Ah, Neighborhood Commissioners with a Sense of Humor
- 06 Jun 2014
- Written by Bob Gelfand
GELFAND’S WORLD- Sometimes I imagine this scene: The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners is getting together in a secret back room somewhere, and asking themselves, "OK, what can we do to get Gelfand ticked off and put us in another column?" I mean, somebody could come up with a proposal like this: Give any 3 people on a neighborhood council the ability to tie the governing board up for a whole year, holding censure hearings on all the other board members, and for no particular reason other than to cause trouble. That might get me started. Or BONC could propose a rule that would make it an offense to roll your eyes at somebody's remarks. Just call it being disrespectful, and make it a rules infraction. Oh wait -- they really did those things this week.
I call your attention to the proposed resolution on Training for Neighborhood Council Members. It starts out with a broadly worded requirement that all of our neighborhood council board members would be required to take training in a number of disciplines, including sexual discrimination and something that comes with its own set of scare quotes, as in "bullying." Presumably, the BONC thinks that DONE has too many staff members and needs to find something for them to do. In this case it will be figuring out why bullying is not a real thing, but "bullying" is.
The draft resolution also includes (and I will put my own quotation marks in here) "other inappropriate behavior." In the comedy business, they call that a straight line. Since this is a family oriented site, I will have to refrain from commenting further, but those of you who are fans of standup can fill in your own examples of inappropriate behavior. Just don't do it in the comments section, because if you do, you can be accused of violating the code of civility.
What's a code of civility? Funny you should ask. At the end of the proposed resolution, there is something with that name that would be made into a required element in every neighborhood council's bylaws.
They could have made it fairly simple, something like "our meetings run according to standard parliamentary procedure, and you shouldn't interrupt or scream at the top of your lungs. At least not more than once per meeting."
But no. The proposed code of civility goes on for 17 enumerated paragraphs. Seventeen. Let's take a look at two of them.
Number 6: "I will not use language that is abusive, threatening, obscene, or slanderous, including using profanities, insults, or other disparaging remarks or gestures."
Now I think we should admit that number 6 starts off reasonably, at least where it forbids you to actually threaten another person or to use obscenities. These are normal rules for public meetings.
It's the rest of rule number 6 that is bothersome, because that part about "disparaging remarks or gestures" could be interpreted as the rule against rolling your eyes at somebody's comment. You may say that this is overreaction on my part, but I'm here to testify that I am the recipient of the comment, "Don't roll your eyes at me Bob," spoken by one of my fellow neighborhood council participants at a regional meeting. Sorry, but some reactions are almost automatic, and we shouldn't legislate against ocular rotation, twitches, or even frowns.
I think it's also obvious that one man's Constitutionally protected view is another man's disparagement. At the regional meeting the other night, we heard a local board member complain in all seriousness that the publisher of the local newspaper shouldn't have been allowed to comment publicly on our board election. I understand that some people are nostalgic for the 1950s, but being nostalgic for the 1750s is a new one for me.
I don't have room to do all the other 16 rules and admonishments, as this would take as long as my usual column. But let's consider one or two issues seriously for a moment, because the BONC has gone to the effort to publish these proposed rules, suggesting that somebody is serious about enacting them.
Rule number 3 reads, "Even in the face of disagreement, or differences of opinion, I will demonstrate esteem and deference for my colleagues and the public."
No. No no no no no. There are some opinions that are not worthy of esteem because they are abhorrent, evil, and loathsome. As a society, we lump things like racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and misogyny in the abhorrent etc category. Me, anyway. So I'm not going to treat some public comment that fits one of those categories with esteem. The rest of rule number 3, demanding deference, could only be a typing error.
Now here's the problem: As the proposal is written, it includes ways to bring board members up on a motion to censure, and it only requires the accusation of 3 others. Actually censuring a board member would require the vote of two-thirds of the board, but that is irrelevant. If enacted, this rule would give power to any 3 troublemakers to put their fellow board members on public trial. Under this kind of rule making, we could look forward to board wars where competing factions serially put each other up on charges.
And I thought the BONC was supposed to be thinking about keeping the peace in the neighborhood council system.
May I ever so deferentially and civilly suggest that the BONC has things exactly upside down with this proposal?
The logic of my position is actually pretty simple. Neighborhood councils are explicitly political bodies with the public charge of evaluating government services and the actions of our elected leaders. If city government did everything wonderfully well, and all we needed to do would be to compliment them, then we wouldn't need neighborhood councils.
The better approach is to tell people outright, governing board members and the public alike, that your neighborhood council is a temple of free speech, where disagreement and agreement are equally allowed, and where board members, as public figures and elected officials, are subject to public criticism.
In other words, political speech is protected speech, and you shouldn't have to park your First Amendment rights at the door.
The usual BONC approach would be to remove some of the worst elements of this proposal as an act of faux compromise, particularly since DONE staffers and other members of the city family can even now be heard to mutter, "Why are you doing this?" The more appropriate thing to do is to put this one back in the drawer, never to see the light of day again.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol 12 Issue 46
Pub: June 6, 2014