Anyone familiar with what happened at Monday night’s Vancouver City Council meeting might be surprised to learn that councilor Jeanne Harris is “trained in mediation and critical incident stress management.” Her side job is lecturing public officials. Monday night, she acted as if she had flunked her own course.
Harris’ bullying tactics during citizens’ communications were rude, condescending and unprofessional enough to prompt colleagues Jack Burkman and Larry Smith to call for an investigation to see if she violated council ethics policies. Harris labeled their effort “rash and uncalled for,” but later issued an unconvincing public apology. It’s good that she apologized, but the complaint should not be dropped; this is too serious and there should be more consequences than just issuing an apology.
In the first paragraph of this editorial, the self-description of Harris comes from a 2003 address she made at a Leadership Training Institute workshop. She spoke on the subject of newly elected officials. One bullet point in that presentation was “(a)void controlling or manipulative behaviors.” Yet on Monday night she was shouting “Gavel him down! Gavel down!” at Mayor Tim Leavitt. This outburst came after Harris berated citizen David Madore. Among her thunderous interruptions was “What are you doing? Don’t address specific council members!” When councilor Jeanne Stewart advocated broad input from Madore and other anti-toll activists, Harris snapped, “Well, of course you’re concerned. They’re your friends.”
Harris banished Madore into retreat: “You’re done. You’re done. Thank you for coming.” When citizen Steve Herman told Harris, “You’re disgraceful,” she shouted her gavel commands to Leavitt, who correctly ignored them and begged for respectful behavior. Harris exclaimed to Herman, “You’ve been dismissed! You’ve been dismissed.” She later left the room, then returned and re-engaged Stewart in an argument and told her to “shut up.”
To his credit, Leavitt somehow managed to keep his composure through all of this. But more to his discredit, he lost control of the meeting, which calls into question his leadership ability. Leavitt said the council will decide next week about any action against Harris, but the correct decision is clear. Harris’ belligerence warrants a reprimand, at minimum, by her fellow councilors. Then the mayor and the council should make more clear the policies for council meetings. City Attorney Ted Gathe says the meetings are not public forums. Citizens comments must address current city issues, should be limited to three minutes and must not be political ax grindings.
Those are the rules, and if citizen activists don’t like the rules, they should advocate change. Some frequent activists need to better understand the definition of current issues. The tolls issue, for example, was decided long ago by other public bodies; to continue complaining about a train that has left the station is a waste of time. Leavitt correctly noted that comments about tolls and light rail are more effectively directed to other public bodies that have far greater authority on those issues.
But the key stakeholder in all of this is not any individual or small group. It’s the general public, whose citizens now justifiably feel hesitant to bring their concerns before elected officials. After all the rancor and ranting on Monday night, who can blame them?
To those people, more than any others, Mayor Leavitt and the councilors owe their greatest effort to maintain civil discourse. Constructive criticism must be welcomed, and as Harris noted in her 2003 address: “Commit to behaviors that encourage open communications such as empathy, positive intent and equality.”
The restoration of a dignified dialogue begins with Leavitt and must be supported by all six councilors.