Study without civility

Somebody once suggested there is an inverse relationship between the importance of a political issue and the pettiness involved in its disposition. Don’t take my tales of the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission (LGSC) as an argument for the premise, but it could certainly be a data point in the analysis.

The City LGSC–taking care to distinguish it from the county LGSC, to be addressed in a later post–started meeting in late 2004 and, within months, had already descended into contention. In the end, the LGSC wound up with a two-member minority whose work is not going on the ballot. However, understanding the dynamic created by the minority is important to understanding why the majority acted the way that it did.

The minority’s leader is Jane Rectenwald, a sort of passive-aggressive poison pill dead set on replacing the mayor with a city manager. Her main method of argument is faux-humble questioning meant to lead you right to her conclusion. She was a disagreeable presence at most meetings, ignoring responses to her points and continually trying to hijack the process by , for instance, hanging posters declaring the foregone sensibility of her opinion at every meeting, even when it was clear the majority of the LGSC had zero interest in a city manager, having examined the question at some length with outside experts.

And the majority was right to be uninterested. Rectenwald advocated switching to a city manager on the premise that a city manager constitutes professional management and the current administration of the city is unprofessional because it is political. The argument is flawed, and one doesn’t even have to examine the competence of current city administration to debunk it.

Leading a heterogeneous city is inherently political, requiring choices among competing and often incommensurable values. Mayors are elected to make such choices; city managers pledge to be apolitical administrators. That works if there is general consensus on the course the city should be charting. If there are differences, and there are those in Missoula, the city manager will become a focus for discontent. Mayors get zapped for making politically unpopular choices all the time but that’s the design of the political system.
City managers are sworn to be something like municipal eunuchs, excised of political preferences. Simply the accusation of playing politics is enough to ruin a city manager’s career. Anyone who knows Missoula city politics knows such an accusation will not be long in coming.

But Rectenwald never gave up her advocacy of a city manager, even when it became clear the rest of the LGSC wasn’t inclined to concur. In the end, one other member, Alan Ault, joined her in a minority report. His move seemed motivated as much by the increasing animosity on display in the meetings as any strong sense that a city manager would fix the problems Rectenwald maintained were pressing.

Rectenwald did, however, succeed in poisoning the atmosphere of the LGSC so much that the meetings became almost intolerable. As a result, the recommendations that came out of the majority do not appear to be the result of good policy-making but rather a political hatchet job dressed up in some flimsy rhetoric about improving public attitudes toward city government.

Chairwoman Sue Malek deserves the biggest part of the blame for that. Quite simply, Malek was a terrible choice to chair the LGSC; she does not know how to run a meeting in which competing views are aired. As the term of the LGSC wore on, her interactions with Rectenwald turned openly hostile; Malek often interrupted Rectenwald, it appeared, simply because Malek couldn’t stand the sound of Rectenwald’s voice. At one point, the LGSC had to hire a professional facilitator because Malek couldn’t even pretend to fairly chair an important meeting. As a result of her dismal leadership, the minority’s accusations that the majority was just there to railroad policy through took on an increasing appearance of veracity.

Malek’s most egregious offense took place after a group containing majority and minority members of the LGSC got together and wrote an information pamphlet that was mutually agreeable, no small feat considering how uncivil things had become by that point. Malek disbanded the pamphlet-writing committee, recreating it with only members from the majority, producing a document that did nothing but make the majority’s case. She showed contempt for debate, preferring to rig the information in her favor and appearing to fear that the majority’s proposals could not stand up to counter-arguments.

She might be right to fear that. But it is also the case that poor procedures do not necessarily yield poor policy. It might be possible to separate the commissioners from their work and endorse their recommendations regardless. Next up, a look at the LGSC’s main recommendation–rearranging Missoula City Council.

posted by readbetween

  1. Interesting. I had a lot about the squabbling in the papers, but didn’t have the time to follow the narrative…


  2. biopsy

    Your comments about Jane R. on the LGSC makes me think you might be good at a tea party, but not worth a damn at the Boston Tea Party.

