Thursday, May 15, 2008

Democracy in Action. Sort of.

Last week I went to the Olympia City Council meeting, mainly to hear activists present a “sanctuary city” resolution for consideration but also just to see the Council in session. The meeting was guaranteed to be filled due to the brouhaha about the vandalism that accompanied the May Day rally in support of the proposal. The meeting was my first visit to City Hall, a curiously shaped, worn-looking-structure with a circular Council chamber surrounded by an outer ring of offices. City Hall was no doubt constructed in a much simpler time, since it houses only a very few city offices. The rest are scattered in nearby office buildings, which is why the city is looking to build a new municipal ediface.

The chamber was packed when I arrived. I ended up standing just inside the door. Council members were still taking their seats. They all looked pretty formal, the mayor in dark suit and tie, a councilman in a suit, a councilwoman if not in a suit, fine looking clothing. The remaining members a man and a woman, appeared more casual. The meeting began promptly at 7:00 pm with 30 minutes of public comment for items not on the agenda. Most of the discussion was about the proposal to limit city law enforcement support for detaining GI resisters and undocumented immigrants. The organizers of the May Day rally asked the Council to consider their proposal separate from the vandalism. Several said that violence was not part of their program and one organizer apologized for his failure to create the intended community event that he had envisioned. A few citizens denounced the vandalism and the idea of support for anyone who is breaking the law. One woman said she was glad her Army sergeant son was heading to Iraq for a third tour rather than see “what Olympia has become.

At the end of the comment period, Council members responded. One member, whose store had been victimized in the May Day vandalism, offered that he had much to say but preferred to think about it more. The councilwoman dressed in the fine clothing lectured the May Day organizers about their “carefully parsed words” and their failure to condemn violence outright, insisting that she cannot continue to converse with those who seek to intimidate and insult the community—ie, the sanctuary supporters. The other councilwoman opined that she did not consider GI resisters or undocumented immigrants to be a city issue, although she did allow that the community needs “a dialogue” on these issues “but not in this forum”. The mayor dismissed the whole matter as “a solution in search of a problem”.

The Council was elected last November, perhaps in reaction to the activism of its predecessor which declared Olympia a Nuclear Free City and maybe other similar transgressions against community orthodoxy. This Council is determined to keep its focus on what the members see as community issues, rather than engage in symbolic actions that waste its time. Having spent much time at pointless and interminable public meetings, I can certainly understand their concern; the issues council must address are difficult enough without looking for other things to worry about. And while I support the sanctuary city proposal, which directs city personnel to not participate in federal immigration and AWOL soldier sweeps, I can see a legitimate argument for not taking up the issue.

Council’s decision to let the matter die did not disturb me as much as the members’ attitudes and demeanor. The lecture from the woman in the fine clothes I thought was condescending and patronizing. She made a big point of standing up for non-violence but she did so in what I think was wholly dishonest way. The people she was lecturing were not the vandals; they are the ones who organized a peaceful rally and march that was hijacked by the rock throwers, all of whom have been arrested and charged. Her demands reminded me of an ideological show trial where the defendants were ordered to take an oath or bow down to the leader in order to demonstrate their fealty. All that, plus she went on way too long. If anything, she totally missed the fact that young people were engaging the system just like the civics textbooks say citizens should. And while she is properly incensed about the vandalism, she was lecturing the wrong people, unless she believes that anyone who raises questions of public policy supports violence

The mayor’s demeanor was decidedly unfriendly. He introduced the public comment period with recitation of the rules that indicated he expected the audience to be rowdy and disrespectful. He finished his recitation by stating that we have “zero tolerance for violence in this chamber” and dropping his paper and looking at the audience as if he were about to undergo some distasteful procedure. He closed the comment period with dismissive words and an indication that the time for real business was at hand. I

The sanctuary city proposal is, like any issue, debatable. It’s a matter of public policy that is confronting more and more jurisdictions as the federal government continues unable to deal with the economic consequences of a failed state on our border. That’s an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. But to the mayor and council, that issue is a waste of time. They clearly made that point last week. But I don’t agree that hearing the concerns of citizens in an open meeting is a waste. If it is, then why even bother with a public comment period?

This Olympia City Council seems to have decided that popular democracy only goes so far and that it will be the sole decider of what will be included.

To be fair to the Council, I did not stay to watch the rest of the meeting so I can’t comment on anything beyond what I saw. The room was stifling with all those in attendance and I’m not much good for anything after 8:00 pm. I’ll make a point of attending future meetings to see if what transpired during last week’s public comment period is typical of the way this Council views the concerns of its citizens.