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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oh No, Not Again

Posted By on Wed, Aug 13, 2008 at 3:52 PM

You know when you've got an image problem? When you're making City Councilor Jim Motznik look like the adult.

And that's where "progressives" on council find themselves today.  

As you've probably heard, city council President Doug Shields had a meltdown during a confrontation today with Barbara Trant, the city's personnel director. Shields and others on council have been seeking a review of the city payroll, an effort to ferret out any gender or racial disparities in compensation. But it's taken months to get the study going, and Shields boiled over today. He accused Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration of trying to undermine the effort -- and accused Trant of proffering a "pack of lies." Finally, Trant had enough, and made her way toward the exit. Shields went so far as to demand the on-duty police officer -- who is generally on hand to control unruly members of the audience -- to detain Trant.

The officer let Trant go, rather than, say, Tasing her. But the irony here -- council president seeks gender-disparity study, bullies woman in process -- is so obvious that even Motznik saw it. 

"[D]uring a conversation relating to a Gender and Race Wage Disparity Study," wrote Motznik in a letter calling for Shields' resignation, "your attack on one of our city's female department directors was the most disgraceful scene I have ever witnessed in these chambers." 

"Women and citizens all around this city are outraged" by the incident, Motznik added.

OK, so it's a little presumptuous for Motznik to speak for women. And yeah, Motznik has challenged Shields for the council presidency in the past, and can be counted on to use any ammunition he can find against his nemisis.

But still. 

As someone with scarcely more hair than Motznik, I can't speak for women, either. So it's not for me to decide whether Shields' outburst dents his long, and admirable, legacy of advocating for gender equity. (And that legacy is worth noting: Shields has been a staunch supporter of equality for women, the glbt community, and everyone else you can think of.) But today's circus has shifted the question from whether the city treats women fairly to whether Shields treated Trant fairly. And that can't possibly help anyone, least of all the women whose paychecks are at stake.

Nor is Shields the only offender. The debate over this study has been so acrimonious partly because of another councilor who touts his support of women's causes: Pat Dowd. Dowd objected to the means of funding this study: The money was attached to a spending bill providing uniforms to firefighters, while Dowd believes funding should come from council's own budget. 

In principle, I agree. But as others have noted, the irksome thing about Dowd is that when he takes a stand on principle, the end result is that standing on principle is all council ends up doing. We saw this in the great Lamar billboard dispute, in which Shields and Dowd ended up feuding, even though they both opposed an electronic billboard on Grant Street. Shields and his allies wanted to use city funds to pay for an attorney they'd  hired to challenge the sign. Dowd objected -- on principle, of course -- saying council should have sought authorization to pay the attorney before hiring him. After all, Dowd said, council's complaint was that the sign hadn't been propertly authorized either. 

I appreciate Dowd's willingness to see the mote in council's eye. I'd appreciate it even more, though, if that speck didn't seem to distract him from the beam being used to bash the city over the head. Dowd sometimes acts as though "following proper procedures" is the only principle at stake. It's not.

Council had two choices today: Perpetuating a less-than-perfect process for allocating money, or perpetuating a payroll that may discriminate against employees. Dowd's most immediate concern was the former, and I think that's the wrong set of priorities.

Actually, council had three choices, and today it followed the third -- doing nothing. And part of the reason is that whatever their individual merits, Shields and Dowd seem to bring out the worst in each other. Dowd insists on "proper procedure" so stridently that almost nothing gets done. Shields, meanwhile, has gotten so frustrated that he simply lost his sense of propriety. 

The problem is, I don't know where we go from here. Maybe Shields should step down, for his own well-being if no one else's. Put Ricky Burgess up there, maybe -- he's a reverend and could bring some badly-needed gravitas to the position. Plus, having him ascend to the mayor's office should Ravenstahl leave the post might be our best chance at having a black mayor. Somehow, though, I don't get the feeling we're going anywhere any time soon. Not as long as the cop is standing by the door.

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