No, It’s Not a Coup

Last night, planning commissioners Alice Thomas, Suzie Nakasian, and I hosted a “get-to-know-you” party for our newly elected female councillors and the Mayor-elect.

Before I issued the invites, I checked with City Attorney Maren Swanson to determine if Alice, Suzie, and I could be at the same place and even [gasp] potentially discuss items of substance. Ms. Swanson confirmed that since the three of us are less than a quorum, it’s permissible under state law. (Since none of the newly elected officials have been sworn in yet, there were no issues related to notice, open meeting law, etc. as far as they were concerned.)

When I informed the current Planning Commission chair and former city councillor Greg Colby of what we were up to behind his hairy back, he responded:

OBJECTION>>>> This sounds like fun and I resent being excluded because of my gender. Nonetheless, I thank you for the heads up and I will try not to be too male by holding a grudge.

In addition to discussing the Comprehensive Plan and a bit about City processes, the event yielded the following crucial information:

  • Erica Zweifel grew up surrounded by exotic animals. (Her father was a zoo veterinarian.)
  • Suzie Nakasian sings jazz in the shower and says she’s better than her professional-jazz-singer sister.
  • Mary Rossing has a secret wish to sell everything she has to live in a van and travel around at will.
  • Alice Thomas went to school in a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade.
  • Rhonda Pownell has palpitated the internal organs of a cow.
  • Betsey Buckheit has a thing for circus music.
  • I left home at 17 to live on a commune in Oregon.

I wanted to put something in there about how Rhonda’s experience being up to her shoulder in manure was particularly good preparation for service on the City Council, but she’s so kind-hearted that I took it out. Sort of.

In short, the seven of us had a great time at the first and last gathering of this group. I think we were all a bit sorry that we won’t be able to do it again; however, we all understand and affirm the need to protect the integrity of our local democracy. I told everyone involved that I planned to blog about it, in the interest of transparency between city officials and citizens. That’s one of my pet issues, and I hope we can establish some new trends in that arena.

12 thoughts on “No, It’s Not a Coup”

  1. Tracy, I am disturbed and disappointed in this women-only event. We would not be joking if the earlier male dominated councils had held a cigars and brandy event without the little ladies. It all seems innocent, but it’s not. The women aren’t a voting bloc, or at least they shouldn’t be. I didn’t like the news coverage of the ‘women as majority’ angle, and I’m disappointed that this gender designation is continuing. We should be looking at what each of these people brings to the council and how they will fit with the returning councilors.

  2. Anne, this was precisely my point in arranging the party – it was a great chance to get to know our new incoming councillors, and learn a bit more about them as people. No doubt there will be continuing opportunities to do so as they get involved with the community and with others serving on various boards and commissions.

    I’m sorry you’re disappointed in the gender designation part of the deal. Other than being overly sensitive about that, I think you’re a great broad.

  3. Wow, I think you’re a great broad, too, but that’s not really the point. And this isn’t a big deal. After reading your response, I think it raises some really interesting points, much as the discussion of the word broad did.
    I’m sure you had the best intentions, but the post has the feel of a ‘look at what the cool girls did’ party, rather than an effort by government officials to provide public policy transparency. I’m not sure ordinary citizens would feel comfortable inviting so many public officials to their homes to get to know them, and I’m sure the officials don’t have time to do dozens of house parties before the end of the year. Your party gives the feel that you, and therefore Locally Grown, have a connection others don’t have. For example, the other media weren’t invited. And I’m not sure you would have been as upbeat if the Northfield News staff, or key developers had blogged about having such an informal party with planning commissioners and councilors without you being invited. I also think it’s a bad idea for the four women to have any meetings/parties before they take office. Even if it doesn’t violate the letter of the open meeting law, it certainly violates the spirit of openness that was so much a part of the campaign and that the returning councilors are so careful to follow.
    It’s an interesting problem, one that will become more common as private life, blogging, reporting and being in government overlap. I readily support your legal right to have the party, but as Jaci Smith found out with her well-intended headline, what you have a right to do can be seen by others as problematic.
    I just think it would have been better for the planning commission and council to have an informal reception for all the new officials, returning ones, and the public — male and female. I think we could pass on having exotic animals and cows, but perhaps we could have had some circus music for Betsey Buckheit and some jazz karaoke for Suzie Nakasian, if she promises to keep her clothes on.
    Just my opinion.

