Civility on the council dais

A few weeks ago the Chico City Council took up the issue of how to make its biweekly meetings more civil and less intimidating to the members of the community who want to take part in the, um, civil process of local government.

What the councilmembers need to understand right off the bat is that they set the tone for these meetings—their arguments, criticisms and disrespect for each other charge the atmosphere.

At the most-recent meeting, Councilmember Dan Herbert followed through on a promise he’d made at the previous meeting in which the council-meeting decorum—or lack of—was discussed, without any solid resolution. Then, Herbert’s threat to not sit in meetings past 10 p.m. was uttered in reaction to a comment by Mayor Scott Gruendl who’d suggested the longer a council meeting lasts, the less focused the council becomes and, by assumption, the less reliable its decisions.

In fact, Herbert was mad because Gruendl’s comments came in the defense of Councilmember Andy Holcombe’s surprising move to not automatically push through a huge housing development set for southeast Chico.

So last week at the appointed hour, Herbert bolted the council chambers. He was followed soon after by Councilmember Steve Bertagna. This kind of behavior does not bode well for civil discourse in future meetings. Bertagna and Herbert sit next to Councilmember Larry Wahl and the three conservatives often discuss matters among themselves while a member of the audience is speaking from the lectern. This is both disrespectful and intimidating—they aren’t listening while seated at an elevated dais looking down upon whoever is trying to speak to them.

Even if they are silently dismissing the person at the podium as a complete nincompoop, the councilmembers should at least have the good manners to pretend to listen to what is being said.

Concerning the other side of the council’s ideological gap—literally right to left as it faces the audience—we’ve heard complaints of how Holcombe, an attorney, can commandeer a matter and talk the life out of it, forgetting perhaps that while his time is infinite, the public is limited to three minutes a piece on any single subject.

All councilmembers, regardless of where they stand politically, must remember that they are public servants here. They are paid—albeit, not much—to serve the public, not browbeat, intimidate or ignore it. The councilmembers need to set the example if the want the public to play nice as well.