a way to work together. This is not Washington D.C., this is Greenville, North Carolina. If you’re getting your cues from the commercials you’re watching on TV, you’re in the wrong place. Cross the city line and go somewhere else. It’s time for us to start pushing back and not just accept politics as usual that’s ripping down our city. And I’ll be the first to say it and the first to live by it and if anybody else wants to sign up for it here whether they’re blogging or emailing or sending messages it all starts right here.”

Thomas echoes Joyner’s accusation of some councilors making everything “political.” By using this word, Thomas and Joyner paint themselves blameless, foisting all fault for the council’s dysfunction on those councilors who are just being “political,” that is, trying to create some advantage for themselves with their votes.

This accusation in itself should raise warning flags. It says the accusers do not trust that all of the councilors have the best interests of the city in mind. It is an insult to the people who support those officials.

It is not one councilor voting in a different way from another that divides — the citizens should be concerned if all members agreed on everything. It is one councilor saying another councilor is working for personal gain instead of city’s well being that divides more irreparably than mere disagreement.

To become a functional body, all of the councilors have to begin assuming the others are acting according to their own beliefs about what is best for the city and its residents. They may have different understandings of what that best is, but without them having faith in each others’ intentions as elected officials, all that’s left to the citizens is to hope they land a crop in 2013 that does more than give lip service to words like respect, decorum and civility.

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Responses (4)

  1. Brenda Ernest says:

    Well said, Greenville Guardian.
    When I watch the meetings on TV, I have a hard time following the comments made by some councilors when they go on and on for so long and skip back and forth from one thing to another without making any sense. So I really appreciate the transcription. Very revealing. We citizens really have our work cut out for us in 2013. Thank you.

  2. John Collins says:

    Agreed. Terrific editorial

  3. Stuart Satterthwaite says:

    Very well written!

  4. Linda Leighty says:

    I was appalled at the level of disciplined thinking your article revealed. Ranting should have no place in a City Council meeting, if for no other reason than that the point the speaker is trying to make gets lost. I also object to the oft-stated attitude that if you’re not on my side, you’re an enemy. All the Council members would benefit from a workshop on negotiating skills.

Join the discussion! To promote civility and the useful exchange of ideas, we moderate comments and require full names (first and last), and a valid email address (used solely for verification). If you have an issue posting, please describe it and paste any error message you receive in the body of an email. Send to: tonyn@greenvilleguardian.org. Thanks for your participation!

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