  3. biopsy: you obviously don’t know readbetween too well. BTW, I agree completely with his assessment about Jane R. She was a complete liability. If you want to talk about poisoned discourse in contemporary politics, look no further.

  4. readbetween

    biopsy, I agree completely that my observations on the LGSC have do very little to do with dressing up like an Indian and raiding a docked ship – almost as little as your comment has to do with what I wrote. When the pills wear off, try writing something coherent.

  5. biopsy

    Hey! get dressed up! Get on board. A revolution is long overdue. The government is abusing its people. But thank goodness that you are observing AND commenting! Your comments are so… what’s the word? Insightful? No, that’s not it. Superficial? Shallow? Yes, yes, both apply.
    Wouldn’t it be better to judge the role Jane played based on the ISSUES she tried to get the majority to recognize and address? Instead you seem content to dismiss Jane on ‘style’; without acknowledging any of the substance in what she presented. Unfortunately your own sense of appropriateness limits you severely. If you were able to understand the relative unimportance of ‘civility’ in this circumstance, some pertinent information might have seeped under the door of your mind.
    ‘Gee Jane, you’re making all of us other commissioners uncomfortable with all these facts. Can’t you just play along, please? You are taking this much too seriously, studying too hard. Stop bringing up the incompetence at city hall, don’t keep asking us to expand our outreach to the community to get more input, stop showing us how the other cities in the state are functioning, don’t question our ward population figures, don’t ask us to question the budget, no no no more!!! You’re uncovering too much for us to handle. So we are simply choosing to not deal with any real problems in any tangible way and therefore we will try to exclude you completely. We will foist some ridiculous ballot propositions on the people and call it good, and accept nice pats on our backs for all our efforts.’

    This “passive-aggressive poison pill” was just the Rx needed to treat the disease at city hall. Much good could have been accomplished with seven pills instead of just the two!!
    Open wide and swallow, it will do you good. Then call me in the morning when you wake up.

  6. readbetween

    Rectenwald’s argument, which is that the city was being mismanaged because the administration was not professional and that professional administration will rectify any perceived problems, is a perfectly legitimate one to make. It is, however, easily dismissed–for the reasons I outlined in my initial post–and was dismissed by the rest of the commission after due consideration.
    If you were involved with the commission’s work, you might remember James Svara traveling out from North Carolina to present information on city managers and the situations in which they work best. You will also remember, then, how Missoula did not fit one of the primary considerations for a city manager: a homogenous city in which consensus was easily achieved.
    The commission members considered Rectenwald’s position. They spent considerable time and money looking into whether a shift to a city manager would be better for Missoula and rejected such a shift based on fine though perhaps not flawless arguments. Rectenwald refused to yield when her arguments were dismissed for cause. That’s her privilege but it didn’t make her any more effective. Her response was to try to poison the rest of the commission’s work to ensure that if she couldn’t have her way, no one would get anything accomplished. And that’s where her style becomes worth covering.
    Further, her insistence on revisiting the same premises over and over again, each time acting as though they had simply been ignored before, would be pathological if it wasn’t calculated. And her style and its impact on the tone of the commission–for which, you’ll note, I didn’t confine the blame to her–are pretty crucial for understanding why so little substantive discussion took place in the recommendation formulation phase.
    Each one of the issues Rectenwald raised, over and over again, was addressed in some form or another by the other commissioners. Perhaps their answers were not to her satisfaction; she was so fanatical in her advocacy of the city manager solution that none could have been. But her proposed solutions were even more unmoored from evidence and argument than the ones that eventually came out of the commission.
    A couple of examples that you raised illustrate this.
    Rectenwald, while pleading for more public input in the hopes that it would boldter her flagging position, repeatedly said that the survey conducted with LGSC funds revealed “the stuff of revolutions.” Actually, that’s not what the survey said at all. In fact, if you look at the survey report and the minutes of the meeting when it was presented, it’s not even what the survey’s presenter said.
    What he did say, and what the survey did reveal is that, by and large, Missoulians are satisfied by the way their government works although they have some trepidation about the future because they feel swept along by the changes taking place across the Rocky Mountain West and don’t feel that the city is being proactive enough in planning for the growth that is likely to come Missoula’s way. From the report’s executive summary:

    When asked to identify one change they would make in the City government of Missoula, half answer that they can think of no needed changes. Among those who do make recommendations, most comments focus on the process of government rather than structure (be more responsive, better long-term planning for growth and transportation and ending the bickering or divisiveness among public officials.

