Civility in council chambers
Some members of the community say that citizens experience rudeness from city councilors and Salem’s Mayor Anna Peterson in Salem City Council meetings. The mayor and other council members disagree. All say that respect for others is a goal worth attaining.
“The city council meeting on June 23rd was another ‘slap citizen in the face reminder’ that this council is not for citizen input unless it agrees with the Mayor and certain council members,” says Salem’s Anita Owen. “The Salem citizens, speaking out thoughtfully and respectfully… were treated like pesky mosquitoes spoiling the council picnic. The Mayor and the Ward 2 councilor [Laura Tesler] attacked with a vengeance.”
Many who spoke with Salem Weekly say that they have perceived less civility toward the public in council in the last year than formerly.
“What I have seen on CCTV has been an increase of hostile or demeaning behavior towards anyone that does not agree with city council,” says Kathleen Moynihan, “really it is rather an embarrassment to the office of both the mayor and a couple councilpersons.”
But Mayor Anna Peterson says respect is a value she shares. When asked her response to those who say her approach is not always civil, she says, “I do my best to treat others courteously and with respect.” When asked the kind of civility she personally hopes for, or aims, for in city government, Peterson replied, “Civility includes honesty and candor and transparency. That is what I aim for.”
At issue for many is the sense that Salem City Council does not value public testimony because the public is not actually part of the council decision-making process. Council conclusions, they say, are based on City of Salem staff recommendations, which are almost inevitably followed.
“The most discouraging thing to me is that they seem to have already come to a decision even before hearing from the public,” says Salem’s Jan Munsey. It makes Munsey “wonder why anybody goes to the effort.”
Owen adds, “In each of the four visits I have made in the last year, I have felt there was very little interest in taking into account citizen views unless they matched the views already pre-determined by the council and Mayor.”
Yet the councilors we spoke with say that city council is a place where all are heard with respect.
Ward 2’s Laura Tesler says, “council is always interested in respectful, thoughtful citizen dialogue with priority given to citizens of the City of Salem. The council works hard to incorporate comment, policy, and finances.”
Chuck Bennett, councilor for Ward 1 agrees. “Salem is a remarkably civil place. The city council meetings are no exception,” he says. “I’m not aware of any instance where anyone reached a level of discourse I would call rude or out of line. Council deals with hundreds of issues each year and once in a while these actions get a little contentious — that’s the nature of a transparent and successful government.”
At the June 23 council meeting, Salem’s Mary Ann Baclawski, took offense at the way community members Brian Hines and Jim Scheppke were addressed by Mayor Peterson. Following Scheppke in the public comment section that night Baclawski said, “Madam Mayor… please do not ask for public comment and then go into a fit of pique because people disagree with you. That is not statesmanlike and is beneath your obvious abilities.”
Later, Baclawski shared with Salem Weekly, “I have never been to a council meeting with Anna Petersen where she did not insist on a unanimous decision. It was expressed at all the public meetings about the ‘3rd Bridge’ [and] it goes against all my experience with human nature.”
Baclawski is a Quaker who follows a concept called ‘sense of the meeting.’ “When we make decisions… we do not look for unanimous consensus. Instead, we respectfully listen to each person, giving a bit of time between speakers so that what he/she said can be processed. The idea is that there is a truth out there and no one individual owns that truth.”
Concern about the value council seems to place on unanimity is echoed by Salem’s Susann Kaltwasser who states that, “difference of opinion is not necessarily a bad thing. A full vetting of the issues and debate can lead to better solutions to problems.”
Kaltwasser maintains that when differing views are not encouraged – citizens simply stay home.
“What I have noticed is that more and more people are saying, ‘I do not want to testify, because the council is not listening, or they do not care’… The perception is increasing, and it is increasing not just amongst active citizens; more people impacted by land use issues or local ordinances are refusing to go to council to testify. They say, ‘why bother; they are not going to listen.’ And when people start to disengage with their community or their government, nothing good comes from that.”
When asked how important Mayor Peterson believes civility and a display of mutual respect are to good governance, she replied that both “are key to the successful operation of a government or a business. That is true from the President of the United States, to Congress, to State legislatures, county governments and city councils.”
Kaltwasser agrees with this sentiment. She points out, “the tone of any body is set by the person in charge. The Mayor is that person and she needs to accept that not everyone is going to agree with her and she can be gracious about it.”
“I expect my elected officials to treat me and my fellow citizens with dignity and respect,” says Owen. “I should not be treated like the enemy because my views differ from theirs.
It is a value Mayor Peterson shares. When asked if she felt that citizens had shown city institutions, officials and personnel the kind of civility they deserve, and what conduct they should go by she replied, “Mutual courtesy is important. When citizens or public officials fail to treat others courteously, progress is more difficult.”