POSTED ON OCTOBER 19, 2011:
The Bickering Meme
Why Tulsa shouldn't stress about a contentious council
How is Tulsa like Birmingham, Ala., Washington, D.C., and Davis, Calif.? All of these cities have bemoaned their city councils' bickering.
In this week's Media Watch, we'll show you that arguing isn't unique to Green Country, and why a good fight makes newswriting more fun (to read and write!).
Read the following three quotes, and see if you can guess which one was penned by the Tulsa World's editorial staff.
Here's the first quote: "Nothing wrong with a little stress between a mayor and a city council. Helps with checks and balances. But here, we take it too far."
Second: "The disharmony has gone on too long. It's time for the grownups over there at City Hall to get past the childish did-so, did-not arguing and find a way to conduct city business in an effective manner."
And third: "The thinly veiled assault Tuesday on his leadership capabilities -- and for the public record -- was indicative of a council that observers say lacks control and direction...Tuesday's debates included mocking, name-calling and bickering over protocol such as who got to speak first."
Not too obvious which of these came out of Tulsa, is it?
The first is a 2009 editorial in the Birmingham (Ala.) News about a council at odds with the city's outspoken mayor.
The second is a July 14 editorial in the World.
And the third is pulled from a Sept. 21 story in the Washington Examiner with the gloomy headline, "D.C. Council's bickering could be omen."
For those of you who guessed correctly, you win 10 Internets. Congrats. For everyone else, console yourself with the fact that it could be worse.
Last January, things got so ugly between a Davis, Calif., councilwoman and mayor that it sent northern California college town Mayor Ruth Asmundson to the hospital.
During a heated exchange between the Davis mayor and city council, Mayor Asmundson said, "I want the public to know that since I have worked with Sue the last six years, I have been to emergency four times because of her."
In response, the councilwoman growled, "Not everyone is cut out for public office."
A short time later, the mayor was treated for anxiety-related high blood pressure and taken to a nearby hospital.
Further poking around YouTube yields other city councils in bitter debates. A clip from June 28, 2010, shows the mayor of La Marque, Texas, a city near Galveston, refusing to start a city council meeting because her agenda items weren't included.
A July 1, 2010, editorial in the Galveston County News Daily addressed the contentious council-mayor relationship: "When a group of elected officials gets to the point where it cannot conduct a meeting, it's not functioning. Most student councils in most elementary schools have absorbed enough of the principles of governance to be able to conduct a business meeting."
A variety of YouTube clips from around the web tell the tales of city councils fussin' and fightin' all over the nation: "Tempers Flare at Bell City Council Meeting," "Detroit City Council Meeting Screaming Match" and "Carson, CA city council meeting gets out of control" and "Lithonia City Council fights back."
Just typing in the words "city council," "meeting" and "fight" will yield at least an hour's worth of solid, unproductive viewing fun.
The truth is, city councils do argue. Sometimes things go too far. Tempers flare. Sometimes city council and mayoral actions start to look like the behavior of a nap-deprived child.
And with a child-like glee, media take pleasure when the grown-ups fight.
Even UTW -- hey, we're adults here, we can admit it -- is guilty of perpetuating talk of bickering and squabbling in city government.
Each councilperson is fighting for their district's share of the pie. Each has an outsized personality, a unique viewpoint.
But aside from District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino's mini-showdown versus Dwain Midget, director of Working in Neighborhoods, does anyone remember a recent instance of city council fighting?
Disagreements over issues, sure. If they agreed all the time, we'd be concerned.
Is a city council's bickering with its mayor simply a meme or stale straw man used by local news and politicians?
In the lead-up to the primaries, most -- if not all -- city council candidates (including incumbents) denounced bickering. But it borders on solipsism to ignore the fact that no matter who is elected, each person has their own ideas, agendas, districts, thoughts and bad days.
Sure, the council is not always professional. At times, their quotes and actions are downright tacky. But the media has a role to play in the drama as well.
Local news draws more readers by framing policy disagreements as contentious battle or scandal than as debate or discussion among people who, politically, will never get along.
Drawing blood is exciting. Fights and showdowns are better. Even pedestrian disagreements between appointed officials can work as a sprinkling of pixie dust to transform another dry city council meeting into sparkling journalism.
As we have seen in brutal clarity throughout the Occupy movement demonstrations, democracy is a constant struggle, a constant push and pull in our streets, our city council chambers and beyond.
As Thomas Jefferson said, "Anything worth having is worth fighting for."
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