By Jan Worth-Nelson
This week I lost my city council virginity.
It wasn’t pretty. Like most losses of virginity, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable and I’m not sure I want a repeat experience.
Some things get better with practice – and are especially improved by having good partners.
I don’t know if I can count on any of that in the city council chambers.
In my 35 years in Flint, including 26 years at the UM – Flint, going to a city council meeting just seemed like something other people did.
I own two homes here. I have been writing columns about life in Flint for a dozen years. I have documented everything from what it feels like to prepare my taxes to cleaning out my junk drawer to what kinds of trees I see on my many walks around the neighborhood.
But as for that dimly lit, dingy chamber, its rows of brown auditorium seats cracking and uncomfortable—well, I had always avoided it.
I must have had some healthy protective instinct of what I wasn’t missing.
Then Gary Custer died and I found myself editor of East Village Magazine.
As the city struggled with its water crisis, I tried to help EVM cover the travails of our life here, trolling always for the hopeful stories but confused by the continual squabbles between mayor and council. Finally it seemed like I could no longer in good conscience avoid stepping into the city’s drama.
As if jinxed by the bad air in the room, my recording of the proceedings won’t open for me now and thus I am going from bruised memory. What I’m describing here is therefore short on direct quotes.
I got there early and awkwardly settled myself into one of the unbroken seats in the fourth row. I had brought an apple and nibbled on it nervously to pass the time – as a woman introduced herself and shared some of her thoughts – primarily in defense of the mayor and expressing her perplexity about why the council seemed determined to resist her.
A man came by with the required sheets for signing up to speak. I was happy to help when he said he needed assistance filling it out. He did not seem to know how to spell his last name.
Finally the meeting got underway. Within minutes its features included yelling, shouted accusations. A guy in a yellow shirt also sporting a holstered gun shambled to the podium at the wrong time for public comments. My council representative, Monica Galloway, was loudly attacked by one of the water activists. She attempted to clarify her position later, only to be verbally shouted down again. I’m not saying who was right or wrong – I honestly couldn’t tell — but the pitch of it was nervewracking. As a newcomer to the scene, I felt overwhelmed by the intricacies of these relationships, some obviously the result of many events that happened before I ventured into the scene.
Council president Kerry Nelson, who seems like a gentleman, attempted repeatedly to make various calming and clarifying points – for instance, to try to explain to people during a required public hearing for CAPER, lumberingly standing for Consolidated Annual Performance and Evaluation Report, that that was not the time for general public comment. But people kept streaming up to the mic anyway to make loud and emotional points.
One man, after being told three times by the gentle giant council president that the public comment time would come later, looked up and said blankly, “What’s CAPER?”
That is just ten minutes worth of what happened. The rest was much the same.
I know this is a city filled with hurts. The water crisis has made so many things worse, and the primal fears, dangers, illnesses, lying, betrayals by our governing officials have brought so much anger and pain to the surface. And, in fact, the water crisis has helped give voice to so many who needed to be heard. The long-term effect of this outpouring is painful to watch. Sometimes it feels like a genuinely justifiable exercise of righteously indignant free speech.
But still. What happened in the council chambers did not feel like healthy catharsis. It felt like anarchy.
On questions of who is to blame and what to do about it, I am still thinking. I’m new to the wounds. Is it the fault of the council itself? Is it what feels like a proliferating disrespect spread like rancid butter over everything? Is it the failure of public education? The breakdown in civil rhetoric in the nation as a whole?
Here is what I posted, in my city council PTSD, on Facebook later that night:
“I am sorry to say I tried to cover the Flint City Council meeting tonight but after 90 minutes I could not stand to stay another minute in the meeting.
“I am apparently not enough of a reporter to put down my disgust and dismay at the chaos, bedlam, noise, disrespect. I couldn’t sort out who stood for what and why it was all happening the way it was.”
“This was my first city council meeting in my many years in Flint,” I raved on, “and if I had seen this insanity earlier I would have run for the hills.”
When I posted about it on Facebook, I received a stream of laments. People said things like “I stopped going because of this,” and “So sad,” and “It’s been like this for years.” Steve Montle, who worked for the former administration, commented “I sat through almost every one for the 2+ years I worked for Mayor Walling. It’s a tough gig.” In a follow up when I asked for permission to use his quote, he said, “In fact, I think it’s a dramatic understatement.”
Haven’t we just been slapped by having our democracy ripped out from under us? If that democracy we lost was so important, why is it that in practice it looks and feels so tawdry, so fruitless, so chaotic?
As I wrote on Facebook, that meeting made me embarrassed for my city. I don’t quite know what to do or say about it. I really do want to keep reporting on the trash story and the water story, but after that night, I feel like I will have to find another way to do so rather than sit through that mess. One needs to try to understand, to learn, to ask: Flint’s stories need to be told. In the meantime, however, that meeting felt truly, deeply horrifying. Participatory democracy, and Flint’s ability to do anything to save itself – is in deep trouble if this is the way it has fallen apart.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.