Election-year jitters

In the last two weeks, two progressive City Council-appointed commissioners have been targeted by conservatives for communications they’ve made—one at a public meeting, the other in an e-mail exchange—that have been deemed unprofessional, crass and undignified.

To wit: Nine months ago Parks Commissioner Tom Barrett used the word “bullshit” during an e-mail exchange with a constituent over the recreational merits and environmental drawbacks of a disc golf course; then this month Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas offered his indelicate and poorly timed take on the ethical debate of prolonging an elderly person’s life at a staggering cost.

Each comment came in connection with a highly political debate: The continued use of an unsanctioned disc-golf course in Upper Bidwell Park and expansion of the city’s only hospital into its surrounding neighborhood.

Barrett was carrying on a debate with disc-golf enthusiast Lon Glazner, who decided on Feb. 2 to share Barrett’s May 2005 e-mail, the one with the offensive word, with the whole City Council. Glazner did so after Barrett moved to close the disc golf course in wet conditions. The motion failed. Glazner, by the way, is listed as a member of the recently formed conservative political action committee calling itself the Hooker Oak Alliance.

The local daily newspaper did its job. Editor David Little, a disc-golf enthusiast, chastised Barrett in his Sunday column for using the BS word. This was followed by a front-page story reporting that Councilmember Steve Bertagna had asked the matter be placed on the next council agenda, including a discussion of the commissioner’s possible removal.

Then when Luvaas made his verbal gaffe during a Planning Commission meeting, the daily’s account isolated the comment from the bigger discussion and made Luvaas sound incredibly cold-hearted.

The TV news carried the baton by taking the newspaper story to a local retirement home and asking the senior citizens there what they thought of Luvaas’ weighing the costs and benefits of performing heroic medical care for the elderly. Reaction was what would be expected: Hang the bastard!

This time Councilmember Larry Wahl took up the political charge by asking that the council look into whether the planning commissioner is fit to serve. Conservatives Bertagna and Wahl are not up for re-election; fellow conservative Dan Herbert is. Thus they are doing the dirty work.

And look who’s writing to the daily’s letters to the editor page: Wahl’s wife Mary describes Luvaas’ comment as “fascist"; former planning commissioner and one-time conservative council candidate Jolene Francis bashes both Luvaas ("incredibly insensitive") and Barrett ("using foul and demeaning language") in a single letter.

All the blustering, posturing and feigned hurt feelings can’t disguise what is really at work here: hardball politics being played at the beginning of an election season. In any other year the offended would have either not said anything—Barrett’s case—or asked for an apology and left it at that—Luvaas’ case. But with the control of the council at stake, these opportunities are too good to pass up. Forcing liberal Councilmembers Scott Gruendl, who is up for re-election, and Maureen Kirk, who is running for county supervisor, to discuss and possibly vote on these high-profile matters makes for smart politics.

But we do smell a trace of hypocrisy here. We don’t recall anyone on the council calling for Bertagna’s head a few years back when he said during a council meeting, loud and clear, that District Attorney Mike Ramsey had “jewed” him out of some money. Initially Bertagna didn’t seem to understand the insensitivity of the word he’d used. This was followed by an uncomfortably long period between the time the gaffe was made and an apology was issued. And the apology was of the “Who knew?” variety.

Conservatives are now saying Bertagna’s blunder was not the same as those by Luvaas and Barrett. They’re right; Bertagna’s was much cruder and more offensive.