Just A Thought -And Don’t Let the Door Hit You…

As ordained by our city charter, people can only serve two consecutive terms on city council before stepping out. This was prescribed to keep anyone from serving longer than is good for him or her, or good for the people around them. Gary Silbiger has reached this point, and it is for the greater good that he retires.

When I first began to attend the council meetings on a regular basis last year, I was struck by the difference between Silbiger and the other council members. Whatever item was in discussion, whatever motion was on the floor, when it got to Silbiger, it stopped. Like someone waking from sleep, he seemed to have missed the last half an hour of information. He had questions. It would then be explained that all those points had just been addressed. Well, he needed to hear them again. So, the meeting would than downshift to first gear, and proceed at a dangerously slow speed; dangerous to those of us trying to stay awake and in focus.

After less than three months of these council meetings, the sound of his voice was so soporific, all he had to do was turn on his microphone, and I’d start yawning.

During the very short tenure of Mark Scott as city manager, I saw Scott almost completely blow his cool on several occasions over Silbiger’s obliviousness to points of procedure or information that everyone else in the room found obvious. Points that were vital to moving the agenda forward.

In the last few months, I have asked more than a dozen people who are big fans of Silbiger what he’s done during his term of office that has made a difference. Lots of people think he’s a nice guy. Yes, all well and good. But the only answer I’ve gotten of any substance is the Martin Luther King holiday committee.

Well, if Silbiger were actually the man who got Dr. Martin Luther King recognized, I would say that’s worthy of a huge round of applause. But to just take a national holiday and give it a local boost, la-de-da. So, yes, he’s a nice guy and his heart is in the right place, and I probably even agree with him on most points of policy, but to me, he’s just Rip Van Winkle over there on the end of the dais, paying no attention at all until it’s his turn to speak.

One prominent local volunteer offered her insight into his popularity. “Silbiger is always there to stick up for the little guy; no matter how wrong or how dumb that little guy may be.”

I’m all for democracy- I love it. I think everyone should be heard. And for that to happen, we need to listen.

I had an important and humbling insight into the need to listen during the heat of a huge argument with a boyfriend of mine many years ago. Terry was a very canny ex-Marine with a passion for French philosophy – which was how we got started in the first place- but during an afternoon when we were both getting loud over our divergent opinions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir he yelled at me “The worst of it is that you are not even listening!”
I shouted back “Yes, I am!”
He screamed “You are not, you are sitting there with your preformed opinions
waiting for me to stop talking so that you can say something you already decided you were going to say five minutes ago!”
And I thought- dammit he’s right. So I dropped all my preformed opinions and just listened. We both stopped shouting. I changed my mind about a few things. I even changed his mind about a few things.

I still think Sartre was a self-serving sadist, and I will never date another existentialist as long as I live, but I did get to be a better listener.

Listening requires a good deal more from us than being silent while someone else is speaking. Paying attention is simply the bare minimum.

I agree that everyone has the right to be heard. I also expect that everyone elected to office should respect the process enough to follow the discussion, particularly if the next step is going to be to call for more people to add in their thoughts and opinions.

Case in point- the April 5 installment of the Richard Rownak saga. Rownak’s very long standing case against the furniture shop at the end of his street has probably taken up days and possibly weeks of the city council’s time over the last few years. (As I am not an administrator, a council member or a retail outlet, I have no stand on the issue. Rownak, like everyone else who comes to the meetings, has the right to address the council.)

When Rownak spoke to complain that he did not have the right to a legal appeal of a decision he objected to, Silbiger made a request “to allow him to have his right to appeal.” He offered that it should be agendized. It took the rest of the council, led by Mayor Weissman, to argue that this was not only difficult, but practically impossible, and most importantly, a moot point.
It’s been a standard Silbiger move, (let’s get more information) and while some applaud his taking the moment to make an exception, the fact that it was Rownak was noteworthy.

Martin Cole, the assistant city manager, emphasized, “This (Rownak’s complaint against the furniture outlet) this has been going on for years, and that there are hundreds, if not thousands of pages of material to go through.”

If this were really something that Silbiger was willing to get involved in, perhaps at any point during the last, say, ten years, the problem would already have been solved- if it is, indeed, solvable. Rownak has been complaining to the city council since the late  20th Century. There has been tremendous opportunity for Silbiger to get more information, or get involved or make a difference, and he has not done so.

I do not want to imply that Silbiger is dumb. Anyone who can pass the California State Bar has more than enough brain cells to rub together. But petulant, mistrustful and defensive are not qualities that help smart to accomplish a goal. Lobbying by whining is not effective. Asking for more information on an issue where the staff has thousands of pages of documentation going back more than a decade is damning evidence that attention has not been paid.

So, as Silbiger leaves the office of city council for other pursuits, I hope that he finds something worthy of his attention. He does have the legal right to run again in two years, but I hope that he is involved in pursuits that really engage his interest. People that smart and good-hearted shouldn’t spend all their time sleeping.

The Actors' Gang


  1. Actually, our City Charter’s section on “term limits” has what some people have called a “vacation from office feature.” Once a member has served for two terms, they must sit out of office for two years before they can, once again, run for office. One former Mayor/City Councilmember, Albert Vera, did just that. This is why you may occasionally hear the name of former, two term councilmembers, whenever an election is coming up.

  2. wow Judith, You’ve outdone yourself with this piece! Passionate, clever, informative and funny! I think we could all benefit greatly from a comrehensive class in listening! It is difficult to let down one’s guard and listen. We are afraid to lose our defense ,our “rightness”. But as I say often, “I would rather admit I’m wrong and grow than remain ignorant”. Mabey we shoud create a “National Listening Day”, where we all actively listen to each other, what a transformational 24 hours thay could be. Thank you also for your astute observations about Mr Silbiger. I appreciate the information greatly.It astonishes me that an elected official would exhibit such poor communication skills.I’m afraid I would have reacted as Mark Scott did. What’s that expression about ‘suffering fools’ ? Thank you Judith for educating me in such a literate and entertaining way. The part about your existential boyfriend was particularly interesting to me! xox Susy

  3. Well now I know what you think! Of course I have not been covering these guys for very long and Gary sounded like a hero from all those tributes the other night. But you do have a point.
    Wonder if Karlo is going to be the same way on the School Board because did you notice last night that he was the only dissenting vote against Drew Sotelo’s appt to Director of Pupil Services? Not sure why he voted against but I think he said something about needing more info.

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