Judging from the hot level of public talk and print, I predict the issue of prayer before government meetings will continue to draw lots of attention in Del Norte County. Some in the community have accused me of grandstanding, lacking sincerity, becoming a divisive force on the Board of Supervisors, including a bevy of assorted catcalls one might not necessarily find on a Hallmark card. Others, many of whom I have never met, have embraced me as some sort of hero for standing firm on a number of issues. I am neither hero nor herald from hell. I would suspect the truth is somewhere in between.
This commentary is not about prayer. It’s about process and it’s about power — attempting to implement one and curb the other.
Here’s a brief local history of the prayer issue: Earlier this spring, the Supreme Court affirmed denominational (sectarian) prayer before government meetings as constitutional (City of Greece, New York v. Galloway). I read with interest as the court upheld denominational prayer (Christian prayer) as constitutional. I shared this with a board colleague and asked what the supervisor’s thoughts were on the subject. I commented neighbors Siskiyou and Modoc counties currently conduct a sectarian prayer in open session. I also shared the fact that the California state Assembly conducts a daily prayer before each session. And the City of Eureka would soon be re-introducing its invocation as a result of the Supreme Court case. The issue seemed very timely. I made the request to the chairman for discussion of a non-denominational prayer. Three weeks later, my request was denied.
As a Jewish man, I have the greatest respect for Christianity or any religion that promotes the good in man. Believing I am firmly in the right, I refused to be bullied, intimidated, threatened or strong-armed into backing down on this core issue. Does a supervisor have a right to place a lawful item for discussion on the agenda? Yes! And I am supported by the Constitution (California and American) and the Del Norte County Administrative Manual 1.010.101(b), which states any supervisor may place on the agenda an item after consulting with the Chairman? Yes!
Since 5th District Supervisor David Finigan assumed the position of chairman, he has denied all my items requested to be placed on the agenda. In February, I asked for a resolution for Caltrans to erect three signs at the county portals: “Where Veterans are Honored.” The request was denied, only to reappear in May through another county department’s consent agenda request, which I fostered when I was initially denied the request for the resolution. Also, this spring in public session, I asked the chairman to place on the agenda the item to approve or reject the Jefferson state declaration. Chairman Finigan publicly declined my request, stating two additional supervisors must agree to place the item on the agenda, a clear abuse of power. There was no valid reasoning behind the chairman’s logic for a majority on the simple request to place the item on the agenda.
My level of frustration escalated when I observed the ongoing appearance that anything I would request to be placed upon any agenda would be summarily rejected by Chairman Finigan. It was then I decided I would challenge this misuse of power and exercise my constitutional right to speak from the public microphone. In a calm, civil presentation, I called for Supervisor Finigan to step down as the Chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors. I laid out my case in exactly three minutes. Still the Chairman interrupted me twice with an intimidating forewarning, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman, I am quite sure,” and readily expressed my concern the voters who elected me have been muted by the chair’s failure to act in an objective, neutral manner.
I challenge what I perceive to be flagrant abuse of power by Chairman Finigan. The Board of Supervisors is an elected governance of five, not a committee of three (chairman, chief administrative office and county counsel). Recently, I observed the swearing in of the grand jury and listened attentively while presiding Judge William Follett spoke to the newly-seated grand jurors: “We live under a government of, by and for the people.” The judge is correct.
As long as I am in office, I will never lose sight. I answer to the people and have taken a constitutional oath to serve them. It’s about due process. It’s about abuse of power. I will work tirelessly to put into practice one and thwart the other.
Roger Gitlin is a member of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.