David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Normal Version

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Last Night's City Council Meeting as Civic Education

A school teacher berated the Mayor and City Council of American Fork last night for teaching his students bad things. Here's my view of what his students might have learned at the City Council's meeting, including some lessons that very teacher should not have been teaching.


I went to last evening's American Fork City Council meeting mostly to hear the municipal broadband decision, but there were other noteworthy happenings there.

Uncharacteristically, I arrived early. (That I could attend at all is very much to the credit of one of the four children MFCC and I have produced, who kindly stayed home and tended some of the others.) The doors were still closed, because an executive session was in progress. Outside were gathered dozens of people, which is not particularly unusual in itself. However, the fact that most were teenagers was unusual. I might add that they were decently dressed and well-behaved teenagers. Their teenage enthusiasm insured that the din in the hall gradually grew, until it was quite substantial. Then one of the adults present signaled for quiet. Within about ten seconds, they rewarded him with . . . quiet, of all things. By this I knew he was their leader or teacher or some such.

At length I discovered that these well-behaved youth are students at a private school in Pleasant Grove, the Liahona Academy. (As the name suggests, it attempts to implement Latter-day Saint principles, though it is not sponsored by the LDS Church.) They and numerous parents and school officials were present to be seen and heard on the matter of a proposed development agreement affecting the planned building of a new school building. (See my previous discussion of that development agreement as it relates to North Korean nukes.)

Near the end of the meeting, one highly exercised adult raised the subject of what the youth were learning by attending the meeting. I'll get to him and his outburst eventually. But first, he has a point about learning. Here are some things I think the youth might have learned from one of the more entertaining City Council meetings I have attended. It is entirely possible that they really learned some of these things, too, because they were quiet and attentive for the two hours they spent sitting and standing in the meeting.

The Rituals

They might have learned that in local politics we care about our rituals, such as the Pledge of Allegiance and that opening prayer which sometimes irritates me. But that was only the beginning.

The Infinite Virtue of the Poker Face

One of the first things on the American Fork City Council's agenda is the public comment period, a span of up to 20 minutes during which people are welcome to make comments up to two minutes in length, as long as the thing they are discussing is not on the agenda. (If it is, the opportunity to discuss it comes later.) I've heard a wide variety of comments in such periods, but never wider -- at least, never weirder -- than last night.

The first commenter was a lady I know well, who has been active in American Fork civic matters for a long time. She was there on this night to urge the Council to create a dog park in the city. If nothing else, she may have taught the youth these lessons in the process:

  1. A political leader needs skills most people never dream of, such as the ability to keep a relatively straight face as a city resident speaks seriously of her husband's dog as her "sister-wife"; espouses the virtue of a dog park where dogs and their owners can run free and get acquainted with other dogs and owners; says a dog park can help singles find spouses and can even help cure depression; urges us to treat our dogs as we treat our children; and says we should all try to be more like dogs. (The Council endured this extreme provocation very gracefully.)
  2. The people are the people, even when they are a little weird, and as such deserve respect even when they . . . don't. See #1 above.

Two other ladies commented on matters which deserved comment, though not at the great length they were allowed. These two, like the first, have served the City for decades and probably have earned some latitude. In any case, sometimes allowing people to be heard is more important than watching the clock -- another lesson, perhaps.

If I am wrong about these lessons -- if no other good was done in this segment -- at least "George the German Shepherd," a special friend of the aforementioned canine "sister-wife," has now had his five minutes of fame.

By the way, if you think the US Congress is not frequently so comical, you haven't been watching enough C-SPAN at the ends of the day.

Sometimes Less Is More

The youth might have learned that the people responsible for the meeting care more for its length than the general populace does. In the period for council reports which immediately followed, all five Council members demurred in the interest of time, which was marching on and had nearly disappeared over the horizon. The Mayor reported on a few items, but briefly.

