Strive To Do Better

I’m doing things a bit backwards this week.  Instead of posting the news story about Monday night’s meeting of the Hillsdale City Council, I’m going to post the opinion piece first.  The reason for this is that I was a few minutes late to the meeting, and so I was not present for the discussion around the agenda or the consent agenda, the former playing a key role in the fact that there was no vote to approve Michelle Loren as City Clerk.  While I understand the circumstances perfectly well, I cannot in good conscience write a full news article without the facts that I believe are necessary to tell the story.  So I’m waiting for Livestream to finish processing the video and add it to the city’s playlist so that I can go back and catch what I missed.

That said, I do know what happened in those moments thanks to later events and discussion, so let’s start with that change to the agenda.

Could You Be Any More Obvious About This?

I’ll address Mayor Sessions directly here:

Come on, Scott; really?  No, really?

Mayor, let me tell you something that I’ve learned in my time covering City Hall: when Patrick Flannery speaks up because he believes something’s wrong, something is damn sure wrong.

Full disclosure: Councilperson Flannery is the treasurer at Hillsdale College, where I am also employed as public address announcer for sporting events.  That does not affect my opinion of his actions as related to this issue.

Remember when Flannery doggedly explained life to Doug Terry and Lew Loren over this exact topic?  I don’t believe I’d heard more than five words out of the man at any given time prior to that, and he took the lead in dressing down the two parties responsible for pulling the wool over the council’s eyes that night.  He did one hell of a fantastic job of it, too, and he earned a great deal of respect from myself and many others for it.

So he makes it publicly known that he didn’t even know candidates were being interviewed for the job until he heard it in passing from someone other than you, and you have the gall to make a half-assed attempt at explaining away that you didn’t have all the information you needed to present to the council about your chosen candidate in order to hold a vote?

Scott… really?

Don’t try to brush this off, sir; we know what’s going on here.  There are three candidates for this job.  One of them… well, has some issues.  Another is at least an acceptable choice on the surface.  The third is the current interim whose daddy bought her the position.

And let’s be honest, Scott: you chose the third.

The decision to postpone the vote was purely political in nature.  You knew Michelle wouldn’t get approved, so you gave yourself more time to sell her to the council.  That’s the mayor’s prerogative, right?  In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “it’s good to be the king.”

To be fair – and I’m nothing if not fair, Scott – I’ve seen the better work you do.  I’ve applauded you for your positions in this space before, and I’ll do so again later in this very article.  But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s not pretend that my fairness gives you any sort of pass here.  Step up and admit it.  You removed the item from the agenda because you knew Michelle Loren would not get the votes needed for approval.  That was your motivation.

Was it improper?  Certainly.  Definitely unethical.  But what’s going to happen as a result of you admitting it?  A harsh letter to the editor in the Daily?  A couple of disappointed comments from councilmembers at the next meeting?  Me gloating thanking you for being honest about it?  The city is certainly not going to waste money on some sort of deep ethics investigation into you over something this petty.  We can’t even afford to patch up our streets without state and federal funding, you think we’re going to pursue legal action over you playing politics with agenda items at a meeting?

Man to man, Scott: this is silly.  Just admit it.

What Is the Council’s Position?

There are two questions that all of this raises: one, how did Mayor Sessions know that the votes weren’t there, and two, why are the votes not there?

The first should be pretty easy to answer.  It’s not like this is a secret ballot.  Members of the council talk with their constituents – and with any interested party, really – about what’s going on and what their respective points of view are.  Besides, it’s hard to keep a secret in a town where everyone knows everyone else, everyone has relatives nearby, and one little decision like this reflects the entire political situation.  We’re not conducting international espionage here, this is an appointment of a city clerk.

The second is a little more difficult to divine, though the probable no-votes are most likely divided into two camps: either they are angered over being kept in the dark throughout the process, or they (like myself) have a problem with appointing the candidate in question.