    The biggest issues that people had with city government related to traffic and planning for growth, according to the survey, which was the most comprehensive measure of public sentiment the LGSC managed to take. The handling of both of these issues is largely constrained at levels above the city government–subdivision being closely controlled by state laws and transportation planning incorporating both state and federal restrictions. Further, it is in no way clear how Rectenwald’s plan to gut the power of the Mayor’s office would result in any better action on either count. In fact, having political leadership in the executive branch is the only effective way to create and communicate the vision that would be necessary to countervail prevailing trends, thereby addressing the greatest concerns expressed by citizens. As James Svara put it:

    It’s not always realistic to expect a group will come to a consensus without someone standing up as a leader. That is an advantage of the mayor-council form.

    Rectenwald’s recommendations seem to have as much to do with an unstated agenda as did the majority’s recommendations (something I also noted in my comments on the LGSC’s ballot proposals).
    Take the budget, for another example. The survey reports that “Missoulians are also reluctant to give the City Council either high nor low marks for the budget review and approval process,” hardly a wave of anger to be responded to. In addition, the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada has recognized as excellent the comprehensive annual financial report produced by the city for nearly a decade running.
    Yet Rectenwald repeatedly raised the budget as an issue of how the city was failing to administer itself. Her arguments on that score are symptomatic of how she offered her objections without context, cherry-picking evidence that would support her conclusions rather than evaluating a whole spectrum of data with a fair mind.
    In fact, City Hall is not ill. Missoula residents rejected the proposals to change the way things are done, just as they would have rejected a city manager, at least based on the information in the survey.
    For people who constantly feel aggrieved, it can be taxing to realize that most others do not feel the same way. Clearly, Rectenwald and the small but vocal bands of complainants in her camp felt this way. But the people of Missoula did not.
    The minority snidely insisted that they were being railroaded when it was the minority’s own obstinance that created an uncivil atmosphere. Rectenwald and her proxies impugned the credibility of other commission members with veiled innuendos that had no power once they were forced into the light by Jessie McQuillan’s reporting. Their behavior was as unseemly as their protests were baseless.
    Nonetheless, I am sure that the perpetually discontented will persist in being so even though the performance space of the study commission has been removed from them. You are welcome to keep their company, smug and self-satisfied in spite of the evidence, contending that grave injustice has been done.
    Missoula, however, is moving on.

  7. Your comments are so… what’s the word? Insightful? No, that’s not it. Superficial? Shallow? Yes, yes, both apply.

    Haha! This site has been draped with many rhetorical faults, but this is the first time I’ve heard mention “shallowness” or “superficial.” Like readbetween said, you should probably read his initial post.

    RB’s been following this much closer than I, but my impression is that Jane R represents a small minority of disgruntled Missoulians who don’t like the way development is proceding in the city. Their (and yours, I presume) solution is to foist a non-elected official on the city who shares their vision.

    If that’s the kind of “revolution” you want, count me out.

  8. biopsy

    BUT the city also suffers from a serious disconnect between residents and government that could be the “stuff of revolution,” Earl de Berge of Behavior Research Center told the group elected to study Missoula’s city government.” missoulian 12/14/05

    ONLY 14% said everything is fine. 35% said ‘not sure/can’t think of anything’. You think that adds up to half. Just to let you know, if 50% checked the everything is fine box, that would be half. Only the 14% were unambiguous with their answers. Remember the serious disconnect noted above.

