A push for civility ended in discord and awkwardness at Columbia City Council Tuesday night.
It all began last week, when in a mass email, Mayor Steve Benjamin declared it was time for “more civil and respectful dialogue.”
“Over the past several months the tone and tenor of our public discourse has left a great deal to be desired as passionate debate and constructive criticism has too often devolved into divisiveness, distrust and personal attack,” he wrote.
He was referring, in part, to the recent public debates over a baseball stadium, Bull Street development and a strong mayor system, all of which have drawn some angry responses from the community on both sides. But he was also referring to Council, which has become fractured and tense.
Ironically, it’s Benjamin who some of his colleagues blame for the new sharper tone of Council. Last fall, Leona Plaugh and Tameika Isaac Devine both told Free Times they didn’t like the new tenor.
“I do think when I first got on Council we had more time to discuss issues,” Devine said at the time. “We would come together. Sometimes it may have taken a little longer to resolve things, but people could not say they were not informed in discussion. Now, something just shows up on an agenda. Some of us, it’s the first time we’ve ever heard of it or seen it.”
And some council members said that’s what happened Tuesday night.
Benjamin had invited Henri Baskins, who heads up the Community Relations Council, and J.T. McLawhorn Jr., head of the Columbia Urban League, to speak about civility.
“Civility interacts with economic development,” McLawhorn said, urging Council to be more polite for the sake of how the city appears to outsiders.
Then, Benjamin read out loud a pledge to be more civil. He promised, among others things, “to be respectful of others in my attitudes and conversation” and “to refrain from engaging in name calling, insults, demeaning or inflammatory remarks.”
He asked his colleagues to join him in signing it.
Moe Baddourah, who challenged Benjamin for mayor last fall, refused.
“We just got this document five minutes ago,” Baddourah said, with little conciliation in his voice. “You have to respect my opinion.”
Plaugh echoed Baddourah’s concerns, though in gentler words.
“I struggle, because there’s nothing in this document that isn’t appropriate or necessary — but the struggle really is that the problems are deeper than this,” Plaugh said. “I know the mayor is very well intentioned in bringing this discussion to us. But I also think the way to bring this council together really is not by presenting something to us unseen and asking us to sign it. We need to talk. We need to communicate.”
And Devine, who said she’d sign the pledge, called for more dialogue.
“I certainly support signing this,” Devine said. “I don’t think this is enough. … Actions speak louder than words.”
“The question is, are people signing it because you’ve asked them and it looks good for the press?” Devine went on. “For our council there is a real deep sense of mistrust. Unless we address that, we can sign this pledge and I don’t see it really moving us forward as a council.”
When it comes to mistrust, the deepest well of it is between Devine and fellow at-large council member Cameron Runyan, who’ve sparred over everything from homeless issues to ethics. Runyan thanked the mayor for bringing the pledge forward, and agreed with Devine: Trust is hard to rebuild.
As the proposed pledge fizzled, Benjamin seemed to struggle to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“I note my colleagues’ unease and concern signing this voluntary code, and I fully respect their decision to maybe not do so tonight,” he said. “I also firmly believe we are at a point of reflection. We have some very serious issues.”
The civility pledge was, in a way, a microcosm of the way Benjamin has run Council since he took office. On a score of issues, he’s called for quick action, saying time was critical. It was in stark contrast to the way previous Councils trundled along, debating issues for years and taking little decisive action.
Some of Benjamin’s fellow council members have seemed to dig in their heels almost automatically in response to his calls for immediate action. But others say they’ve genuinely wanted more time to discuss the issue and work collaboratively on a solution.
“I ask the mayor and members of City Council: When will we talk?” Plaugh said Tuesday night.
“We’re talking now,” the mayor told her.
“No, mayor, we’re not really talking now,” she said.
Benjamin, Devine, Runyan and Sam Davis agreed to sign the pledge. Plaugh and Baddourah did not. Brian Newman was not at the meeting.