  4. I too am troubled by the idea that public officials (even if not yet serving) would consider participating in an event exclusively for members of one sex. If that marks me as overly sensitive, well, I prefer that to the alternative. You’re saying not one of these women was sensitive enough to question whether she should be associated with a separatist agenda?

  5. Tracy –

    I think the question that needs to be asked is, if one of the newly elected was a man would he have been invited to the get-together or would he have been excluded?

    I think it is unclear whether this was meant to be a female only invite or a newly elected invite only.

  6. If you want the members of the upcoming council NOT to be “gender connected” (both the men and women) and to think of everyone as a PERSON (not a male or a female) then this gathering couldn’t possibly offend anyone because it was just PEOPLE getting together. (It just so happened that all the “newbies” to the council are indeed women-this is neither good nor bad, it just is.)
    By contacting the city attorney, Tracy has shown she is sensitive to the issues and protocol. She also blogged about it so it is “transparent”. Let’s not make this an issue. There are more important things to worry about.

  7. Rob- Please forgive me, but I just can’t resist this. Perhaps you should broaden your perspective? Don’t you just love the English language?

  8. I appreciate the comments. (Especially Julie’s and Rob’s!)

    I think an official reception of some sort is a great idea; the more we get city officials (both elected and appointed) and staff communication to each other and the public, the better. There are a lot of procedural difficulties involved in doing that, which is part of the reason it doesn’t happen very often.

    Actually, I had been thinking of organizing an informal gathering like this before I knew who was going to win the various elections, because I’ve been concerned about the communication or lack thereof between the Planning Commission and City Council. I also knew I couldn’t invite more than two other planning commissioners. I chose the two other commissioners who had been most outspoken about the need for better communication between the PC and Council. The fact that we were all women just made it fun.

    I also think it’s important, especially in a small community, not to take the law further than it actually goes. Open meeting laws and their ilk are designed to protect the citizens and the process, as well they should. But there is no legal, ethical, moral, technical, or any other violation in a gathering of people who have not yet been sworn in to office.

  9. Tracy, I think you’re on to something important here.

    In 2006, the Center for the American Experiment had a Task Force on Legislative Reform that produced a report titled Devoted to Some Useful Purpose: Reforming Minnesota’s Legislature for the 21st Century. Press release here, PDF here. And on page 23 is a section on Socialization and Culture, and it includes this:

    One additional change in the culture at the Legislature resulted when members enacted campaign and ethics law changes in 1994 in what is commonly called the “gift ban.” Before that sweeping change, legislators often spent their weeknights socializing with each other at events hosted by various regions, industries and, yes, lobbyists from throughout Minnesota. These widely attended events afforded members another opportunity to get to know their colleagues. While no one is suggesting that we return to events such as these as a method of improving the legislature process, there is a measure of truth to the fact that the informal conversation at these events was conducive to friendships, bipartisanship, and furthering cooperation between the two legislative bodies. Thus, it is imperative that legislative leaders and others create opportunities for greater interaction among legislators of both bodies.

    In a commentary in the Pioneer Press, Roger Moe and Chris Georgacas wrote:

    Over the last few years there has been a less collegial and more partisan atmosphere at the Capitol. To help create a more collegial environment, legislative leaders should find new and creative ways to facilitate and encourage social interaction among legislators, through a conscious rededication by leadership to bipartisan interaction.

  10. Rob,

    Right there, in plain type, at the end of Tracy’s post #9, is the reason to take offense:

    “The fact that we were all women just made it fun.”

    How much clearer could she be? Men are un-fun.

    Here’s the challenge: if we rise to this obvious gender-baiting, we’ll pretty much prove the point. If we don’t say something, we’re giving tacit approval to a blatant and emotionally scarring stereotype. Oh sure, if we call her on it, she’ll probably try to Bachmann us by saying that the claim that she thinks men are un-fun is just an urban legend.

    I don’t want to speak for the entire gender, but I think we should swallow hard and just let it go. We’re going to have to live under the iron-fisted rule of these women for the next several years. We don’t want to rile them up before they take office…

  11. Randy: Great idea. By the way, the only way to know the difference between the “fun” of an all-female group and the “fun” of a mixed group is to be a female. Or perhaps you men can extrapolate from the difference between an all-male group and a mixed group. Still, I expect there are differences. The one word I think Tracy could have left out in the original post is “female” as she spoke about the newly elected councillors and Mayor-elect. It just happened that they are all women.

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