Those in that first camp have some very good reasoning, and it’s not limited to simply this present search for a candidate.  As you should recall, Michelle Loren’s father, Lew, is the former city attorney.  He and former interim city manager Doug Terry worked together to semi-secretly move the ballot initiatives that made the city clerk and city treasurer positions appointed from the November ballot to the August primary date, which should only be triggered if there are primaries to vote on.  There were no such primaries here in the City of Hillsdale.

And by “semi-secretly,” I mean that Loren and Terry changed the date after the city council had already approved the questions for November, and they didn’t tell the council that it had been changed to August when the council voted to accept the ballot language as approved by the Attorney General’s office.  At least one council member didn’t know that the date had been changed until they read about it in the newspaper after they had unwittingly voted to approve it.  That’s willful omission of information on the part of Loren and Terry, and as I mentioned earlier, they were forcefully and correctly called out for it.

Now, the council did admit their mistake in not noticing the change before voting on it, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Loren and Terry maliciously took advantage of the council’s then-habit of not reading the packet before the meeting.

So when I say that this position was bought for Michelle Loren, I’m not speaking in hyperbole, I mean it literally.  This position was bought for Michelle Loren with what I still contend was an illegal special election on a date set aside strictly for primaries.  That’s a problem.

There Is Another

Of course, there’s another problem with Michelle that could be a motivating factor behind the council’s refusal to vote for her, and it’s one that I played a rather prominent role in.  Remember the infamous Open Meetings Act violation?

After now-former Board of Public Utilities director Rickie J. Rose was arrested for crashing his vehicle into a tree while super-drunk – the state’s terminology, not my own – the city council voted down his proposed new contract on a 4-4 split, then scheduled a joint special meeting between themselves and the BPU board to discuss how to move forward.  Rickie chose the imperfectly opportune period of time between those meetings to hold his own meeting of BPU employees and state that he would like to get a gun and shoot the four council members who voted “no.”  That led then-interim city manager Doug Terry to immediately fire him, then retract that firing after consulting with Lew Loren in order to rewrite Rose’s contract and make it “more palatable” to the city council, with the intent to present it at that joint special meeting.  Which he did.  And it wasn’t.

But the part of that story that’s more pertinent here is that Interim City Clerk Michelle Loren had nine days prior to that joint special meeting to post public notice of it, which by state law must be posted both physically at City Hall and on the city’s official web site at least 18 hours prior to the start of the meeting in question.  In this case, that meant by 1:00 AM on the day of the meeting.  Michelle posted it at some point after 7:00 AM, and backdated it to make it look like it had been posted the day before.  I have irrefutable evidence of this, and I presented it at the meeting before anything happened, urging the council to end the meeting right then and there lest anything they do be invalidated.  Michelle committed not only an intentional violation of the Open Meetings Act to cover for her daddy, but also an act of fraud in order to cover her tracks.  On that basis alone, she does not belong in public office in this city.

Her little plan backfired because I and several others were watching for the public notice – because we had found it odd that it wasn’t posted in a timely manner after being scheduled to begin with – and the council has been noticeably more mindful of the OMA ever since.

As a result, Michelle does not acknowledge my existence.  I can be standing right next to her, talking to the same person as she is, and she will not turn to face me.  I know because, among other instances, it happened again just this Monday night.  It’s sad when a guilty conscience forces someone to be so petty, and I have to wonder if this attitude of hers has been directed toward members of the council, as well.  If so, that (if nothing else) would certainly be one hell of a good reason not to vote for her.  After all, why would you continue to employ someone if they refuse to behave respectfully toward their employers?

And before anyone gets their panties all in a wad, I’m not saying that such a thing has happened.  I have no indication that it has or hasn’t.  By the accounts I’ve heard from others in the past, she’s a friendly enough person.  I’m simply postulating that, absent any official reasoning, and knowing how I’ve been treated, it’s not outside the realm of rational possibilities.

Shining a Light On Corruption

There’s an old misconception that shaving makes hair grow back thicker.  I’m sure that you, much like myself, heard it around the time you hit puberty.  For us guys, it was an encouragement to shave at least once if we wanted that fully mature look (spoiler alert: we still looked like dorks).  For the ladies, I’m given to understand that it was an encouragement to shave early and often, because boys don’t like that stubbly look on a girl’s legs (spoiler alert: we boys were too horny to notice, let alone care).

