Commentary: Civility workshops for City Council? Good intentions, but keep the Jack Daniel’s handy
By Paul Rozycki
Can workshops bring “civility and decorum” to City Council meetings?
Imagine an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting which starts out with good, sober, intentions, but concludes several hours later with most members passed out on the floor, littered with empty Jack Daniel’s bottles.
Now imagine a Flint City Council workshop aimed at bringing civility and decorum to the council’s often endless and tumultuous meetings. In the first minutes of the meeting, for all their good intentions, the Feb. 15th “civility workshop” quickly returned to the same name-calling, race baiting, and bickering over the rules, that have become a routine part of the Flint’s contentious City Council meetings.
Sometimes well-intentioned plans don’t work out so well.
To be sure, the Flint City Council has more than a little history of turmoil and conflict over the decades, but the current council has emerged as a poster child of conflict and chaos. Other governing boards in the area have been warned that unless they get their act together, they could be “just like the Flint City Council”.
One can only wonder how many businesses or new enterprises have taken a look at the Flint Council and decided it might be wiser to locate in Burton, Flint Township, or elsewhere. The Council’s negative image may deter qualified candidates from running, when they decide it’s not worth being part of the chaos and conflict in City Hall, and it may discourage the public from voting, or being involved in local politics.
The City Council’s recent workshop on “civility and decorum” was meant to inspire the council to become a collegial and functioning legislative body that can actually deliver for its citizens. While the workshop brought the return of the council’s typical conflict and turmoil, there has been at least some good news. At one committee meeting following the combative workshop, issues were discussed, and much of the division and conflict was minimized, at least for a meeting.
The workshop was directed by Eleanor “Coco” Siewert, a trained parliamentarian, and former mayor of Birmingham, Michigan, who did her best to bring the disparate voices on the council together. Unfortunately the gathering turned into a typical council meeting with bickering, name calling and personal attacks.
A second session has been scheduled and it remains to be seen if the results are different.
But for what it’s worth, here are a few New Year’s Resolutions, Valentine’s Day promises, or St. Patty’s day toasts, that might bring some civility and greater productivity to the council meetings.
Put politics in its place
First, let’s hope the council will put politics in its right place. Politics is a great game. It’s often described the game of “who gets what, when they get it, and how they get it.” It may be the greatest game in town, and I suspect that members of the council enjoy playing it. That’s one reason why they ran and won their elections. But there’s a time for politics and a time for policy. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the game of politics, where I want my side to win, from the making of policy. Now is the time for putting old style politics aside, and creating policies that will set Flint on a new path as we work past the water crisis, the pandemic, and our financial challenges.
Another definition of politics is “the art of the possible.” Let’s hope that will emerge as a working definition of politics for Flint. Those on the council bring considerable political skills to the table, and the same political skills that have led council members to be divisive can also be used to unite the council. Whatever the council’s individual political goals, let’s hope they can create policies that will lead to a better Flint, and work with others. Members of the council should be a voice for the city and not just themselves. But it won’t be easy. But Flint will need them to do it.
Develop solid policies
Second, let’s hope the council will develop policies that that will lead to a renewal of Flint. And some of those policies may be difficult and painful for council members and their constituents. We face many of the same problems that cities up and down the I-75 corridor face, loss of jobs, loss of tax base, declining state aid, aging infrastructure, rising crime rates, and large legacy costs. When we have gone from a city of nearly 200,000 to a city of less than half that today, and when we have gone from having nearly 80,000 well paid auto industry jobs, to barely one tenth of that, we are lucky that things aren’t worse.
No city could face those losses, without enormous consequences. There is no single, simple policy that will ‘fix Flint’. It took us three or four decades to get to where we are today and things won’t change overnight. The council’s job is to work together to bring use their foresight, wisdom and creativity to create policies that will lead us to a better Flint city government.
Make meetings more productive
Third, there are a number of things that could be done to make the lengthy and conflict-ridden council meetings more productive.
The council should use its committees to do the primary work on policy and legislation. Those committees should work out the details of any policy and present it to the full council for approval. The full council should not spend time redoing the work of the committees. A recent committee meeting shows some sign of hope.
Robert’s Rules of Order, and the council rules, should be a working framework but it shouldn’t be a means to tie up the council in endless wrangling about the rules or points of order. No book of rules will work if there isn’t personal respect among the council members. A council with respect for each other can make almost any rule book work well, and a council without respect for each other can make even the best rule book fail.
Members of the council should do their homework and be informed before the meetings begin. Information should be made available to council members well before the meetings so they can come prepared.
Meaningful time limits should be set for debate and discussion. No one is likely to be alert, civil, and cooperative after sitting through a seven or eight hour meeting.
The council should learn to rely on outside resources such as the Michigan Municipal League for future guidance. They have been a voice for effective local government in Michigan for many years.
Restore personal respect
And finally, let’s hope that the council will conduct itself in a civil way that can work towards real solutions. Flint has a reputation….a reputation as a “tough town”. We’ve had a long history of labor-management conflicts, racial conflicts and city-county conflicts, among others. That is a major part of Flint history. And all too often that “tough town” approach is reflected in our politics.
This “tough town” aspect might be entertaining, exciting, and might generate news stories, but it’s not productive. It’s time to turn the page. There are going to be many issues that will be divisive, and many issues where council members will disagree. But they need to be resolved.
Particularly in an age of polarized politics, when so little seems to be accomplished on the national or the state level, I’m reminded of the stories of Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Republican Pres. Ronald Reagan. They differed on most issues, and fought the good fight in Congress and beyond. But when the day was done, they could sit down, have a drink and treat each other as friends.
The council’s job is to work together for the whole city, as well as each member’s own ward. It’s not always going to be easy, but it’s critical to changing the image of Flint and the council. More than anything else, whatever differences that exist between council members, there needs to be personal respect.
At the recent workshop, EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis quoted Councilperson Jerri Winfrey-Carter saying, “We need to get to the root of the problem. It’s not about council rules, it’s not about Robert’s Rules, it’s about respect and treating others like you would want to be treated.”
So let’s hope that, the workshops, Winfrey-Carter’s words, and a recent committee meeting are a sign of things to come, and that “civility and decorum” will return to Flint’s council.
But if you are watching, you still might want to keep the Jack Daniel’s handy.
Just in case things don’t work out.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.