What’s in a name? ‘Misters, mzs, madame’ become conflict for the School Committee
Most if not all School Committee members were perplexed Tuesday by Mayor E. Denise Simmons’ motion to “convene a preliminary discussion on how members are to be identified, addressed and recorded for public record.”
Simmons added intrigue by immediately proposing an amendment to add that the committee “continue its current practice and take the issue up for 2018-19 school year” – two years from now, effectively saying there will be no changes in how members are addressed until the middle of the next elected committee’s term.
“What is the rationale for this?” member Richard Harding asked, clearly confused. “What is the conflict?”
At a meeting where committee members mainly deferred action on several issues, some of them long-standing and major, the mayor responded somewhat enigmatically by directing members to the revised agenda handed out that evening. “It has come to the attention of the chair that a member or members wants to change how they are addressed,” Simmons said. “I don’t question the reason.”
Yet her next comments suggested she did have questions – or concerns: “I just have not heard a reason that is sufficient that we should change how we are addressed,” Simmons said. “My concern is if I want to be called ‘Ms. Simmons’ when I’m addressed on the floor, called ‘Denise’ when I’m called for a roll and then be called ‘Madam Mayor’ in the minutes,’ I think that is a burden on our staff” – the two full-time committee staff members who, among other things, record members’ motions and comments in meeting minutes. “If it’s only one person that’s doing it, it makes it more difficult.”
“I have to say,” member Patty Nolan said. “I’m confused as to why we are discussing this. What I’m deducing by looking at tonight’s agenda is that there are differences in how some people are named on the agenda. I’m deducing that Emily Dexter wants to be called ‘Emily Dexter,’ while Manikka Bowman is called ‘Ms. Bowman,’” she said, reading off the agenda. The only other member mentioned in that night’s agenda was “Mayor Simmons.”
The custom in committee meetings has been to refer to members as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” with the exception of referring to the presiding chair as “mayor.” The rules require only that “the chair will work to … promote a formal atmosphere, with members referring to other members in the third person, and speaking to each other and to members of the public through the chair.” Each member, including the two non-voting student members, have permanent nameplates using “Mr.” or “Ms.” titles.
Simmons recommended that she prefers referring to people with their surnames. “There are people coming from different places. When we come to the School Committee, we have to act as one. Some of us are Ph.D.s, some of us are M.D.s, some of us may be J.D.s, there may be a few ministers in the room. We are all equals in this room.”
Harding asked for a roll call vote on the motion, which would cut short discussion. Reminded by Dexter that (despite practice in the past few years), a roll call vote needs a two-third approval, acting chairman Fred Fantini called for a vote on suspending the rules so Harding could then call for a roll call vote. Harding, Fantini and member Kathleen Kelly voted to ask for rules suspension but were outvoted, and discussion continued.
Kelly added that she too wants to “continue in the way that we have been referring to each other. I appreciate the formality on the floor. It is a level of decorum and it reminds me that we are not having a snack in the room next door before the meeting but have moved into work of the committee.”
Nolan said that, while they have used traditional honorifics, “there is some question that if there is somebody who is not comfortable with either one of those designation – we are in world where that often happens – maybe somebody who categorizes themselves with a different gender, we might want to take that into account.” She reiterated, though, that she did not think this discussion needed to be had on the floor and the motion seemed strangely “opaque.”
“Let’s just talk about what’s going on, figure it out and have this in a subcommittee meeting,” Nolan said.
Finally, Dexter, outed as the subject of the motion, took the floor. “I agree,” she said. “I don’t think this needs to be discussed on a motion. It’s really just a housekeeping issue. It should not be in a motion.”
She went on to explain that her request was that gender-identifying titles not be used for her. “I do not like to be called Ms. Dexter. I would rather be called Emily Dexter. If you want some formality, you can call me Emily Ruth Dexter. Or committeeperson. Or committeeperson Dexter.”
With that, she calendared the motion “to save the public from hearing us discuss this,” effectively ending debate and technically placing the motion onto the agenda for the next committee meeting.