The truth is that the hair doesn’t grow back any thicker than it had before.  It looks thicker because you’ve cut it off after it’s already begun to grow out, so you’re seeing the wide, flat cut of the hair rather than the narrow, pointed, natural tip that was there before you lopped it off.

An aside: there’s a really painful circumcision joke in there somewhere.

I bring that up to make this point: this may seem like the Good Ol’ Boy Network is taking this as an opportunity to come back stronger than they were when their recent string of defeats began.  And, certainly, they clearly are attempting to fight back against you and I.  But they’re not any stronger than they were before, and in this case, we need to double down and make sure they know it.

Think of it as the political equivalent of the difference between shaving and laser hair removal: if we shave – meaning that we just shake our heads every time the GOB’ers try to pull some crap like this – they’ll just keep coming back.  If we go for several sessions of laser treatment – meaning we expose them for what they are and proactively stop them – then they’ll be eliminated entirely.

Action Requires Courage

Winston Churchill famously said “Suc­cess always demands a greater effort.”  I was heartened on Monday night to see some new and different faces in the Council Chamber.  However, what discourages me are the stories I’ve heard – and some evidence I’ve seen myself – of people not wanting to be associated with those who are standing up and speaking out about the problems this city is facing, even if they agree with those people.

Are we really that lacking in courage at this point?

I can understand that some people have things to lose.  I get that.  But to those people, I ask you this: if you only consent to fight at the point when you have nothing left to lose, then what are you fighting for?  You clearly weren’t willing to sacrifice when there was something to fight for, so why would you fight to get back what you lost when you wouldn’t fight to keep it in the first place?  Isn’t that just slightly hypocritical?

And on top of that, do you think that I have nothing to lose?  Do you think that the others who have spoken out against the wrongs we’ve suffered at the hands of corrupt dealings at City Hall have nothing to lose?  Do you think that we don’t see the potential harm that may come to us for speaking out?  Do you think we haven’t carefully considered all of these things and come to the conclusion that it’s a necessary risk to take?

Yes, I most certainly will sit here in judgment over you for not doing what is right.  Shame on you.  Shame on you for not only not having the courage of your convictions and not acting on them, but for denying your support for those who do.

Now let me encourage you to do better.  Stand up.  Speak out.  Stop hiding behind fear and start striking fear into those who are intentionally doing wrong.  You know what’s going on, and you know why it needs to stop.  Say so.  Take control of the situation.  Refuse to be intimidated.

Be courageous.

Yeah, it’s a scary thing to be this publicly vocal!  Did you see my first public comment in front of the City Council?  I was nervous as hell!  I’m used to being behind a microphone in a closed room or behind a scorer’s table, not being stared down by eight or nine people while I speak.  I was shaking and my voice was… well, less than its best.

But I did it anyway, because it was necessary.

You may say “but Josh, you’re you and I’m me, and I’m just not cut out for that!”

Neither was I.

“But I don’t know the first thing about politics!”

So learn.

“But what if they come after me?”

Let them.

See, the fact that you’re afraid proves that THEY are, too.  They are afraid of you.  They know that if we all get together and start setting things right, they may win a few battles, but they will ultimately lose the war, and that has them shaking in their boots.

That’s a good thing.

Success always demands a greater effort.  No one ever said this would be easy.  If you’re not willing to so much as stand together and overrule those who would rule over us, you deserve exactly what you get when those rulers do something you don’t like.

Controversial Non-Controversy

Save for one issue that I’ll address a little later in this piece, there wasn’t a whole lot else of import to note about Monday’s meeting.  That’s what made this moment stick out like a sore thumb.

One of the new members on the council is Matthew Bell, who is Hillsdale College’s director of programs for external affairs; a job that, among other things, has him overseeing the Center for Constructive Alternatives lecture series.  I say this both in the interest of full disclosure so that you know of our connection through a mutual employer and so that you know what his interests are in this particular case… and before you begin to think I’m putting that in a negative light – and you will think that as you read the first part of it – there is a second part to this story that will clarify why he was a victim here, so hold tight and let me finish.

