Councillors put ‘the rules’ back in their rule

Most people acknowledge the 10 Commandments, not the 613 commandments, and there are many rules in Robert’s Rules of Order as well. (Photo: Joanna Keen)

City Council as anthropological expedition: Notes from recent excursions, right up to April 9 and the meeting under way Monday, reveal the majority of councillors to be a superstitious lot, prone to thinking the camera steals one’s soul — meaning a majority of six voted then against allowing cameras to capture them at a meeting coming 4 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the future of Kendall Square — while the mayor is determined to run services with a fundamentalist fervor for the explicit word of the tribe’s bible, namely Robert’s Rules of Order.

Meaning that officially all comments at a meeting go “through” the mayor rather than get directed to other councillors or anyone else present to speak, such as the city manager or other city officials. Mayor Henrietta Davis seems hell-bent on ensuring observation of this rite with the sharp, corrective tongue of the true believer who knows god is on her side.

Ye dare not ask a question of the city manager, despite being already engaged in a dialogue with him on some informational point; rather shall ye first say, “Through you, Madame Mayor …,” lest ye hear Madame Mayor halt the exchange of information to say thine name loudly to maketh her point that ye have sinned.

That the council gets little enough done seemed at first to be the point of Davis’ frequent interruptions of fellow councillors and other speakers, as they began immediately upon her taking the mayoral seat: She was going to keep meetings on track. If residents went over the three-minute public comment limit they found a sterner judge of whether they should be allowed; if councillor Ken Reeves seemed to be rambling, he was more likely to hear a request to get to the point; if councillor Craig Kelley seemed to be dominating debate, he would be asked to allow others to speak.

As mayor, Davis gets the benefit of a doubt on improving council efficiency. But as the lesson has gone on, it has proven ridiculous rather than productive. The interruptions are more intrusive, confusing and wasteful than the unsanctioned dialogue in which they intrude.

Perhaps the best illustration of how her orthodoxy rattles the rest of the congregation came four weeks ago, when Roger Boothe, the city’s director of urban design, was taking councillors’ questions on an issue. He was already mid-answer when Davis called his name to signify it was his turn to speak. So he stopped speaking and turned to her to see what she wanted, leading her to explain to him that he should be answering the question he’d been addressing already.

So it goes, how it went

And that’s how it goes, maddeningly, throughout the course of recent meetings led by Davis, and apparently is how it will go until January 2014: Someone begins speaking, only for Davis to say that person’s name loudly as an indicator of their right, as granted by her, and as a rebuke for not first asking her to grant the permission.

Councillors are responding with what appears to be passive-aggressive acknowledgments of Davis’ efforts. “Thank you for the reminder of the perfect way to address one another,” vice mayor Denise Simmons told Davis on April 9, while Reeves made a reference to “now since we seem to want to get hyper specific about how we conduct the meeting, let’s use all the rules.”

At the same meeting, Davis interrupted resident Carolyn Shipley, who was about to identify the agenda item to which she was speaking, to ask her to identify the agenda item to which she was speaking, a dynamic she repeated later with a councillor who was clearly getting to the point as Davis delayed the point by asking that the point come soon. By making her own point without distinction of whether it’s needed as applied, she is compounding whatever troubles she is trying to correct and obscuring, if not outright negating, the virtues of her position. Insisting that she grant the right to speak hasn’t noticeably pared the length of meetings or spared watchers or participants a rant, filibuster or sharp exchange, but it has elicited some conflict where none was before — witness Davis’ attempt to break into Kelley’s line of questioning of the city manager, only for Kelley to assure the mayor that there was still plenty of time for other councillors to speak. Now we’re all obliged to pray that her lessons don’t move from intrusion and irritant to major obstruction.

There was plenty of acid flying between councillors during the previous mayoral term, two years overseen by a generally genial David Maher, and Maher may have once or twice indulged argument too long, but it’s not plausible to say more tedious obeisance to the catechism according to Robert’s Rules of Order would have erased the discord. If anything, Davis’ experiment is proving some of the Rules of Order are commandments better followed in spirit than letter, and it’s good to remember that there aren’t just 10 commandments — in fact, in Judaism there are 613, and they range from “not to profane God’s name” to “not to exclude a descendant of Esau from the community of Israel for three generations” or “not to take the mother-bird with the young.” Some rules are better ignored.

When asked about her efforts at enforcement, Davis denied having any point beyond merely following Robert’s Rules of Order as any leader should. Previous leaders haven’t, though, to this extent, and for good reason: She is actually slowing down the action of a council meeting, and council meetings simply can’t take much more slowing down.

Cameras steal the soul

And roundtables can’t stand the idea of people watching from home, apparently, or for electronic recording. (Roundtables, which councillor Leland Cheung described as “study sessions” and Maher called “often more helpful” than regular meetings, also can’t include votes and don’t take public comment.)

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom suggested April 9 that the Kendall Square roundtable be televised because it was scheduled for 4 p.m. on a weekday, and she wanted “to give people who can’t come … a chance to hear what we’re hearing.”

But while vanBeuzekom and Kelley fell on the rationalist side of the debate, six others showed they believe in magic.

“Whether we want to believe it or not, there’s something magical about when the cameras get turned on in this room — the conversation sometimes is not the same level of conversation that we’re able to have with each other or the stakeholders,” Decker said. “It’s trying to provide the rare opportunity for us as policymakers to talk to each other and to stakeholders so that we are better-informed about what we are thinking and questions we have to ask without the glare of the lights and cameras.”

“If we televise them, they’re no longer roundtables,” she said.

Reeves wasn’t in the council chambers for the vote. But he’d already made the basis of his decision against televising the roundtable clear: It was in response to Davis’ excruciating nods to Robert’s Rules of Order throughout the rest of the council conclave.

You see, this is when he said: “Now since we seem to want to get hyper specific about how we conduct the meeting, let’s use all the rules.”

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