Bertagna’s comment can’t be ignored

Councilmember Steve Bertagna made a terrible mistake at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and now he owes a lot of people an apology. So do his fellow city councilmembers.

The setting was a convivial exchange over the issue of increasing car registration fees by a dollar to fund a program for getting abandoned junkers off the street. Bertagna complained about the cost, saying he had eight cars. So District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who was among the county government delegation asking the council to sign onto the program, collected some bills from his colleagues and gave them to Bertagna. Here, this should cover it, he said jokingly.

When Bertagna counted the money, however, it came up short. That’s when he made his horrible gaffe. “You jewed me out of a buck,” he said to Ramsey.

This is of course a terrible ethnic slur, one that well-meaning people long have tried to excise from the public vocabulary. That Bertagna would use it so unconsciously suggests a small-minded insensitivity that is frightening.

Ramsey, to his credit, was openly offended and said as much. And it was clear that many in the audience were bothered or embarrassed by Bertagna’s remark.

But, amazingly, nothing else was said about it. The other councilmembers just sat there in uncomfortable silence. (Coleen Jarvis, who would have jumped on Bertagna’s comment like a cat on a rat, is recovering from surgery and wasn’t present.)

Why didn’t Mayor Dan Herbert stop the proceedings and offer Bertagna a chance to apologize for his insensitivity? Whatever happened to the conservatives’ call for councilmembers to be polite and civil? Is overt racism somehow OK if it’s said in a jocular fashion? If ever there was a time for the mayor’s gavel to come down with force on the council dais, this was it. But instead we had silence while the council’s audience cringed in embarrassment and shock, hoping the unease of the moment would just go away.

And it did. Within minutes, Bertagna, who initially appeared red-cheeked in embarrassment, was yawning and mugging as if nothing had happened.

Frankly, we’re embarrassed for Chico and its leaders and offended that such an occurrence could go uncorrected. We’ve always liked Steve Bertagna as a person and in fact endorsed him in the last election, and we feel confident that he’s not an overt anti-Semite. But bigotry takes many forms, and one of those forms is the racial or ethnic slur that’s allowed to circulate unquestioned among otherwise decent people.

This goes much deeper than simply failing to adhere to the rules of political correctness, as Bertagna may like us to believe. This was nothing short of the rekindling of an ugly stereotype, something that should have been buried decades ago. To hear this word used in this way by an elected official taints us all.

This can’t be swept under the rug and allowed to pass as if it had never happened. Bertagna owes the people of Chico and Butte County an apology and a promise to be more sensitive in the future. And his fellow city councilmembers also should apologize for allowing his comment to pass without censure. Nothing short of that will suffice to restore our faith in them as good people.