Councilman Bell – and I’ll refer to him that way out of respect for his desire to be addressed as such, though I’ll ask that he forgives me if I slip up from time to time – presented a resolution that would officially gender the designations for council members.  The resolution states the following:

WHEREAS, political discourse – at every level of government – requires clear and proper language; and

WHEREAS, the designation “councilperson” is neither clear nor proper, and further, such designation fails to respect the importance of two equal sexes; therefore be it

RESOLVED, that in pursuance of clarity and proper usage, the City of Hillsdale shall, in all meetings and written communications, refer to individual Council members as either councilman or councilwoman; and be it further;

RESOLVED, that in cases that require a general reference to no specific person, “Council member” or “member of the Council” shall be used.

Now, if you’ve read my articles for a while, you know that I’m not a social conservative.  I’m a political conservative who understands that legislated social conservatism is anathema to political (and individual) liberty.  And you may think that I stand against Councilman Bell’s proposal for that reason alone, but that’s not quite what my objection is.

I may be a social liberal, but I’m not one to stand on political correctness.  I’m certainly not one to stand on political correctness for the sake of political correctness.  If this city were officially using the term “councilperson” just for the sake of not offending anyone, I would be opposed to it.  It’s restrictive legislation, it deprives those who wish to be addressed as “councilman” or “councilwoman” of their right to be addressed as such, and it’s just generally unnecessary.

That being said, those are exactly the same reasons I would oppose Councilman Bell’s resolution.  I’m not one to stand against political correctness for the sake of standing against political correctness, either.  This proposal would force the city and all of its employees to use the terms “councilman” or “councilwoman” in reference to members of the city council – regardless of how those council members wish to be addressed themselves – simply for the sake of satisfying the social conservative desire to, as Councilperson Adam Stockford put it, “call a spade a spade.”  It’s restrictive legislation, it deprives those who wish to be addressed as “councilperson” or “council member” of their right to be addressed as such, and it’s just generally unnecessary.

For the record, as City Attorney John Lovinger pointed out, there is no existing language in the city charter or council rules that dictate what a member of the council can or cannot be called.  We’ve made it for 146 years without any such language, and there isn’t any real or pressing need to add it now.

For those reasons, I would have opposed Bell’s resolution.

Mayor Sessions was opposed to it, as well, and he brought his opposition up almost immediately after Bell gave his introductory remarks, noting that both “councilperson” and “councilmember” are in the dictionary – an obvious counterargument to the resolution’s claim that the terms are somehow unclear and improper.

Another argument Sessions brought forward was that such a resolution would be a violation of the First Amendment.  Let’s delve into that a little bit, because I think it deserves some scrutiny.

On the surface, Sessions is incorrect about that.  The First Amendment does not mean that you have the freedom to use whatever words you wish.  The common example given as proof of that is a paraphrasing of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ assertion that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

But if there’s something I’ve learned about Scott Sessions over the past year, it’s that while he may not always be able to articulate what he wants to say very well, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate his reasoning for saying it, and I believe this was one of those times.

Bell pointed out that other municipalities have done exactly the opposite of what his resolution would do – that is, they have restricted all references to members of their city councils to “councilperson” rather than “councilman” or “councilwoman” – and asked Sessions why this proposal would be any different.

And therein lies exactly why Mayor Sessions was actually correct.  Why are those cities not being sued for violating the First Amendment rights of those who wish to be addressed as “councilman” or “councilwoman?”  Because they should be.  No government body has the legal authority to tell people how they can and cannot be addressed if they so desire.  If I were a city council member, I could ask that you call me “Supreme Overlord of the Fifth Realm,” and no government body would have the right to tell people that they cannot address me as such.  Likewise, no government body would have the authority to tell people that they must address me as such, and that includes members of said government body.  If you choose to respect my desired title, fine.  If you choose not to, that’s also fine (just don’t be surprised when I unleash my level 90 orc on you).  But the government – at any level – has no right to force compliance in either direction.

