That's the only word I can make out in City Clerk Michelle Loren's conclusion of the vote, and trust me, it wasn't just because of the loud air conditioner in the council chambers. I was in the room, I saw it all unfold. She was literally so stunned by the turn of events at the end of Monday night's city council meeting that she seemed almost afraid to say it.
It was a come-to-Jesus moment for the good ol' boys.
You see, by a dead-even vote of four to four, the Hillsdale City Council voted down the new, ill-conceived, horrendously written contract for Rick Rose. Councilpersons Emily Stack-Davis, Patrick Flannery, Adam Stockford and Bruce Sharp all voted against.
And the tension was palpable.
From the moment Interim City Manager Doug Terry took the podium before the vote and began to make his grand overture to the council about why we need Rose in that position and his troubles with alcohol and the law shouldn't be a factor in his employment with the city (more on that later), it was very clear that he knew this was an uphill battle. The explanations were more pleas than anything else; the begging of a man desperate for the council to end his employment with the city on a good note rather than the downer of terminating a long-time Director of Public Utilities.
What really seemed to ruin the tone of the whole thing was that Terry appeared to be attempting to triangulate, to read the mood of the council as he went, looking for something positive that they would latch on to so that he could stick there and focus on it. But that thing never came along, and as a result, he meandered and never really made a solid, cohesive point. He may not be a "spring chicken" (his words, not mine), but this seemed new territory for him, and he wasn't finding his way very well.
It didn't come without its contentious moments, either, and knowing that I was sitting in the room, he made plenty of effort to justify actions, again cast "social media" in a negative light and insist that he only had the best of intentions for all of us and the City of Hillsdale... all of that in a frustrated, defensive tone.
Now, to be fair, I might feel the urge to get a little frustrated and defensive if my motivations were being called into question.
Oh, wait! They have been!
And yes, there are certainly times when I feel frustrated. I can get a little defensive at times, too. But the key to dealing with those situations is A: reminding yourself that you're in this for the right reasons, and B: doing what you know is right in moving forward no matter what anyone else says.
Terry, I think, to some extent, sees what I see. He comes at it from a different angle. He believes that what he's doing is for the best. Even though we're diametrically opposed in many ways, I think, based on some of his comments Monday night, that he realizes he's been tugged by the various factions at City Hall in some directions which weren't the best. I won't fault him for that much; it's all too easy to step into an already volatile situation and be manipulated by the people who were already there.
But there's still a very major problem with how he's handled the significant backlash that's come as a result of these problems finally being called to the public's attention -- and it wasn't just him; it was a variety of people inside and outside the city government. It is this pervasive idea among the old guard that the Internet should not be used as a place for political discourse, especially at the local level.
Amusingly, Bruce Sharp -- whom I criticized before for scolding you and I on this matter from his seat at the table -- had nothing to say about it at this meeting.
There's a larger problem at play, though. See, we are a small town, and there's this idea that's been around for a long time that you don't go negative in small-town politics. It's the idea that, even if you vehemently disagree, you should always cast things in a positive light, because since this is a small town, the people on the city council are residents, business owners and community leaders who just want what's best for everyone, and that's no reason to be rude.
It's time to throw that idea out the window.
I had a good talk with a few people not long ago who described the very situation that leads me to that conclusion. One of the participants in this conversation made note of the fact that back in the days when city council meetings were still on the cable access channel (ah, the memories), they remembered that the council was truly made up of civic leaders; business owners, longtime residents well-known for their community involvement, people you knew and trusted to put the best interests of the city ahead of their own desires and ideology.
I'm not saying that the current council members don't have the right intentions, but you don't see that kind of community leadership anymore. You don't see the owner of a downtown shop representing their ward. You don't see a mayor who volunteers at the local charities. You don't see a councilman who has spent years on various other boards, not because they're a career politician but because they care about the community. And that's not to say that any of our present councilpersons are lacking in those regards, but is that how you think of them? Is that how they present themselves?
The situation in this city has changed.
We don't have civic statesmen anymore, we have council members. We have a mayor. We have a city manager. We have a city government that exists to do what we tell it to do... if and when we care so much as to tell it what to do.
The days of simply electing a council and leaving it all up to them are long gone.
Now, I'm not saying this because I want to be negative. I don't want to be negative. I'd love to be able to go to every city council meeting and report to you that everything is all hunky-dory and that we shouldn't have a care in the world.
But this isn't The Truman Show.
Fact is, there's a lot going on in our city government that needs, at best, closer attention, and at worst, serious housecleaning. The council just took steps Monday night that were encouraging, but they're far from the goal. We have to stay alert and we have to get involved. And things aren't always going to be nice. Things could get downright ugly. People aren't going to like the mean tone that we'll sometimes need to take.
But that's the price we all have to pay for being this apathetic for this long.
The fallout of this council meeting could get interesting. Rose, himself, was in the gallery (just in front and three seats to the right of me, in fact), and while I wouldn't quite call what he did "storming out," he sure left in a hurry. Some people even brought up the question to me of whether or not he would even show up for work in the morning, because, hey, why bother, right? Though there's another possibility I'm afraid of: that he'll call his lawyer.
Remember that little issue of legalese in his contract that violates the ADA unless it's in everyone else's contract, too?
Here's my worry: Terry made his case for Rose's continued employment based upon the argument that his problems with alcohol have not affected his job performance and that they should, therefore, not be a consideration in light of his years of service to the BPU and the city. Emily Stack-Davis was really the only councilperson voting "no" who described her reasons for doing so, stating that she disagreed that this was the right leadership move. Pressed further, she mentioned a few BPU issues that don't reflect particularly well on Rose, but nobody else gave those issues or anything else in their objections. Flannery, Stockford and Sharp all used the phrase "I disagree," and what were they disagreeing with other than Terry's assessment that Rose's positives outweighed his negatives?
Where that puts us into dangerous territory is the contract language. The entire purpose of rewriting the contract was to add these provisions based upon Rose's recent DWI. Obviously, it's that DWI that prompted the objections, otherwise those voting "no" would likely have stated BPU-related reasons as Stack-Davis did. Since Rose's contract was voted down on the basis of what the ADA considers his disability (alcoholism), that may well give him grounds to sue the city for employment discrimination. I don't know that for certain -- I'm not a lawyer, despite my mother encouraging me to become one every time I got into trouble as a child -- but I've read enough on the topic that it worries me.
And the sad fact of the matter is that I can't seem to shake this feeling that it was intended that way all along. Of course, I don't know that for a fact, either, but when I get gut feelings like this, it's very rare that I'm wrong.
We'll see about that Thursday night, the 28th at 7:00 PM. I'll give Terry credit where it's due: he... shall we say, suggested to the council after the vote that they schedule a meeting with the BPU board to discuss how to move forward. Because it didn't appear that the council had any ideas about where to go from here. And while he suggested to them that a new contract could be drawn up for Rose -- which I would strongly oppose, and I get the sense that the "no" voters would, as well -- he gets points for making it clear that, hey, we just fired our BPU director. The council didn't seem to realize that. Or, maybe moreso, they did.
That would explain the shocked silence which filled the room.