Sunday, July 14, 2024

City councillor David Maher is sworn in Jan. 4, 2010. School Committee members Nancy Tauber, Fred Fantini and Alice Turkel listen during a meeting last year. (Photos: top, John Marcus III; middle and bottom, Liv Rachelle Gold)

What should be a crucial moment Tuesday, when people vote for city councillors and School Committee members, arrived all the way back on Aug. 1 and passed almost entirely unnoticed.

Let’s roll back the tape.

During a discussion of whether to look at how the council applies Robert’s Rules of Order in the running of its meetings, Mayor David Maher entertains motions and amendments on the way to a vote. Councillor Sam Seidel asks for a final reading before voting and gets it; councillor Leland Cheung asks to make a further amendment but is cut off by the mayor, who initially suggests he go ahead but then says the city clerk has just told him that, at that point, the vote must be taken as it is.

But then, even knowing this, the mayor — pay close attention — turns to Cheung and asks him genially, “What were you trying to do, councillor?”

Now, it doesn’t matter what Cheung was trying to do, especially since he doesn’t even answer (instead, he just decides to vote no). The vote is taken. The motion fails.

The council goes on to the next order of business.

So what, right?

It’s true that “So what?” would be a totally appropriate response if virtually anyone else had been running this meeting, and if the person who was running this meeting — Maher — hadn’t also been the person running the special School Committee meeting on June 14. At that meeting, which had been called by three committee members to the irritation of the four other members (including the mayor), the procedures were radically different. Maher rammed through three votes, stopping debate and even expressing exasperation when member Patty Nolan simply wanted a motion reread before she voted on it, a request that is made frequently in other meetings Maher leads (including by Seidel on Aug. 1) without him chuckling ruefully and saying, “Honestly, procedurally, you’re not supposed to do this, but we’re going to let it — go ahead,” so Alice Turkel could read it over.

The committee meeting was over in a handful of minutes to the absolute shock of three committee members and parents in the audience. In that time, without a real discussion allowed, the committee managed to shut down a task force that was explicitly called for in the district’s restructuring plan, the Innovation Agenda, and ignore the reason the meeting was called, a policy voted in by the committee years earlier that was literally dealt with by a private phone call to Central Administration. One set a precedent that could have led to the disassembly of the controversial, hard-fought agenda piece by piece; the other set a precedent for changing district policy entirely without notice to the public, including parents and teachers, on the whim of a single committee member.

“Ludicrous,” said one of the two parents who spoke during public comment, reacting to Maher’s running of the meeting, while the other moaned in astonishment, “Oh my god.” Someone else can be heard in a recording of the meeting saying, “Someone’s got a wacky agenda.”

Yet Maher, asked the next week why he acted as he had, said he hadn’t done anything but follow Robert’s Rules of Order, which is — he said — all he can do or ever does.

“I’m not making the rules up, the rules are what they are. If someone says that they make a motion and they call the question, debate is over,” Maher said. “You go back and look at the tape. That’s exactly what happened. People may have wanted to talk about things, but procedurally, that’s exactly the way it was.”

“I know what the rules are. The rules are that when somebody brings in a motion and calls the question, you cut debate off,” he continued. “Procedurally, what happened followed procedure to the letter.”

Asked if he wanted to let people speak more during the meeting but felt prevented from doing so by Robert’s Rules of Order, he said again: “It’s not up to me. You’re following the rules. It’s not up to me.”

Yet you can watch that tape from the Aug. 1 council meeting — a month and a half later — and see Maher clearly tweaking and bending the rules as he wishes, casually ignoring attempts by the city clerk to rein him in and allowing with good cheer and no reference to procedural interruptions a request to hear a motion read through again. In fact, you can see Maher behave this pleasant and permissive way at almost any meeting.

Committee members Fred Fantini, Nancy Tauber and Turkel were also asked about their actions the night of June 14, and each gave ridiculous reasons for acting as they did, including that they were upset because the meeting took them by surprise (it was called as allowed by committee rules, and it was posted six days earlier) and that the topic could be discussed just as easily the next Tuesday (the final meeting of the school year, which lasted more than five hours and could go so long only because the committee voted multiple times to extend it). None have apologized for their actions or addressed publicly what they did, including the utterly illegitimate and ignorant vote to shut down the task force.

Maher, Fantini, Tauber and Turkel acted that night in a way they surely felt was an appropriate and clever response to being called to a meeting they simply didn’t want to attend, but was in fact petty, spiteful and undemocratic. The explanations they gave for their actions were evasive, glib and unbelievable.

And disgusting.

Although Tauber is the one person acting that night that may legitimately have had no knowledge of what was about to happen, when her stand-in at an Oct. 13 candidates forum said she “listens to all points of view and puts aside politics to stay focused on quality education,” it was impossible not to think of her complicity in a display of brute politics that prevented three fellow committee members from speaking.

While all have done good work, are tremendously likable and clearly care fervently about their chosen areas of public policy, it’s impossible to endorse the reelection of politicians who engage in such profoundly and unapologetically undemocratic maneuvers. What else are they comfortable deciding out of the public eye? What else would they do to control the agenda of a publicly elected body? Is this the kind of bullying behavior and lack of responsibility and accountability they would pass on to the youth they take office to educate?

Maher has gone on to engage in further questionable behavior, keeping secret the minutes of closed-door City Council meetings having to do with lawsuits filed against the city. In this he has the cover of the Law Department and apparently four other members of the council, but the justifications he gives for the secrecy would be far more plausible without the contradictions of these summer committee meetings providing such unsavory context.

These people are untrustworthy and should not get your vote. As they might tell students or their own children after misbehavior, these public servants deserve a timeout — a two-year timeout, let’s say — to think about what they have done.