Councilman Bell also made the hand-tipping error of stating his belief that the people of Hillsdale are “different” (presumably he meant that in a positive way) and that inclusiveness is, and I quote, “abhorrent to nature and abhorrent to good government.”

And there’s exactly where he loses my support on the matter.  If, as Bell’s resolution states, there are “two equal sexes,” then the sexes are equal and therefore do not require differentiation outside of contexts in which their differences are relevant.  Government is not among those contexts, and gender inclusiveness in the context of government is not in any way abhorrent to nature.

So this cannot be about political discourse, clarity or proper usage, and it certainly cannot be about good government.

This is entirely about Matthew Bell’s personal point of view on sex and gender.  He does not believe, contrary to all scientific evidence, that some people are transgender.  He does not believe, contrary to all scientific evidence, that sex and gender are two different things.  He does not believe, contrary to all scientific evidence, that there is anything other than male and female in this world.

In other words, the councilman attempted to preemptively erase any acknowledgement of transgender, non-binary and intersex people from Hillsdale’s city government Monday night.

In fact, that was another point that Sessions brought up in his arguments, and Bell was forced to admit that his resolution would have to be repealed if a transgender person became a member of the Hillsdale City Council and wished to be addressed as something other than “councilman” or “councilwoman.”

I was rather proud of Sessions for that.

Ultimately, after Lovinger declined to give an “off-the-cuff opinion” on the matter and said that he would come back with an analysis by January 1st, Councilman Bell wisely decided that it wasn’t worth spending the additional taxpayer dollars to investigate, and moved to withdraw the resolution.  For his part, Mayor Sessions agreed, and – politely – pointedly addressed him as “Councilman Bell” in doing so.

The Wisdom of Picking Your Battles

Those I spoke with after the meeting generally seemed to agree that Bell’s standing on his principles and questioning the established practices were both positive things, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.  We do need new councilmembers to shake things up every once in a while and see what falls loose, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.  But there’s a lesson for all of us to learn here: you must be aware of your situation.

What the councilman demonstrated Monday night was that he has been living in the bubble of social conservative ideology and was not aware of the sentiments of Hillsdale’s citizens outside his own circle.  And that’s actually the perception that people who don’t live here have of Hillsdale.  They tend to associate us with the college, they tend to believe that we’re all social conservatives, and they are very surprised to learn that Hillsdale County is actually very purple.  We’re a little red, and we’re a little blue.  We’re actually rather libertarian in our leanings here, whether we come from a liberal or conservative social background, and that comes as unexpected news to those who only know of our fair city from the ads they hear on Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the college inspires that way of thinking, either.  I know more people through the college with a far more diverse range of opinions than I know from most anywhere else in this town.  Constitutional conservatism doesn’t mean that all we college employees are in step with each other on every little thing – or even a majority of things.

What I am saying is that, in any setting, it’s too easy to get caught up in what you believe and surround yourself with people who agree with you on any given matter.  I believe Bell had fallen victim to that trap.  Until Monday night, he genuinely held the belief that the majority of people in the City of Hillsdale think as he does, and that being the case, he brought forward a proposal that not only backfired on him, but made it look as if he’s only there to enact his personal beliefs into law.  Perception being everything in politics, that can only hurt him.

Set Up For the Fall

But as I promised, there’s more to this story that shows he wasn’t entirely at fault for that.  He may not have done himself any favors with that one resolution, but there was another resolution he had submitted at the same time that was omitted from the agenda and the packet – a violation of the council’s own rules, as the councilman pointed out during council comments at the end of the meeting.  Quoting the relevant rule, Bell said that “’any items or issues not placed on the agenda as requested shall be disclosed to the council by the city manager at the next regular council meeting.’”

“Along with this resolution that we debated tonight, I submitted a second resolution making it so that the public could comment; general comment at the beginning and the end.  Councilwoman Stack-Davis and I talked about that after the last meeting, and we feel that it would encourage public comment if we allowed people to make general comments at the beginning and the end.  There was also a great piece in the Hillsdale Daily News about that.  So it kind of seemed like an obvious choice.  The other part of the resolution would have made it so that any item introduced by a city council member would be placed on the agenda.  And that would be ‘shall be’ language so that the city manager would not be – with all regards to the great job this city manager has done – the city manager would not be a gatekeeper to items the council wants to discuss or put on the agenda.  Those seem like reasonable changes to me.  There were also a number of typos in the rules that were fixed by this resolution, and that was not discussed this evening.”

