21 December 2011

City Council and the Democracy of Competing Ideas

Much attention has been paid to language used by Councilor Kris Vohs and Mayor Mary Rossing about dysfunction and incivility on the Northfield City Council. Several of the candidates hoping to fill the seat held by Councilor Vohs referenced it, and took it as fact that such conditions exists. I disagree wholeheartedly, and think Northfield is being well served by the City Council.

Debate, the exchange and rebuttal of ideas, and careful deliberation are the means by which we assess the merits of every motion that comes to us for a vote. In our deliberations we follow Robert’s Rules of Order, the standard manual on parliamentary procedure, but one that appears rigid and obsolete at times. Robert’s Rules are actually pretty logical, and provide a clear, equitable structure, ensuring that all members are heard and that one member cannot monopolize proceedings. Robert’s Rules has plenty of safety valves, too, and if a breach of procedure occurs – whether a councilor speaks out of order or disparages someone– each member of the council has the authority and obligation to interrupt and bring the matter to the attention of the mayor. No member of the council should allow any incivility to pass by unnoticed, and every member has a responsibility to address it promptly and directly.

During a recent meeting, I said the tax levy for the Economic Development Authority (EDA) should be drastically reduced, and the reaction from the mayor was thorough dissent. The direction of economic development and the EDA has been discussed frequently and consensus has been elusive; we argued back and forth, trying to squeak toward some common ground, but our views were not reconcilable. Discussions like that are difficult and even uncomfortable; I know that if I speak I may be challenged with spirited opposition, but as an elected official I have a responsibility to state my opinion publicly and put it to the test of my fellow councilors. We are equals on the council and we share the same rights and responsibilities, whether we exercise them or not.

One-time visitors to the council chamber certainly would have witnessed vigorous debate and passionate opinions that evening, but they were also seeing a cornerstone of democracy, the free exchange of competing ideas. Those hard debates are the necessary ones, the ones that ensure that all ideas are being considered, even if we reject them.

When the mayor and I met a few days later, there were no apologies, no averting of our eyes, and no discomfort, because what we had done a few nights earlier was what we were elected to do. So, we greeted each other with friendliness, smiled, and moved on to the business at hand. And when the matter came before the council the following week, we again disagreed. But take heart, because with so many issues queued up for consideration, we’ll all have the opportunity – many times over – to agree, disagree, change our mind, listen anew, learn, and serve our city. I love it.