The First Thing

Whenever we have a city council action that turns out hundreds of speakers, I think of it as a good thing. I like democracy, I love that people show up to offer their thoughts and perspectives. What I don’t like is when people take the time to present to the council without taking the time to understand the first thing about how it works.  

People speak to the council without a real understanding of what is included in the decision making process. 

We ‘turn’ seats on the city council every two years by public election, and those elections are staggered so that we are changing two seats, or three seats, but we never turn all five seats at once. By this accounting, I am observing the 23rd version of the city council since I began covering local news. 

Twenty-three different groups of people, all of them overlapping by a little or a lot, but different. 

While I heard many people speaking at council meetings last week with critical concerns, I also heard many people who did not seem to know how the process was designed to work. When one speaker offhandedly suggested that members of the city council did not even live here, I kinda lost it. 

The single qualifying factor of running for office in Culver City is that you live in Culver City. You do not need to own a house or a business, you need to live here. We have had (and have now) members of the school board whose children do not attend school here; that is not a requirement for serving on the school board. What is required is that our elected officials reside in city limits.

It was one of those ‘racist but not overtly racist’ statements where people make their point, but can then deny that was their point. And a fast shorthand to let everyone understand that the speaker does not understand the first thing. 

Speaker after speaker raged about the council making a terrible decision, despite repeated and emphatic assurances that the council was not going to decide that matter at this meeting. That’s not rational, and worse, it’s not effective. The real and present problem of social media is that rumors fly, and critical thinking doesn’t. People respond to emotions without stopping to think. It’s gotten much worse over the years. I’d like to see the media stop saying that someone was “radicalized” by social media. The correct term is “deluded.” 

But the social media spigot had been turned, and the typical, predictable flood of outrage continued to pour.

Outrage is never the best way to address the council. No council I have observed responds to this in the manner the speaker would like them to respond. This is the least effective form of address. When residents speak respectfully to the council, they do listen. I’ve seen some difficult situations change because enough residents spoke to the council in a reasonable and rational tone. 

Our elected officials run for office because they aspire to do things. They have ideas they would like to see implemented. It is not a salaried position. It’s the equivalent of taking on a more-than-full-time job for free. I have yet to meet the council member, present or past, with whom I agree on everything, and only a few with whom I disagree on everything. That does not change their qualifications, they are not designing a city just for me. 

They are supposed to be designing a city for us.

And no, maintaining the status quo is not an option. Change is required for survival. 

I’d like a new rule for public speakers at City Council meetings; anyone using the word “Mayberry” should have the rest of their time forfeited. You do not live in Mayberry anymore than you live in Grover’s Corners, or Narnia. 

The unfortunate energy of the fear and anger that kept bubbling up had people repeating that same nonsensical things over and over again. Why aren’t these meetings in person? Well, let’s see, we had a problem with a virus, and it’s still considered safer to meet remotely. (Were you actually unaware of this? If you were 75th person to ask, were you still convinced that it was a malicious and illegal move by the city to dampen participation? Did the question need to be asked again?) 

One moment from history – when an absurd situation resulted in the closure of the local ice skating rink, hundreds and hundreds of people showed up (no virus issues at the time) to speak to the council, to shout and plead and beg for them to Do Something. The council had to say “It’s private property, and it’s not something we can change.” And then another person came to the podium, upset and outraged that the ice rink was closing, and why could’nt the council Do Something? We were all there very late into the evening. We now have a hardware store. 

It’s essential for democracy that people speak to our elected officials. But it’s absolutely vital that you know how to do that effectively. Read the agenda. Read the detailed language of the agenda. Law is made of words. I can promise you, after watching 23 councils meet and vote on issues, that if you know what is being discussed and what will be voted on (not some ‘friend of a friend on FB ‘version, not some ‘someone left a flyer on my front porch version) you are already ahead in the game. 

Judith Martin-Straw



The Actors' Gang

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