Bell concluded by saying that he will be bringing this up again at the January 4th meeting in the hopes that this situation will not occur again.

So to summarize all of that, a resolution to prevent items from being withheld from the agenda was withheld from the agenda.  This point was never addressed by City Manager David Mackie nor Mayor Sessions.

That says to me that Councilman Bell was hung out to dry.  For whatever reason – political, personal, associative… whatever; I honestly don’t know – the resolution that made its proponent look like a fool was on the agenda, but the resolution that actually had merit was not.  What else are we supposed to make of that?  And what did the city administration expect; that he was going to be too timid, as a new council member, to say anything about it?

He was set up.  Someone at City Hall wanted him to fall flat on his face.  They did a pretty good job of it, too… or at least they would have were it not for the fact that he pointed it out.

This is exactly the kind of crap we have to put an end to.

Is There A Search or Isn’t There?

And finally this week, when asked by Councilperson Emily Stack-Davis about the search for a new airport manager, City Manager Mackie answered that the position has been advertised in a statewide publication that was brought to his attention by former Airport Advisory Committee chairman and current member Jeff King.  That publication is the magazine and web site belonging to the Michigan Association of Airport Executives which, to the news of anyone outside the aviation world, is indeed a thing.

And, in fact, as King pointed out to me later, it’s a very important thing, because airport management is an exacting job that requires a thorough search – meaning more than the mere month riddled with holidays that it’s being given.  King, himself, is a pilot with many years of experience who has interacted with people at all levels of airport operations.  He’s not unfamiliar with these things.  So when Mackie brought his name up as the person who had suggested this publication, it was no surprise.

It was a surprise to find that the job had not been published.  Not as of Monday night, and not as of today, December 23rd.  Not only on the MAAE’s web site, but on the web sites of any of the other organizations that King tells me he suggested to Mackie.

Now, even if this were all just one big misunderstanding, the request for qualifications comes to an end on January 15th, and Mackie said at the meeting that one of the “couple of inquiries” is from Patriot Aviation, who is currently the interim operator of Hillsdale Municipal Airport.

So one has to ask: is this search actually happening, or is this just a half-hearted attempt to make it look as if it’s happening before handing the reins over to Patriot for good?

I don’t have a dog in this fight, and for all I know, Patriot may well be the right choice.  But let’s be honest about the process, can’t we?  I mean, either we’re doing this by the book or we’re just doing whatever the hell we want, and if we’re just doing whatever the hell we want, let’s at least make it clear that that’s what we’re doing.  This isn’t amateur hour, this is literally life and death we’re talking about.  Let’s get it right.

Closing Thoughts

We’re seeing some interesting moves in city government lately, both good and bad.  So it goes.  I think the most important thing to keep in mind right now is that while we’ve had some changes in the city council and the administration, we still have people in positions that are used to doing things a certain way and will fight to retain that way whether it’s in the city’s best interest or not.  Some of that has to do with the Good Ol’ Boys, but not all of it.  Some of it is just the inflexibility that comes with habit and comfort.  None of us are immune to that.  But, at the end of the day, it’s not an excuse.  It’s an inflexibility that needs to be changed or dismissed.

To his credit, City Manager Mackie has been cleaning house, as it were, in that regard.  I may not like all of his decisions or the way he’s enacted them, but I do appreciate the effort.  At some point, it comes time to say “this is what we need to do to move forward, and if you’re not on board with that, we have to let you go.”  That point has been a long time coming in this city.  History will ultimately judge whether these moves were the right ones, but for now, we need to focus on making sure they’re the ethical ones.  Ethics and procedure are two elements of good governance that have been sorely lacking here in Hillsdale for some time.  Let’s make sure we’re holding all of our city government to higher standards so that we aren’t having to do all of this all over again several years down the road.