    DO you ever wonder why Missoula is unable to file its budget with the state on time … for nearly a decade running? Let’s post that info on the city website and see if it generates any public concern.
    Or wonder why Missoula doesn’t seek the Budget Award from the same GFOA? Let’s get another award to be proud of and prove that we are on the same level with Boze, Billings, Grt Falls. If we tried for this award maybe it would help us be on time for the state for a change. And citizens would have a budget report that was decipherable. That of course might lead to a wave of anger to respond to. Is the finance dept up to scrutiny? Transparent government anyone?

  9. readbetween

    Please excuse my tardiness in responding. As you can guess, I’m pretty weary of this discussion, particularly since it seems both intractable and moot. But here’s a response.
    For starters, the Missoulian misquoted DeBerge according to the minutes of the meeting:

    Ms. Rectenwald – Your comment about lack of communications with citizens and sharing a vision. That’s unusual?
    Mr. de Berge – It is the single most important finding. It is unusual because most people don’t give a damn. Most people look at local government and they don’t want to be bothered. In this community you have high levels of concern. They are concerned about the vision of where we are going. Is it going to be like what it was when I moved here? You have the opportunity to get into a serious dialogue about a vision for the community, and come to terms on that. Is Missoula going to become another large city? What we see is the leadership doesn’t seem to be giving a clear picture of what they see.
    Mr. Oaks – That is pretty impressive, that the need for better visioning and planning comes out so strongly.
    Mr. de Berge – Is it vision created from the grass roots up,
    or is it passed down? My suggestion is grass roots up, where you have the opportunity now.
    Mr. Oaks – That reinforces an intuition I’ve had.
    Ms. Rectenwald – You can see the lack of identifiable vision in the City Council minutes, in the budget.
    Mr. de Berge – The problem is they don’t understand why a decision is made. That’s a bad place to leave the public. They will revolt. If you don’t have vision you can’t stay on course.

    Second, he uses the word “revolt” but it is certainly not to suggest that one is imminent. In fact, there was a mayoral election going on during the same time as the survey; the results were far from a repudiation for how business in the city was being conducted.
    What DeBerge does say, right out in plain language is that people care about local government here, to an unusual degree. And that since people care, they should be involved in the process of making policy from the “grass roots up.” Installing professionalized management would do nothing but widen the gap between the decisions that get made and the comprehension of those decisions. Already, the things that anger people are subdivision and transportation planning issues that get to be the way they are because supposedly neutral regulations, promulgated at the behest of professionalized management, are being allowed to overrule the general sentiments of the citizenry. That may not always be inappropriate. But handing over city administration to professionals who see themselves as primarily accountable to disembodied principles of good government rather than the values expressed by the residents of a city is no way to bridge the disconnect DeBerge is pointing to.
    As for the budget, DeBerge certainly does not take the opportunity to confirm (or even acknowledge) the suggestion, flying out of nowhere, that the budget is the place where people are looking to find a vision for the city. People want to know why government is doing the things that it is. That sort of transparency comes from better communication, a change in the behavior of the actors in government, not a change in the structure of the government.
    Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Missoula is seething with discontent and those 36 percent who just couldn’t think of anything to change are not satisfied but seething with undirected aggression at city administration. I don’t see that being the case based on my own involvement with Missoula’s life and culture, but I’ll grant that it could be the case.
    I encourage you to make the budget an issue in next year’s municipal elections and test your hypothesis.

