Supervisor Gitlin must salvage his term on board, if he can

By Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate September 02, 2014 12:50 pm

Nothing has attracted more attention in letters sent to the Triplicate during the past several months than the issue of whether Del Norte County Supervisor Roger Gitlin is being disenfranchised by Board of Supervisors Chairman David Finigan.

Supervisor Gitlin made the case in a Coastal Voices op-ed last week (“Prayer: It’s about due process, abuse of power,” Aug. 21) that Chairman Finigan has consistently and deliberately denied the supervisor’s right to place items on the board’s agenda, including a declaration of support for forming the state of Jefferson and placing signs on county borders welcoming veterans. The most recent conflict has been over the supervisor’s proposal to introduce nondenominational prayers at board meetings.   

It seems entirely reasonable to say, as Supervisor Gitlin and many letters writers have done, that it’s fundamentally wrong to deny a supervisor’s agenda request — refusing an elected representative of the county the ability to bring to its governing board new ideas for consideration seemingly subverts the democratic process. And, after all, is it really such a big deal to just put his items on the agenda, talk them over and take an up or down vote?

Denied this, the supervisor has resorted to polemics, accusing the chairman of “behaving like an emperor” and committing abuses of power to intentionally sabotage Supervisor Gitlin’s priorities out of ill will. 

To support his claim, he has frequently cited, in meetings and the newspaper, statute 1.10.010 in the county’s policies and procedures manual, which reads: “Any member of the board may place an item on the agenda for action after first consulting with the chairperson of the board.”

Supervisor Gitlin’s interpretation of the statute appears to place a great deal more emphasis on the first part of the sentence, virtually ignoring the second. He insists that he is entitled to the right to place anything he sees fit on the agenda regardless of what other board members may think. 

But this is not how it works. Every other board member has contradicted Supervisor Gitlin’s description of the agendizing process.

At Tuesday’s board meeting Chairman Finigan detailed reasons why the supervisor’s items haven’t been placed on the agenda: he felt that the financial implications of joining Jefferson state should be considered before taking a vote, that intercession by Caltrans was required before signs welcoming veterans could be placed on the highway and that holding a moment of silent reflection adequately addressed the supervisor’s request for prayer while avoiding thorny issues of how to accommodate people of diverse faiths. In all cases, Chairman Finigan says he was merely applying the second part of statute 1.10.010 to the process, exercising judgment as is the chairperson’s prerogative. 

Supervisors Finigan, Hemmingsen, McClure and Sullivan have all been denied agenda requests during their time on the board, and they say they have learned the importance of consulting with the board chair or, if unsuccessful, finding two other votes. That’s because board members have another option available to them — if the chair doesn’t grant their agenda request, they can make a motion for a board vote on the request. If the motion is seconded and a majority votes in favor, the item is placed on the agenda. 

One can only speculate why Supervisor Gitlin gives the appearance of not understanding how this system works, preferring instead to keep insisting on the same flawed interpretation of county policy, failing to find consensus among his colleagues and pointing fingers instead of examining why his “I don’t give up” tactics do not advance his goals for the betterment of the county. 

His role on the board has grown increasingly dysfunctional. Calling for the chairman’s resignation based on the audacious and incorrect claim that his life was threatened during public comment and that the chairman approved of it (absurdly invoking a “post-9/11 environment” to make his case) undermines the dignity of the board and further alienates him. At this week’s meeting, his conduct was highlighted by repeatedly interrupting the chairman — conduct outside the bounds of the board’s rules of order — and angry speeches, including one that went on for an extended period after his microphone was turned off because the chairman felt a cooling-off recess was necessary.

His contentious behavior — notably his recent Coastal Voices op-ed — has prompted the board to consider adopting a code of conduct, noting Tuesday that never before was there need for such a thing. 

Isolated and ineffectual, Gitlin’s term in office calls to mind the failed term of former City Councilwoman Donna Westfall, who likewise didn’t embrace the deliberative process and therefore resorted to open hostility and intemperate calls for removing colleagues from office. 

Supervisor Gitlin is urged not to work from this playbook but instead to strive to repair the damage and salvage, if he can, his work as a supervisor. The passion of his convictions could be a powerful force for advancing the needs of his constituents. It would be unfortunate for them and for him if that passion remains misdirected at the very people whose help is required to realize those needs. 

Keep it civil

Sadly the conflict has sparked a particularly angry and combative tone in letters to the editor speaking to each side of the agenda issue and the related one of public prayer at board meetings. 

In trying to foster an open forum for discussion consistent with the spirit of democracy, we have granted considerably wider latitude in the tenor of letters than would  be found — ideally, at least — at a government proceeding, where greater decorum is vital to fostering a collaborative atmosphere. 

In conversations with community members and a letter you’ll find on this page, the question has been raised if we’re crossing the line, violating our own policy against personal attacks. 

The answer to that is no, but admittedly the difference between criticism and an attack can be in the eye of the beholder. A nuance in the policy is that those who express their views on matters of public concern through high-profile outlets such as public meetings and the media expose themselves to the possibility of a higher level of criticism in submitted letters and Coastal Voices op-eds.

Nevertheless, it’s time to clarify the policy. Strong opinions are welcome, but going forward our letter guidelines will include a requirement that letters maintain a civil tone. 

Some people have told us that they find the strident tone of many letters sufficiently intimidating that they prefer not to expose themselves to withering criticism by sharing their views with the community. In other words, our effort to serve as an open forum by allowing even brusquely phrased letters risks being counterproductive. In your personal life you may be entitled to regard those with whom you differ in whatever light you choose, but letters eligible for publication in the Triplicate need to exercise courtesy in how they express their disagreement with others.