Common Consent, Or May God Have Mercy on My Children

Then came the common consent agenda, a gathering place for issues on which everyone agrees and no further discussion is required. Typically, this includes the approval of previous meetings' minutes and ordinary expenditures. This proceeded quickly and without incident, except for a brief comment which might have suggested to the youth that good humor is nearly always in order. MFCC praised the City Recorder for one meeting's minutes, which she said were particularly detailed and clear -- so well written, she said, that she considered reading them to her children. Laughter ensued.

If she really had read them to her (our) children, I would already have heard complaints, just as I did after she playfully obtained the Mayor's signature on our new rules for the weekly Rodeback family council a few months ago.

The Main Events

I'm not certain what the youth might have learned from the broadband discussion and decision (the first action item, excepting the common consent agenda). Perhaps that it's nearly impossible to understand an issue fully if the first you hear of it is at the City Council meeting where it is decided? Perhaps that big decisions often proceed quickly and quietly in the end?

The second action item was the one for which the youth had come, the boundary agreement affecting their school, which I have discussed at length elsewhere. It occupied more than an hour. Here are some things I hope they learned:

  1. Long meetings are not necessarily boring.
  2. People have a wide variety of legitimate interests and concerns, and one's interests frequently conflict irreconcilably with another's.
  3. Substance matters, but so do processes.
  4. Some sweet, gentle folk think we should all just agree on everything, and that anything less harmonious constitutes fighting "like in Iraq." Such people will never be quite at home in a democratic system.
  5. Most people don't like their political opponents putting words in their mouths.
  6. Elected officials are not always moved by numbers or bluster.

At times the discussion was passionate, at times conciliatory. But after the Council voted, a teacher and official from the school, who technically was out of order, abused the Mayor and Council rudely and at length -- and from right across their tables -- for making a decision which might delay the school's construction. Without relying entirely on sound logic, to put it mildly, he suggested -- I'm paraphrasing -- that those leaders were contributing to the civic delinquency of the nation's youth, by showing them yet again that political officials are unresponsive and spineless and prefer to avoid and defer actual decision-making whenever possible.

He seemed to be teaching his own students these unfortunate lessons:

  1. Emotion matters more than manners or logic.
  2. It's okay to abuse elected officials if they don't give you exactly what you want, when you want it.
  3. The end justifies the means. Any denial or delay of the end justifies the means.

Here are the lessons I wished I could highlight for his students at that point:

  1. Complex organizations grappling with complex issues require a lot of time -- at least if the job is to be done right -- and it is unreasonable to expect otherwise.
  2. The prevailing culture of Washington, DC, notwithstanding, not every politically active adult feels free to throw a tantrum when politically defeated -- or, in this case, when victory is briefly deferred.
  3. When Joe loses his temper and Fred doesn't, Joe is the one who looks childish.
  4. Sometimes doing a thing right is more important than doing it in a hurry.

They probably also learned these useful lessons:

  1. If you seek public office -- especially if you win it -- you need a firm mind and thick skin.
  2. People sometimes get very passionate about their politics, which is not altogether a bad thing.

The Probable Happy Ending

The Council recessed for a few minutes (formally or informally, I know not), and the room mostly cleared. I resisted the considerable temptation to ask the angry teacher, when I passed him in the hall, if he was proud of himself.

Apparently, he wasn't. I saw him making the rounds of Council members and the Mayor during the recess, but I did not overhear what he said or what they said to him. I hoped he was apologizing, and I later was told that he did apologize to each of the six he berated. He even expressed the intention to apologize to his students in class today, as he should.

I'm glad. Now I can consider him a passionate fellow who is, in the final analysis, as human as the rest of us, instead of dismissing him as a selfish, ill-bred jerk.

He would have done better not to blow a gasket at all -- as would we all from time to time -- but if he does this right, his students may have a sporting chance at learning these important lessons:

  1. Adults aren't perfect -- as if youth didn't already know -- just older, with more and bigger concerns.
  2. When you do something stupid and make a mess, the best thing is to clean it up as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
  3. When you're angry, most of the clever things you think to say are things you'll wish you hadn't said, if you say them.

Judging by when MFCC arrived home, the rest of the meeting's agenda was dispatched fairly quickly in my (and nearly everyone else's) absence.

Normal Version