  10. biopsy

    intractable = difficult to mould
    moot = open for argument and debate
    Two good reasons to continue.

    principles of good government =values expressed by the residents of a city

    “Thirty-eight percent are watching it (City Council) on TV,” he said. “I’ve never seen numbers like that anywhere in America.”
    “If I were in your shoes, I’d either be excited or afraid,” he joked to the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission. “I’m not sure which.”
    The public is watching yet feels greatly disconnected, like watching an ill relative in the hospital and feeling powerless to intervene.
    The change needed downtown is from incompetent to competent. I hope they start feeling afraid. Maybe they will shape up.
    Now the State is looking for receipts for $1million+ spent on Malfunction Junction that someone downtown can’t as of yet produce. The hits just keep on happening. What thrill will be next?
    As for ‘handing over city administration to professionals who see themselves as primarily accountable to [disembodied] principles of good government.’ Leave out your Halloween spook imagery and listen to it again.
    If you worry as well: that your CPA is a ‘professional who sees himself as primarily accountable to disembodied principles of good accounting, and your doctor a professional who sees himself as primarily accountable to disembodied principles of good health care’, and your professor a ‘professional who sees himself as primarily accountable to disembodied principles of good teaching’, I can allow the irrationality of your comment. I’ll go out on a limb here and try to accept that you really might have some respect for the recognition of, and adherence to, good standards and practices and the many reasons that have caused them to be developed.
    Reread without all the ‘disembodied’ and tell me what your real objection is.

    ‘rather than the values expressed by the residents of a city is no way to bridge the disconnect DeBerge is pointing to’
    The gap situation came to be under the current administrative structure. They haven’t wanted to include the public (past and current lawsuits have proven that) and the public feels shut out. Those downtown don’t seem to be accountable to any principles of good government. Looking to the present powers for the solution is a longshot. I’m sure that one of the principles of good government is the incorporating of the values expressed by the residents. The mayor’s pigheadedness preferred shutting them out (epitome of following good government principles?) until they were forced to call on a judge for relief and got it.
    ‘The problem is they don’t understand why a decision is made. That’s a bad place to leave the public. They will revolt. If you don’t have vision you can’t stay on course.’
    Why is the public being left there? And by whom? The recent past administrations and continuing into the present incarnation which you like to try to prop up that’s who.
    ‘In fact, there was a mayoral election going on during the same time as the survey; the results were far from a repudiation for how business in the city was being conducted.’
    Tweedle dum and tweedle dummer went head to head(gratuitous harshness for emphasis). What point were you making with this statement. Two members of the same council vying to lead the dysfunction. May the best incompetent win. And he did. The status quo reigned. Not a surprise and/but hardly a benchmark by which to judge peoples’ contentment with the system.
    ‘those 36 percent who just couldn’t think of anything to change are not satisfied but seething with undirected aggression at city administration’
    If I pose a question to you asking what ONE thing would you change and you have several items in mind which you consider to be in equal need of change you might respond; “don’t know”. You might need more time to choose than you feel you can ask the pollster to give you, so: “not sure” or ” I don’t know” (which ONE thing I would change”) becomes your answer.
    And if it takes going to court to get an opportunity to voice your opinion… much more discouraging can it get? Apathy takes over.
    Why would I postpone til next year addressing the budget?…I’m already pursuing it.

  11. biopsy

    Question: Would a truly professional journalist choose to use the cover of a pseudonym when attaching derogatory comments and personal character slurs to members of the committee. And under some secret identity attack the honest attempts of elected individuals to carry out their obligations to the public??
    And: Does Jason Weiner feel any ethical obligation as a journalist to own the comments that he makes? Or do the ‘disembodied principles of good’ journalism scare him? Does he just feel safer operating without good principles?

  12. Obviously, I wasn’t trying that hard to conceal my identity (see picture, above). I have certainly commented on other threads in ways that reveal my name is Jason Wiener.

    I am entitled to every one of the views that I aired. My occupation does not require me to ignore what is apparent to me nor does it require me to remain silent when I do not wish to.

    Why so interested now? And, why so nasty?

  1. 1 Missoula Area Endorsements « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Enough with the county-wide questions. Missoula City Council and Mayor get elected in odd years so there are no city posts on the ballot. There are, however, ballot questions that could considerably restructure city government.Missoula City Local Government Study Commission. You can read my tales of the city LGSC as well as consider rather lengthy posts and discussion on their proposals to redraw the ward map and return to partisan elections for city posts. I’m opposed to both, for reasons in those posts. […]

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